Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Innovative Bridging: Understanding inter-disciplinarity through student-centred learning

Jane Long and Jane Grellier
Centre for Women's Studies
The University of Western Australia
In Semester 2, 1997, the Centre for Women's Studies at UWA introduced a collaborative project into the 2nd/3rd year unit, Text and Gender. Over a ten-week period, students worked in small syndicate groups to complete a project of their own choosing arising from their study of set texts. They also completed fortnightly exercises designed to develop their self-reflexivity by having them record, question and enhance the group processes occurring in their syndicates. The syndicates were not supervised, but students organised themselves according to the guidance provided in the Collaborative Project Guide and Student Log, which were distributed at the start of the unit. The project was established in the belief that collaborative skills are of increasing importance in academic life and in the general community. It was felt that, because of its interdisciplinary nature and because it has always engaged in consideration of both the product and the processes of learning, Women's Studies was a particularly appropriate forum for such a project. The project was evaluated throughout the unit and results used to guide rewriting of course booklets. These booklets are now available and can be adapted easily for undergraduate courses in other departments.


Student-centred learning has been a catch-cry for many years now in higher education. Any initial incredulity which greeted the demand to de-emphasise the teacher in favour of the learner in universities has, generally, dissipated. Certainly the manuals, the books, the conference papers and the staff development seminars all promote student-centred learning and, one assumes, the effects are being felt within higher education classrooms throughout Australia. But, is the classroom the right place for student-centred learning? Does not the image of the 'classroom' (even when arranged appropriately, with chairs in a circle) suggest that students remain locked within the overall structures of location, time and agenda which, far more than the intellectual focus, have enabled teachers to remain central to the educational process? Undoubtedly the move towards in-class student-centred learning is a benefit, especially in the straitened financial circumstances of the post-Dawkins mass university system, with its dramatically increasing student-staff ratios.

Yet, we would propose, there is a necessary contradiction between the ideal goals and values of student-centred learning and the ways in which it has been integrated within existing, more traditional modes of learning. If university education is to hold true to these ideals (and it must be noted that there is no necessary reason why that should be so, although empirical evidence suggests that both students and teachers benefit from student-centred learning), then student-centred learning must become something which goes beyond existing practices, taking up new spaces in the physical and conceptual structures of pedagogy that currently dominate Australia's higher education institutions.

In achieving advances in student-centred learning, we might also draw upon the concept of interdisciplinarity which, at least within some universities and some faculties, is growing in popularity at the moment. Interdisciplinary studies aim to do more than simply mix together disciplines and 'stir': instead interdisciplinarity demands that students (and academics) move to a shadowy border-zone between those disciplines which make up the intellectual structures that work in tandem with the pedagogic structures to constitute the fields of endeavour within which students obtain their higher education. Just as student-centred learning is, at its most profound, a challenge to the whole concept of higher education as it is currently understood, so too interdisciplinarity actively promotes a critique of the very notion of 'the discipline'.

And in the process, something rather unusual might happen. Students are, more often than not, denied at university the chance to undertake significant and sustained collaborative work in which the goal is actually to learn collaboration, as well as to achieve a result via that mode of work. It should be obvious that interdisciplinarity is not only fertile ground for the growth of collaborative work (among students from different disciplinary backgrounds). It is even more important, however, that we recognise how student-centred learning also demands collaborative work: for, in placing students' learning at the centre, we are not merely absenting ourselves as teachers but actively promoting the idea that students themselves are teachers. Student-centred learning does not deny the essential communicative relationship between the teacher and learner: it does, however, propose that students can fill both of those roles. If they are to do so successfully, then they must learn to collaborate.

The interrelationships between student-centred learning, interdisciplinarity and collaboration are complex. They invoke abstract epistemological and ontological debates; they involve practical problems that are confronting to both students and academics bound up within structures which are only barely flexible enough to admit to the viability of new practices which might develop out of those relationships. What we seek to show in this paper is that, when we try to build bridges between disciplines, through the collaboration demanded and enabled by student-centred learning, there are both challenges and immense rewards. But, as we conclude, the results are striking: amidst the disciplinary formations of a 'normal' university education, students can, for a short but productive time at least, find themselves on the bridge itself, outside of the disciplines, outside of the classroom (and all that it signifies) and in control of their learning in ways that can be astounding.

In our session, we will develop a discussion that engages with both the practical and conceptual issues which we have briefly highlighted above. The rest of this paper presents a brief overview of the path we forged in pursuing collaborative, independent learning strategies in 1997, providing a summary of the project, the direct experiences of which we shall detail at the conference.

Innovative Bridging: Rationale

Various challenges confront the teacher and the student interested in student-centred learning at the university level. Traditionally, the problems involved in fostering such learning have been given most attention in the context of first year, to re-orient students from more child-centred (passive) to adult-centred (active) learning approaches. Further attention to the need for students to be in command of their own learning often does not occur until honours or postgraduate study, where variously, the relatively low student numbers, greater maturity (especially in postgraduate coursework undertaken by part-time students), the conception of the student as 'apprentice academic' and more specialised subject matter make student-centred learning the default mode.

Second/third-year undergraduate tertiary education appears, by comparison, to constitute a 'dead zone' in terms of innovative teaching and learning strategies to promote student-centred learning. The practical constraints imposed by semester-length units, with teachers concerned to incorporate 'vital' content within a cramped time-frame, and where resources can rarely be structured to allow for intensive individual and small group activities, contribute to this relative inactivity. Yet based upon our experience as teachers within second and third year units, the continuation of innovative, student-centred learning at this level would bring considerable benefits (see Brandes and Ginnes, 1986).

Hence, in brief, we wanted to 'bridge' this gap between the introduction to student-centred learning which is offered at first year and the ready assumption that students must be in charge of their learning which permeates pedagogy at more advanced levels.

Innovative Bridging: Processes

The Innovative Bridging project, funded by an internal UWA Innovative Teaching Grant, was undertaken in the second/third-year interdisciplinary Women's Studies undergraduate unit, Text and Gender. Students were required to form independent syndicates whose activities - principally the production and presentation of a group project - were to take place outside class time. In those syndicates, students also systematically explored the processes involved in collaborative intellectual work, reflecting explicitly on the meaning of interdisciplinarity. Their final project related directly to the scholarly themes they were studying and drew upon both their experiences of collaboration and interdiscipinarity. Although assisted by a project officer (who was not a member of the unit's teaching staff), the syndicates had to operate independently and lecturers and tutors did not interfere with them once they were underway. The syndicates proceeded in addition to regular lectures and tutorials. Students were not, however, simply left to fend for themselves. They were provided with both a Student Log, and a Collaborative Project Guide (copies of which are available from the authors) at the start of their syndicate work, providing them with the abstract knowledge necessary to guide their experiential learning.

Because students continued to have lectures and tutorials, these classes were reduced in length and number to accommodate the syndicate work. The unit's overall assessment was structured to give students appropriate rewards for their efforts in the groups. Student syndicates met at least five times during semester, for a period of at least two hours. By choice, many syndicates met more often.

Each syndicate group contains four students. Membership was controlled by the staff according to certain criteria:

Research (and students' anecdotal evidence) indicates that working from the outset to establish a collaborative relationship, rather than merely presuming upon existing friendships and cultural similarities, is a significant skill in itself that students need to learn; moreover, the demands placed upon each individual within the groups meant that they could not simply 'assume' that collaboration would happen because of a priori relationships and similarities

Assessment of the student-centred learning in these groups proceeded in two parts. Half of the assessment was based upon students' written entries in individual Student Logs designed specifically for the purpose. The Log:

Assessment of the Student Logs was devised, not around ideas of the 'ultimate success' of the group or some 'correct' response to the Log exercises, but upon evidence of students' constructive, critical and consistent engagement with the issues of collaboration and interdisciplinarity. This approach meant that, for example, any student who found the group work in which they engaged more challenging than others, could (and often did) still achieve a good result for their Student Log.

In addition to Log work, at syndicate meetings students devised a project and worked together to produce an intellectual product for presentation, on a (very broadly) specified task relating to key themes of the unit. The second half of the assessment related to this project. Students worked together, using their accumulating insights about group processes and interdisciplinarity, to devise an appropriately rigorous and detailed project plan and methodology, which was then informally assessed by staff to appraise its viability. The projects were anchored to the unit in that they all had to deal with some aspect of the work of one of three prominent feminist theorists in the post-Enlightenment period which they were studying in class. The project task also specifically asked students to draw upon their existing disciplinary backgrounds, and to forge an approach and methodology which, while informed by such diversity, was constructive, workable, and intellectually satisfying for all participants within a syndicate.

Innovative Bridging: Outcomes

The project met three major interrelated challenges which staff in Women's Studies had identified.

First, we were able to facilitate more student-centred learning at second/third-year level, consolidating and extending the important skills which students only begin to acquire on entry to University. In particular, the project helped introduce students to the vital skills involved in collaborative work processes which are so valued by prospective employers and which have been identified by UWA students themselves as a desirable area of explicit training at undergraduate level. In the Faculty of Arts in particular, an entrenched assumption had operated that individual scholarship alone is the focus of developing intellectual and research skills. We believe that the current social and economic climate (not to mention the realities of much scholarship) demands that students develop a much broader base of skills and our project provided an effective way of achieving this development.

Second, aware that collaborative group work has been a part of student assessment from time to time in other fields, we successfully extended the group work to ensure that students addressed the all-important processes of collaboration which underlie the success of any project. Instead of leaving students poorly placed to develop their skills as team workers or to understand why some collaborations succeed and others do not, we allowed them the time and space to learn for themselves through reflective practice, how collaboration must be made to work. Syndicate work emphasised that constructive collaboration is not a haphazard, 'luck of the draw' experience, but one based upon skills of negotiation, delegation, intellectual exchange and collective responsibility. However, because students worked independently, they were not constrained to follow a 'model' of collaboration (thereby vitiating the experiential learning process) and instead formed their own, practical understandings of these abstract skills.

Further, we were able to generate important connections between the practical issues of collaboration and the crucial political aspects of collaborative scholarship which are central to Women's Studies. Scholars in the field have for many years engaged in explicit debate and reflection about various research methodologies and their implications (see Gunew, 1990; Bowles and Duelli Klein, 1983). Collaborative processes and their possibilities are also central to recent theorising on issues of difference, diversity, power and language, all of which students encountered both in classes as something to study and in the syndicates as something to experience. In a variety of important ways, then, the project enriched generic skills, while linking these skills themselves to the interrogation of research approaches within Women's Studies.

Third, students engaged reasonably effectively with the complex challenges of interdisciplinarity and certainly more than in previous years when the unit ran without these syndicates. We wanted students to understand that interdisciplinarity is not simply a matter of 'adding on another discipline' - a definitional confusion which is often displayed with the incorrect use of the term 'multidisciplinarity' as a synonym - but rather, a complex position with methodological, epistemological and theoretical implications.(see Kockelmans, 1979) While students engaged with interdisciplinary perspectives in their reading and in their tutorials, the active challenge of 'doing' interdisciplinarity, with their peers from other disciplines, transformed a set of theoretical propositions into an immediate, personally relevant and student-centred learning experience.

In summary, we aimed through the syndicate project to combine process and content in ways which simultaneously would extend students' generic skills and deepen their engagement with a range of complex ideas. While developments in the area of collaborative work have certainly occurred, our project was distinguished by a structure which encourages students not merely to work collaboratively, but to reflect consistently upon the processes of collaboration as it is occurring, and to link this to an interdisciplinary context. Moreover, the area of interdisciplinarity itself, while being a term much cited in teaching and learning literature, has to date escaped attention - its meaning is more often unproblematically assumed than actively interrogated within innovative teaching and learning projects. By contrast, such active interrogation and consistent reflection have been structured into our innovation from its inception.

The risks and challenges of the approach, its further outcomes, and our (always tentative) conclusions about this ongoing project and its future directions will form the focus of our conference session.


Bowles, Gloria and Renate Duelli Klein (eds) (1983). Theories of Women's Studies. London: Routledge.

Brandes, Donna and Paul Ginnes (1986). A Guide to Student-Centred Learning. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Gunew, Sneja (ed.) (1990). Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct. London: Routledge.

Kockelmans, Joseph (ed.) (1979). Interdisciplinarity and Higher Education. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Please cite as: Long, J. and Grellier, J. (1998). Innovative Bridging: Understanding inter-disciplinarity through student-centred learning. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 166-170. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/long.html

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