The Implementation of Interdisciplinary Courses with Psychology

02 Aug 2016 10:41 AM | Anonymous
The Implementation of Interdisciplinary Courses with Psychology


Dorothy C. Doolittle, Shelia P. Greenlee, Harry Greenlee, & Lisa S. Webb

Christopher Newport University


Educators have often insisted that student learning is enhanced by integrating the curriculum. We see this in many educational trends like “Writing Across the Curriculum,” “Integrating Integers Across the Disciplines,” and “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)” programs. The essence of these curricular approaches is to blend the learning environments so that our youth are exposed to a more cohesive learning paradigm based on everyday life. The National Council for Teachers of English contends that “…educational experiences are more authentic and of greater value to students when the curricula reflect real life. . .” (Consortium for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning, 1995, para. 2). Being able to integrate various disciplines is extremely important and yet many disciplines still remain disconnected and fragmented. Psychology however, is one discipline that could very easily be incorporated or integrated into many others, particularly biology, government, communication, mathematics, and business.


Our approach to developing two interdisciplinary courses began with urgings from our university to develop and implement interdisciplinary, team-taught courses. This seemed to be an easy accommodation for psychology given that many of our introductory courses begin by showing students the interdisciplinary nature of psychology, starting with the areas of specialization in psychology. Immediately, faculty teaching introductory psychology courses tell students that psychology derives from two disciplines, philosophy and physiology. They continue by connecting psychology to business (Industrial/Organizational psychology), mathematics (quantitative psychology), biology (behavioral neuroscience), government and law (forensic psychology), etc. As such, most psychology faculty members will concede that psychology has never been a self-contained or isolated discipline, and, as such may lend itself to an interdisciplinary approach more than many other disciplines.

 Planning and Preparation

While urgings from our administration were important in helping us to think through the design and development of interdisciplinary courses, they were not enough to help us fully understand the essence of such courses. Nissani (1997) defines interdisciplinary as bringing together distinctive components of two or more disciplines. In academia, we can do this through research and teaching. Because psychology is a highly diverse field with connections to many disciplines, it is a rich partner that can easily be adapted to various disciplines. Still, before moving forward with designing courses, we felt compelled to examine the literature on interdisciplinary courses. This provided valuable information that made planning and preparation easier because it identified the benefits, as well as the pitfalls, issues, and concerns to address or at least think about before implementing interdisciplinary courses.

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Courses

Our review of the literature illustrated several benefits of interdisciplinary courses. In general, the research suggests that interdisciplinary courses help students develop a broader vision of the fields, while helping students develop skills of integration and synthesis (Fink, 2003; Newell & Green, 1982). Students engaging in interdisciplinary courses are encouraged to examine concepts from many different perspectives. This type of examination enables students’ ability to analyze complex issues by liberating their thinking, moving them from the limiting assumptions of their own professional group (or major), while at the same time stimulating fresh research ideas, visions, and methodologies (Nissani, 1997). Students in these courses will learn to assemble, develop, design and combine knowledge using techniques from different disciplines.

Second, interdisciplinary courses help students understand and deal with ambiguity. They give students ways to look at problems, situations, or subject matter from various perspectives and world views. When there is uncertainty or several interpretations are plausible, students can pull from different disciplines. Alden, Laxton, Patzer, and Howard (1991) contend that students enrolled in interdisciplinary courses are also better able to tolerate ambiguity, which helps students to think more abstractly about various problems or issues encountered in our society.

Third, students become more engaged in the learning process in these types of courses. According to Gardner (1983), interdisciplinary courses support a diverse background of interests, experiences and values that will help students become more engaged. As already noted, the design of such courses encourages students to examine things from more than one perspective. They will gain insight into the process of generating knowledge by working with professors from different backgrounds. Having a course that requires students to see things from different perspectives helps them become more vested in learning, understanding and mastering the materials.

Not only do students from different disciplines benefit from interdisciplinary courses, Hailstorks (2009) contends that faculty also benefit from them. She believes that faculty learn new information that can be incorporated into their other courses and at the same time may learn new pedagogical strategies to use in teaching. Letterman and Dugan (2004) contend that interdisciplinary courses help decrease feelings of isolation that many faculty experience, while providing faculty opportunities for collaboration in other areas, particularly with regard to research.

Disadvantages of Interdisciplinary Courses

The cost of two faculty members for one course may seem prohibitive to administrators. For faculty buy-in, each must be fairly compensated. Time must be spent developing the course and grading student work. Whether both faculty members will be in class at the same times or take turns coming to the class is also an important consideration. Taking turns may seem efficient, but alternating instructors miss the information and discussions of the other’s classes, making the course seem somewhat disjointed.

Stress, conflict resolution, issues about grading standards, what material to cover from each discipline, and co-leadership versus a single faculty member making decisions about the class are just a few of the areas that have to be addressed before the class even begins (Davis, 1995). Differences in personality and teaching styles will also affect the course and must be addressed during the course planning phase.

Some faculty have indicated that co-teaching an interdisciplinary course interferes with their ability to put time into their research. The additional time involved in planning and implementation must come from somewhere. This is another reason why having the university’s support is important (Cohen & DeLois, 2001).

The feeling of a loss of autonomy may deter some faculty. They may feel as though they cannot control matters, citing a loss of flexibility (Davis, 1995). Personal experience in co-teaching an English literature course bore this out. The psychology faculty member was told not to worry about the exams or coming to the lectures. She would be called when it was time to give a psychological interpretation of the novels’ characters. This was obviously not a satisfying arrangement for the psychology faculty member!

Course Planning and Preparation

We all need resources when we start a new endeavor. A great one is the group of colleagues who have undertaken this before. They will share what went well and some pitfalls to avoid. Read articles about teaching interdisciplinary courses so that you go into it prepared.

Not all courses may lend themselves to being good candidates for interdisciplinary courses. Consider what areas may make great partners with psychology. As stated earlier, government, behavioral neuroscience, business, and math seem to be naturals.

The faculty involved must determine how the course will be taught. For example, will both faculty members be present at all classes or just some of the classes? If you co-teach, faculty should visit each other’s classrooms during the planning phase to look at each other’s teaching styles, interactions with students, etc.

It is inevitable that differences in styles, experience, age, gender, and perceptions can all bring conflict into the teaching relationship. The two faculty members involved need good communication before and during the course. They need to look at the course from as many angles as possible during the planning stages. Joint goals, plans for grading and class participation, and deciding how assignments will be handled should help keep conflict to a minimum. Planning helps alleviate some of the surprises when the semester begins.


Psychology is a prime candidate for interdisciplinary courses. Student engagement and enhanced learning are major benefits. The design and implementation of an interdisciplinary course requires time and careful planning. At the end of the course, faculty should have an evaluation component that will allow them to find out, from the students’ perspectives, what went well and what could be improved. This might also be a source for research on teaching.

Two example syllabi with government and behavioral genetics are available from the first author upon request (



Alden, S. D., Laxton, R., Patzer, G., & Howard, L. (1991). Establishing cross-disciplinary marketing education. Journal of Marketing Education, 13(2), 25-30. doi:10.1177/027347539101300205.

Cohen, M. B., & DeLois, K. (2001). Training in tandem: Co-facilitation and role modeling in a group work course. Social Work with Groups, 24(1), 21-36. doi:10.1300/J009v24n01_03.

Consortium for Interdisciplinary Teaching and Learning. (1995, August 14). Position statement on interdisciplinary learning, Pre-K to Grade 4 [Web page]. Retrieved from

Davis, J. R. (1995). Interdisciplinary courses and team teaching: New arrangements for learning (American Council on Education). Phoenix: Oryx Press.

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrative approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. doi:

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Hailstorks, R. (2009). Teaching psychology from an interdisciplinary perspective. Psychology Teacher Network, Office of Precollege and Undergraduate Education (APA), 18(4), 24-25.

Letterman, M. R., & Dugan, K. B. (2004). Team teaching a cross-disciplinary honors course: Preparation & Development. College Teaching, 52(2), 76-79. Retrieved from

Newell, W. H., & Green, W. J. (1882). Defining and teaching interdisciplinary studies. Improving College and University Teaching, 30(1), 23-34.

Nissani, M. (1997). Ten cheers for interdisciplinary: The case for interdisciplinary knowledge & research. Social Science Journal, 34(2) 201-216. doi: .

About the Authors:

Dorothy Doolittle is a Professor of Psychology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA.  She earned her B.A. from the University of Georgia and her M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Ph.D. in Applied Experimental Psychology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  Her primary teaching interests are history of psychology and tests and measures.  She, with Shelia Greenlee, conducts a research laboratory for undergraduate students, focusing on women, minority, and especially first-generation college students.  Her research interests include classroom distractions (e.g, texting) and other topics related to students and learning.

Shelia Greenlee is currently a Professor of Psychology at Christopher Newport University (Newport News, VA).  She earned her Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology at The Ohio State University. She primarily teaches Introductory Psychology, Child Development, Adolescence, and Educational Psychology courses. She, in conjunction with Dorothy Doolittle, conducts a research-mentoring lab.  In this lab, she supervises and directs undergraduate student research on classroom distractions, non-academic stressors and coping strategies, and the impact of tokenism/solo status on college students’ feelings of distinctiveness and satisfaction.

Harry Greenlee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Christopher Newport University.  He received his B.A. and M.A. from Hampton Institute (University) and his J.D. degree from The Ohio State University College of Law.  His research interests are in the fields of Employment and Criminal Law.

Lisa S. Webb is an Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Chemistry at Christopher Newport University.  She earned a B.A. in Chemistry from Maryville College, an M.Ed. in Science Education from the University of Georgia, and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Tennessee.  Her research interests are in the molecular genetics of neurodegenerative diseases.  She teaches undergraduate courses in the biochemistry, molecular biology, and neuroscience curricula and graduate courses in the M.A.T. and M.S. programs.

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