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Linking the Disciplines and Achievement

Can interdisplinary studies improve academics?

In Great Britain, the times for Educational Supplement reported this year that four out of five primary schools plan to replace traditional subject teaching with interdisciplinary, themebased lessons, as recommended by the Royal Society of Arts' "Opening Minds" project. The objective of the project will sound familiar to U.S. educators-to prepare students for success in a global economy that demands sophisticated skills in handling information, people and situations. Interdisciplinary studies, the thinking goes, will better equip students to solve problems creatively and to deal with increasing complexity. Curriculum specialist Rebecca Burns concurs: "Integrated curriculum is the bridge to learning in the 21st century, and many educators now eagerly embrace it."

The Role of Integrated Curriculum

But can interdisciplinary studies improve academic achievement? This is the question U.S. educators have. It's a natural question to ponder in a standards-based, accountability-driven educational system.

When researcher Charlene Czerniak and associates reviewed the literature on integrated curriculum in 1999, they concluded that "few empirical studies exist to support the notion that an integrated curriculum is any better than a well-designed traditional curriculum." One possible reason for the lack of evidence, they said, is the lack of a clear definition for integrated curriculum and related terms such as interdisciplinary instruction. These terms can include a variety of approaches and can mean different things to different people.

In 2000, doctoral candidate Deborah Hartzler conducted a meta-analysis of 30 studies on integrated curriculum programs and their effects on student achievement. She found that students in integrated programs "consistently outperformed students in traditional classes on national standardized tests, on statewide testing programs, and on program-developed assessments."

Authors Susan Drake and Rebecca Burns cite additional support for the efficacy of integrated approaches in their 2004 book, Meeting Standards Through Integrated Curriculum. In a 1999 study, for example, one analysis of a database of 25,000 students showed a correlation between arts-integrated curricula and high levels of academic success. And sustained participation in music and theater was found to be highly correlated with success in reading and math, especially among low-income students. After reviewing several large-scale studies, Drake and Burns concluded that students in integrated approaches "do as well as, or better than, students in traditional programs."

Technical Education

Integrated approaches may enhance technical education programs as well. The National Research Center for Career and Technical Education recently reported on an experimental study in which 57 volunteer teachers in a career and technical education program were randomly assigned to an experimental group and 74 were assigned to a control group. The experimental teachers worked with math teachers to create and develop activities that integrated more math into the occupational curriculum.

After one year, students in the experimental group performed significantly better than those in the control group on two tests covering math ability-the TerraNova and ACCUPLACER. There was no negative impact on measures of occupational/technical knowledge (Stone et al., 2006).

Taken together, these findings suggest that integrated or interdisciplinary studies may have potential for increasing student learning. However, those who have examined the research caution that without a clear definition of curriculum integration, it is difficult to "flesh out" the effectiveness of its components. Also, when it comes to implementation, the devil's in the details. "One factor that comes through loud and clear is that curriculum integration takes time," says analyst Kathy Lake (2001). Potential pitfalls include inappropriate or ineffective use of integrated approaches, lack of planning for assessment of student learning, and poor alignment between instruction and standards. "Teachers should not force integration for the sake of integration," argue Lonning & DeFranco (1997). "There may be some things better taught separately.