ERIC Identifier: ED429633
Publication Date: 1999-05-00
Author: Abell, Arianne
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Community Colleges Los Angeles CA.
Interdisciplinary Courses and Curricula in the Community
Colleges. ERIC Digest.
Most general education programs in community colleges and four-year
institutions use the distribution approach, in which students are permitted to
choose courses from a list of applicable offerings in specified categories to
fulfill the requirements (Astin, 1993; Cohen & Brawer, 1996; Smith, 1993).
While this approach introduces students to many different disciplines and ways
of thinking, it leaves a lot to chance. Students often do not take courses in a
coherent fashion and, without specific guidance from faculty, they rarely see
the connections among courses (Boyer, 1987; Gaff, 1995; Smith, 1993). Faculty
and administrators in institutions of higher education can make the coherence in
general education programs more obvious by integrating knowledge and creating a
perspective that is more genuine (Boyer, 1987; Smith, 1993). One way to do this
is to create interdisciplinary courses and curricula for our undergraduates.
This Digest explores interdisciplinary courses as an effective means of
generally educating students in community colleges across the nation.
WHAT ARE INTERDISCIPLINARY COURSES?
course is often defined as a course with at least two instructors from different
departments, divisions, or specializations, in which ideas and perspectives are
synthesized (Davis, 1995; Hepner, 1995). Interdisciplinary courses are often
Being highly innovative (Davis, 1995; Hepner, 1995);
Incorporating new concepts and methods between disciplines (Clark &
Wawrytko, 1990; Davis, 1995);
Exploring content that involves broad-based social issues requiring multiple
disciplines for effective study (Davis, 1995; Garbowsky, 1995);
Educating students in ways that are not bounded by artificial disciplinary
lines that do not exist in the world outside higher education institutions
(Jacobs & Teahen, 1996); and/or
Combining liberal arts and general education with vocational education
(Felton, 1996; Jacobs & Teahen, 1996).
HOW DO INTERDISCIPLINARY COURSES FIT INTO COMMUNITY
Community colleges' institutional missions emphasize serving the
community through addressing the needs of a variety of students, including those
who drop in for a course or two, attend for vocational education, and enroll for
transfer purposes. Interdisciplinary courses will broaden the educational
experience for those students who do not plan to continue with further formal
education after their community college experience (Garbowsky, 1995). By
requiring them to think about issues from multiple points of view,
interdisciplinary courses prepare students in vocational programs for a changing
work environment (Jacobs & Teahen, 1996).
No matter why a student initially attends a community college, integrated
courses help to create a sense of community on campus. Interdepartmental faculty
teams model an environment of intellectual collaboration. This in turn motivates
students in both academic and developmental courses, and may encourage them to
continue their education (Felton, 1996; Jacobs & Teahen, 1996).
BENEFITS AND CHALLENGES
In those courses that combine
liberal and general education curricula with vocational curricula there is an
increased mastery of the competencies that are required for both educational and
vocational success (Jacobs & Teahen, 1996). Additionally, there is an
incorporation of moral, humanistic, and political perspectives into courses that
are taken by vocational students (Jacobs & Teahen, 1996). In general,
interdisciplinary courses re-energize the faculty involved (Felton, 1996; Jacobs
& Teahen, 1996), and allow the instructor to serve as a role model for
life-long learning (Felton, 1996). Finally, interdisciplinary courses also
contribute to "intellectual and spiritual [developments] of the whole person" (Davis, 1995).
However, faculty may become impatient with the amount of time they must give
to interdisciplinary courses. Since these courses are team-taught, faculty
autonomy is lost. This occurs not only in regard to the course content, but also
the creation of assignments and grading policies and practices. Shifting from an
autonomous to a collaborative approach to teaching can often be a source of
frustration for faculty (Davis, 1995). For students, the challenge lies in the
potential difficulty they may experience in transferring to a four-year
Since these courses are not yet commonplace throughout the higher education
curriculum, not all interdisciplinary courses will easily transfer to other
institutions (Jacobs & Teahen, 1996).
EXISTING INTERDISCIPLINARY PROGRAMS
Six examples of general
education programs that take an interdisciplinary approach illustrate the
objectives and the importance of these courses in community colleges.
Shoreline Community College (Washington). Part of their core curriculum
includes integrated studies courses. An example of this is the Science,
Civilization, and Human Creativity course. The courses become classified as
"integrated studies" by demonstrating the integration of knowledge and skills
from multiple disciplines, usage of different methodologies, and breadth rather
than depth of knowledge (Rosenwasser, 1995).
Cuyahoga Community College (Ohio). One choice students have at this community
college is a three-quarter, freshman-level course in classical philosophy and
American literature. The two professors who teach the course have different
areas of interest within philosophy and this stimulates discussion. One
professor introduces a topic and presents ideas while the second professor acts
as a commentator, questioner, and even as devil's advocate. This particular
course has been offered successfully for 15 years (Davis, 1995).
Niagara County Community College (New York). This institution also offers
interdisciplinary courses. One example is a course, taught by two faculty, that
explores the visual, verbal, and performing arts. The two faculty members relate
one art form to another (Davis, 1995).
Chemeketa Community College (Oregon). As part of a faculty development
program, faculty are encouraged to propose interdisciplinary courses. Many of
their courses connect general education with technical and professional
disciplines. For example, as part of the Writing Across the Curriculum project,
the nursing faculty integrated technical writing and applied nursing content by
emphasizing critical thinking and writing and oral communication skills (Felton,
Macomb County Community College (Michigan). This college also incorporates
general education curricula with occupational curricula. One such course is a
business and technical writing course designed by faculty from English,
technology, and accounting disciplines. Other combinations include the
following: nursing, health care ethics, and English; physics and English; and
math, English, engineering, visual communications/commercial art, industry
training, and business (Felton, 1996).
Lansing Community College (Michigan). At Lansing, 14 faculty members come
together in four teams that boast the incorporation of as many disciplines and
teaching techniques as possible. The following disciplines are represented:
chemistry, physics, biology, geology, meteorology, and system dynamics. The
courses are organized around four basic questions that cause students to
incorporate ideas from multiple disciplines when approaching an assignment
While interdisciplinary courses account for only
a small number of courses at community colleges, they provide benefits to both
faculty and students. Some institutions shy away from these types of courses
because changing to a cooperative approach to instruction is time-consuming for
faculty. Also, the courses may not readily transfer to four-year institutions.
Yet, as faculty and administrators look toward improving general education
nationally, interdisciplinary courses appeal to reformers who seek to improve
coherence in the curriculum at both community colleges and four-year
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