Today, the lack of generalizable methods for judging interdisciplinary education and its direct impacts on student learning is the biggest challenge to interdisciplinarity, particularly at the undergraduate level (Klein, 1996; Lattuca, 2001). Anecdotal evidence suggests that interdisciplinary programs and activities most often rely on the same assessment approaches used by their disciplinary and departmental siblings (e.g., grades, surveys, standardized tests). This default rather than design strategy of interdisciplinary assessment suffers from proxy criteria that “sidestep the question of what constitutes interdisciplinary knowledge” (Boix Mansilla and Gardner, 2003) and from a lack of well-articulated measures by which to capture interdisciplinary learning.
The Teagle – SSRC Working Group on Interdisciplinary Education at Liberal Arts Institutions was formed to explore this issue, with an eye toward informing the design of an empirically-grounded and action-oriented framework to assess interdisciplinarity in the liberal arts context. Comprised of 21 higher education researchers and administrators, the Working Group met twice between April 2005 and April 2006. Discussion centered around identifying: (a) workable definitions and distinctions of ‘interdisciplinary’ education in the context of the liberal arts education; (b) common modes of interdisciplinary education programming and methods of interdisciplinary learning assessment; (c) and, (d) possible performance-based and value-added approaches to assess interdisciplinary learning in of assessment for liberal arts institutions.
To move this discussion beyond anecdotal accounts and ground it in empirical evidence, in the interim months the Working Group surveyed the population of institutions identified as “Baccalaureate College – Liberal Arts” under the 2000 Carnegie Classification system. It also conducted semi-structured interviews with frontline faculty and administrators involved in interdisciplinary programs at the eight schools represented in the Working Group. Together, the survey and interview data have been used to map the different ensembles of interdisciplinary education programs and assessment practices in liberal arts colleges and universities nationwide, to analyze differences in the meanings and mechanics between these various ensembles, and to explore possible assessment alternatives for the future. The ensuing White Paper provides a summary of these discussions and data analyses.