Boix-Mansilla, SSRC Assessing
Interdisciplinary Products of Work and Habits of Mind, Harvard
Interdisciplinary Studies Project
in Liberal Education
- Disciplined -
demonstrate disciplinary understanding when they can use knowledge and
modes of thinking developed by expert communities (e.g. in history, biology,
mathematics, visual arts) in order to create products, raise questions, solve
problems, and offer explanations of the world around them in ways that echo
expert practices in the domain. Four dimensions are embodied in disciplinary
Ability to use key elements, concepts, relationships, theories, and
schools of thought in the discipline.
Ability to engage in modes of inquiry that characterize the discipline,
research methods, evidence, creation.
An understanding of the goals that drive disciplinary inquiry and the
ways in which knowledge can be used.
Ability to use the languages and forms of communication typical of the
discipline (essays, artworks, scientific reports)
Revealing Student Interdisciplinary Understanding
an assessment tool
students to use a variety of areas of expertise in a novel situation to produce
a piece of work opens up important learning opportunities for them. Qualities
like originality, personal meaning, creativity, and risk taking are associated
with this kind of work and are highly desirable. This assessment tool is
designed to reveal aspects of the craft of integrative work that underlie the
kind of work that we often admire among our students, and help us see where our
students might need additional support.
The tool guides
our attention to four dimensions of the work: its purpose, disciplinary
grounding, leveraging integrations and thoughtfulness.
Like most thinking frames it is a flexible instrument for faculty to use
and adapt to the desired qualities and levels of understanding in a unit or
project. It does not tell faculty what to teach, nor how exactly to grade
student work. Instead it reveals the central aspects of work that make it
interdisciplinary. While the tool poses generic assessment questions applicable
to multiple disciplinary combinations, the responses to such questions will vary
greatly depending on the type of work and disciplinary combinations assessed.
assessment dimensions are described below with guiding questions that faculty
may use to characterize, assess, and further guide the work at hand. Not all
dimensions may be equally present in one piece of work and faculty may explore
the possibility of collecting multiple sources to reveal students developing
interdisciplinary understanding. Furthermore, dimensions are in dialogue with
one another and can be considered in any order.
A Tool to Assess Interdisciplinary Understanding
Four Assessment foci
work is often geared toward describing
or explaining phenomena or events that are multidimensional, solving complex
problems, proposing new interpretations, creating products. The purpose of a
piece of work or interdisciplinary exploration drives the crafting of the work
-- what disciplinary insights are relevant, which disciplines should dominate,
how disciplines could be combined to leverage or advance the goals of the work,
how to decide when the work is done and its purpose accomplished.
What is the purpose of the work?
Is the purpose of the work clear (whether explicit or implicit)?
the purpose invite/require an interdisciplinary approach?
How can we support the student to gain clarity about her purpose and
frame it in a way that invites her to make best use of the multiple disciplinary
insights explored in the unit or course (if applicable) ?
work takes advantage of insights, findings, methods, techniques, languages, and
modes of thinking in two or more disciplines or areas of expertise to accomplish
its goals. This dimension examines the degree to which students have taken
advantage of the disciplinary learning opportunities offered in the course to
advance the purpose of their work.
Which disciplines inform this work in general?
Are disciplinary perspectives selected in ways that fit the purpose of
the piece? Are disciplinary
insightsi.e. concepts, methods, languages, values -- used in accurate, rich
and effective ways? E.g. Is this
scientific concept accurate? It that artistic representation provocative?)
How can we further support the student in her efforts to take advantage
of available disciplinary insights - e.g., methods, findings, languages, values
work invites students not only to use multiple disciplines but to integrate
them to accomplish the purpose of a piece of work. When disciplines are
combined, new understandings are possible. For example, by integrating a new
discipline like chemistry in a geography-based study of global climate change
students become able to explain the
phenomenon (e.g. how Co2 traps heat in the atmosphere) in ways that they
would not have been able to get at through geography alone. Making a
memoriali.e. creating an
aesthetic visual commentary (art) about a past event (history), enables students
to synthesize the significance of the event in an evocative metaphor--one that a
non-artistic approach might have missed. Multiple disciplinary combinations can
invite deeper and richer understandings.
What are the key points of integration proposed in the work i.e.,
where are disciplinary perspectives clearly brought together in a phrase,
metaphor, interpretation, or explanation?
Are the integrations enabling students to advance their understanding
effectively e.g. to produce more comprehensive descriptions, multi-causal
explanations, novel interpretations, or deeper explorations that benefit from
the combination of perspectives?
How can we further support the student in her efforts to integrate
available disciplinary insights to advance her understanding (if applicable)?
work invites students thoughtful engagement with their topics of study.
Students weigh different aesthetic decisions to interpret a historical event,
they consider competing explanations for social or natural phenomena, they
strive for deeper, less obvious accounts of human experience. Thoughtfulness --
the ability to consider choices, possibilities and challenges with care --
characterizes the process of producing interdisciplinary work and is sometimes
made explicit in its outcome.
Describe Does the work
indicate that the student has reflected about the learning challenges and
possibilities of bringing disciplinary insights together to address her
Do the students reflections about the process and outcome of the work
reveal understanding of key aspects of doing interdisciplinary work--e.g. the
possibilities opened by integrative work, the insights gained along the way, the
challenges of bringing disciplines together, the tension of satisfying
How can we further support the student in her understanding of the
demands of interdisciplinary work (if applicable)?
disciplinary integration varies greatly in student interdisciplinary work, a few
core forms of integration are outlined below. The list is not exhaustive, and
the forms of integration are not mutually exclusive.
(a) Aesthetic synthesis Student examines a scientific, historical, social, problem in depth and distill its meaning or significance in a metaphor or work of art (e.g. historical monument).
A particular concept, instrument, or skill (e.g. close observation,
negative space drawing) is applied in a variety of disciplinary contexts
(biological drawings, architecture, film) resulting in a deeper understanding of
tool and context of application itself.
particular concept is explored (e.g. suffering, justice) in multiple
disciplinary contexts (a work of
art, a novel, a memoir) thereby extending the meaning of the concept to embrace
nuances, detail, and richness in associations (often used in the humanities).
explanation is built on multiple causes
stemming from various disciplines
(e.g., global warming).
practical problem is solved (or a product developed) by the inclusion of one or
more new disciplinary perspectives (e.g., technologically augmented musical
Elements in one discipline are placed
in broader historical social or cultural contexts (e.g., the history of
(g) Embodying A particular example or case is seen as a microcosm of various disciplinary connections (case studies on global production).
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