30 January 2017

Knowledge item

Interdisciplinarity and the self-directed learner

This is a summary of an article published in the Issues in Interdisciplinary Studies, nr. 34 (2016). The study described in this article shows how students attending the interdisciplinary (Dutch) Liberal Arts and Sciences program at Utrecht University (LAS) demonstrate self-authorship at the end of their undergraduate journey. It also identifies two factors that contribute to the development of students as self-directed learners: the complexity of the interdisciplinary projects and the responsibility the students have for their own education.

The full-text of the article can be found here: AISissues16_vanderlecq

Self-authorship and interdisciplinary learning

Self-authorship is the “capacity to internally define a coherent belief system and identity that coordinates engagement in mutual relations with the larger world” (Baxter Magolda & King, 2004, p. xxii) and includes taking initiative, setting one’s own goals, and taking responsibility for one’s direction in learning. It is an attitude that is considered an important 21st century learning outcome enabling effective citizenship. Self-authorship has three dimensions:

Cognitive maturity viewing knowledge as contextual, or as constructed using relevant evidence in a particular context,
Integrated identity the ability to reflect upon, explore, and choose enduring values,
Mature relationships respect for both one’s own and others’ particular cultures, productive collaboration to negotiate and integrate multiple perspectives and needs. (Baxter Magolda & King, 2004)

In order to promote self-authorship educators need to design environments that optimize their students’ development, performance, and well-being. Research guided by self-determination theory has revealed that opportunities for self-direction enhance motivation and well-being because they allow people a greater feeling of autonomy (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Interdisciplinary learning fosters self-authorship, because the learning goals that are essential to successful interdisciplinarity require self-authorship. Interdisciplinary learning seeks to empower students by cultivating certain traits and skills that are essential for problem-solving, decision-making, and research (Repko, 2012). Applying Baxter Magolda’s theory of student development (towards self-authorship) to an interdisciplinary program, Haynes and Brown Leonard (2010) developed a framework for analyzing students’ developmental understanding of interdisciplinarity. In my study I used Haynes’ framework and analyzed the data with students’ understanding of interdisciplinarity in mind.

Evidence of self-authorship

The findings presented in the article are based on evidence from reflective essays written by 45 students upon completion of their undergraduate courses in 2013. Reflections provide valuable data for a case study such as this, because they give us a sense of how the students think, how they make connections, and how they see their activities, both inside and outside the University, as contributing to their own personal development.
The findings suggest that in the cognitive dimension – that of students’ view of interdisciplinarity – the students’ most important insight is that interdisciplinarity results in a meta-perspective on one’s own and other disciplines. By comparing and contrasting disciplines and their perspectives students come to realize that disciplines are constructed and that disciplinary insights may conflict with one another, but also that conflicts can be resolved by creating a common ground. In their interdisciplinary projects they have learned that interdisciplinarity involves perspective taking and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. Regarding the second dimension, that of students’ view of self, many students indicate that for them interdisciplinarity has become a way of living. They also apply perspective taking in life outside the academy. With respect to the third dimension, namely that of students’ view of others, the findings suggest that students have experienced that collaboration and good communication are essential to successful interdisciplinary projects. Many of them also apply these skills in other contexts both inside and outside of the academy.
Another recurring theme in the reflections examined in the study is the agency students feel they have over their own education. They have set their own goals and taken initiative and responsibility for their own learning direction, thereby showing evidence of self-authorship in the second dimension. This may be an effect of the students’ interdisciplinary education. The students themselves, however, are more inclined to ascribe their increasing sense of agency to other program characteristics besides interdisciplinarity. Most students appreciate their interdisciplinary education because of the openness of mind they have been able to cultivate. However, the findings also suggest that the students appreciate LAS primarily because of the freedom it offers them to compose their own study program – a conclusion supported by curriculum evaluations. Composing their own curriculum has made them, in their own view, self-directed learners.


The development of the students in this interdisciplinary program appears to be supported by two factors: the complexity of the interdisciplinary projects and the responsibility the students have for their own education. The complexity of the interdisciplinary projects results in openness to other perspectives, seeing the bigger picture, and appreciation of each other’s qualities. The responsibility for their own education leads to an increasing sense of agency and autonomy. Both factors require self-reflection. Self-authorship appears to flourish in a context where self-reflection is stimulated.

References (in this summary)

  • Baxter Magolda, M.B., King P.M. (2004). Learning partnerships: Theory and models of practice to educate for self-authorship. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
  • Haynes, C., & Brown Leonard, J. (2010). From surprise parties to mapmaking: Undergraduate journeys toward interdisciplinary understanding. Journal of Higher Education 81 (5), 645-666.
  • Lecq, R. van der (2016). Self-authorships characteristics of learners in the context of an interdisciplinary curriculum: Evidence from reflections. Issues in Integrative Studies 34, 79-108.
  • Repko, A. F. (2012). Interdisciplinary research: Process and theory (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist 55 (1), 68-78.

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