Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts in which past LEAP Action Grant recipients report on their projects.
Dr. Ralph Hale is Assistant Professor of Psychological Science.
Dr. Valerie Surrett is Assistant Professor of English.

Overview: Cross-disciplinary student projects are effective in transforming student attitudes, incentivizing hard work, and enhancing learning. For this project, students in an upper-level special topics course on human memory (PSYC4403) were divided into “Research Teams” that designed futuristic memory replacement systems (MRSs), and students in an English composition course (ENGL1102) were divided into “Journalism Teams” that wrote editorials about the MRSs, translating science for a general audience. These classes met at different times in different buildings, so all interactions and collaborations between classes occurred virtually and often asynchronously.

Ralph Hale

The idea for this project came about as a result of our shared interest in fostering more interaction between disciplines. Coincidentally, our research interests overlap quite a bit as well: a psychology professor who studies sensory systems and memory – and an English professor interested in literature related to cyborgs and the human body. We applied for a LEAP Action Grant to help us undertake this collaborative effort involving two of our classes – two classes that typically would have very little in common and certainly would not interact with one another. The project underscored the possibility, and perhaps even the necessity, of developing partnerships and communication channels between disciplines. Students demonstrated awareness of real-world implications of academic work and viewed their projects from outside their disciplines. This post will focus on the development of academic skills and emphasize how these

Valerie Surrett

benefits can be obtained through many cross-disciplinary pairings.

Empirical support:

  • Cross-disciplinary student projects have been shown to be an effective method of…
    • …incentivizing hard work (Chiriac, 2014)
    • …transforming student attitudes (Little & Hoel, 2011)
    • …enhancing learning (Blumenfeld et al., 1996)
    • …improving self-efficacy (Schaffer et al., 2012)
  • Cross-disciplinary projects have been successfully tested in a wide array of pairings including…
    • …business administrating and accounting (Kruck & Teer, 2009)
    • …environmental science and business (Little & Hoel, 2011)
    • …marketing and engineering (McKeage et al., 1999)
    • …music and biology (Burrack & McKenzie, 2005)

Journal-to-journalism project: Each Research Team (Memory class) had to design an MRS based on current research. Then the design had to be explained in detail to the corresponding Journalism Team (English class). Research Teams wrote an extensive research proposal and then presented it virtually to be viewed by both classes. They then formally reflected on the project as a group. Journalism Teams had to convert the MRS design into an editorial explaining the system and its potential implications to a general audience. They also presented their final editorials and reflected on the project at large. Both teams worked together throughout the semester by asking many questions, providing constant clarification, and completing multiple revisions, thereby enhancing the content of their respective products.















Source: www.phdcomics.com


Research questions:

  1. Will students develop the skills needed to meet the demands of this project? Namely, will Memory students exhibit an improvement in problem solving and critical thinking skills; will English students exhibit an improvement in written communication skills; and will all students exhibit an improvement in teamwork and collaboration skills?
  2. Will students have a more valuable and rich educational experience through collaboration than they would have had without it?
  3. Are skill improvements acquired in this project transferrable to future applications, or are they content/project dependent?

Our findings: AAC&U VALUE Rubrics were used to assess the effectiveness of this project. Students successfully demonstrated high levels of critical and creative thinking, effective written and oral communication, teamwork and problem solving, ethical reasoning and action, and synthesis of advanced subject matter. Consistent with research on multidisciplinary collaboration and team teaching, students in both classes demonstrated a new awareness of potential real-world implications of their academic work and began to view their projects from outside the contexts of their own disciplines. Research Teams and Journalism Teams took their peer teams’ insights into consideration when developing and finalizing their own projects. Research Teams edited and clarified their MRS designs multiple times based on feedback and questions from the Journalism Teams, and the Journalism Teams focused on ethically and accurately representing Research Teams’ designs. These skills are not content specific and are therefore almost certainly transferrable. Therefore, projects of this nature would likely be successful in a number of cross-disciplinary pairings.

Blumenfeld, P. C., et al. (1996). Learning with peers: From small group cooperation to collaborative communities. Educational Researcher 25: 37-40.
Burrack, F. and T. McKenzie (2005). Enhanced student learning through cross-disciplinary projects. Music Educators Journal: 45-50.
Chiriac, E. H. (2014). Group work as an incentive for learning – students’ experiences of group work. Frontiers in Psychology 5(558): 1-10.
Kruck, S. E. and F. P. Teer (2009). Interdisciplinary student teams projects: A case study. Journal of Information Systems Education 20(3): 325-330.
Little, A. and A. Hoel (2011). Interdisciplinary team teaching: An effective method to transform student attitudes. The Journal of Effective Teaching 11(1): 36-44.
McKeage, K., et al. (1999). Implementing an interdisciplinary marketing/engineering course project: Project format, preliminary evaulation, and critical factor review. Journal of Marketing Education: 217-231.
Schaffer, S. P., et al. (2012). Self-efficacy for cross-disciplinary learning in project-based teams. Journal of Engineering Education 101(1): 82-94.