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Mar 2004  Vol. 8   No. 1  
Designing Interdisciplinary Modules

Kenneth Paul Tan, Assistant Professor
University Scholars Programme & Department of Political Science


A strong interdisciplinary component in University education is important for a number of, by now, familiar reasons. Getting into the habit of drawing connections among ideas, concepts, theories, assumptions, instruments, media, practices, histories and mindsets associated with different disciplinary paradigms is not only intellectually challenging and rewarding, but also profoundly useful in a practical sense. ‘Real world’ problems are nearly always multifaceted and interconnected. To solve such problems effectively, one needs to have an interdisciplinary mind that is well equipped with knowledge, cognitive skills and the ability to see the bigger picture. Applying narrow and specialised solutions to ‘real world’ problems can set off unexpected consequences and create other, perhaps worse problems. Effective leaders and decision-makers should therefore have interdisciplinary minds. The University Scholars Programme, whose primary objectives include the nurturing of leadership abilities, provides mostly interdisciplinary curriculum. In what follows, I will discuss some simple strategies that I have adopted in developing and teaching interdisciplinary courses, using examples drawn from two modules: a first-tier module called ‘Democratic Possibilities in Singapore’ and an advanced module called ‘Civil Society: Theory & Practice’ .

Course Development
Single concept, problem, or issue

One effective strategy to construct an interdisciplinary course is to organise the course material around a single concept, problem or issue that can be interrogated broadly using specific analytical tools and assumptions from different disciplinary paradigms. In ‘Civil Society: Theory & Practice’ for instance, the concept civil society is interrogated at the following three levels:

  • Theoretical level
    Students approach the concept of civil society through analytical tools and concerns that traditionally originate from political theory (e.g. power, security, legitimacy, freedom), social theory (e.g. social capital, the public/private, communitarianism, liberalism, cosmopolitanism), literary and cultural studies (e.g. hegemony), history (e.g. colonialism, post colonialism) and law (e.g. law-making, jurisdiction, internationalism).

  • Empirical level
    Students reflect on case studies that are used to foreground the concepts learnt for critical discussion. For example, students consider the relationship between civil society and the state through a case study of the National Rifle Association of America (NRA), case studies of The Big Issue (UK) and BBC Watchdog (UK) help students ponder the relationship between civil society and the capitalist market, and case studies of religious cults and the Presidential Summit on Voluntarism (US) help students think about the relationship between civil society and community.

  • Practical level
    Students go on flexible ten-week project attachments to a civil society organisation. By participating in the organisation’s activities and carrying out meaningful projects for it, students learn to negotiate with the often discouraging realities of civil society and their own personal talents and limitations. So far, the organisations that have participated in this module included Action for AIDS (AFA), Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE), Nature Society (Singapore), Singapore International Foundation (SIF), The Necessary Stage and TheatreWorks.

Modes of inquiry

For modules whose primary concern is interdisciplinary learning, the teacher needs always to foreground the specific approaches, instruments and assumptions of each discipline, all in ways that will elicit critical reflections from the students. The content of such modules should be treated mainly as raw material for analysis, not as primary matter to be mastered by students. The temptation to develop comprehensive content for these kinds of modules should be resisted. It is more important to give students a sense of the academic terrain, on which lie similarities, interconnections, interpenetrations and even hybrid formations among the disciplines.


Course designers should not shy away from bringing their non-academic interests into the curriculum. My involvements in the local theatre scene have enabled me to provide my students with many opportunities to experience the arts directly. In ‘Democratic Possibilities in Singapore’, I used a concert format discussion to encourage the students to think about the relationship between neo-Marxist aesthetics and democracy. Through a carefully selected programme of classical, avant-garde, pop and even local patriotic music, I was able to generate discussion around some rather abstract concepts without needing to resort to music theory.

It is also a good idea to co-teach modules with colleagues from different departments and academic backgrounds. Not only does this enable the course designer to tap on a much wider range of expertise, it also allows the modules to be structured as an interdisciplinary dialogue which, if handled with skill, can be a highly stimulating mode of learning.

Teaching and Learning

Interdisciplinary learning requires and promotes an adventuresome mind that is willing and able to proceed from the familiar into the unfamiliar, while trying to make sense of new situations by critically applying all the knowledge one possesses. To achieve this, it is important to get to know one’s students well so that their diverse academic backgrounds and personal interests can be used to generate problems and contradictions for interdisciplinary debate. I make it a point to encourage students to become comfortable with the fact that knowledge is messy and understanding will never be complete. I encourage them not to think about the different components of their knowledge and experiences as neat, distinct and self-contained entities. And I always urge them to use their intuitions and not to discount the power of personal experiences, even the most seemingly mundane examples from everyday life.

Students of ‘Civil Society: Theory & Practice’ who were attached to the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) worked through the complicated tasks of making sense of their interdisciplinary theoretical knowledge, relevant case studies
and the practical challenges associated with civil society work. In the ‘Gender Awareness Week’ that they organised at NUS on 22–26 September 2003, students put up an exhibition on
campus and had to deal with a range of responses (some very difficult) from the NUS community.

Using student debates designed to help students articulate the kinds of arguments that one might expect from different intellectual disciplines is one effective way of ‘demonstrating’ the logics of interdisciplinary thinking. Secondly, experiential exercises are also effective not only to promote active learning, but also to ensure that students arrive at a critical understanding of the various concepts and ideas. Otherwise, interdisciplinary learning can easily turn students into intellectual ‘tourists’ with a shallow understanding of the different disciplines they have visited. My article ‘Building upon the Socratic Method’ gives an account of a simple first-day-of-semester exercise aimed at getting students to experience and articulate key dynamics that correspond to more complex theories and assumptions to be learnt and ‘named’ in the rest of the semester.

Students also invited experts to speak on important
topics like ‘rape’.

Finally, it is important to not simply throw students into the deep end of the pool and expect them to ‘survive’ somehow. My students are given much guidance for class preparation mainly through questions that orientate their reading of complex texts and through the structured use of IVLE discussion forums. In addition, my students are directed to web resources that I have written for the modules as well as for students that I do not teach.

Students organised film screenings and dramatised
readings that were followed by facilitated discussions.




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