Discuss the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinary research, which requires navigating differences in theoretical and methodological approaches, and recommend strategies for conducting this work.
Discipline-based education research (DBER) focuses on understanding learning within a particular domain, such as biology or computer science. It requires, at minimum, four types of expertise: expertise in the domain, expertise in learning within the domain, expertise in learning more generally (i.e., cognition, motivation, etc.), and expertise in social science research methodology. Many DBERers do not attempt to develop all of these areas of expertise by themselves (though there are some superheroes who can magically stay up-to-date in four fields simultaneously). Instead, they opt to work with other researchers with complementary areas of expertise. Within these teams, each researcher likely knows at least a little bit about each area, but does not need to be an expert in all of them. Popular team compositions include a discipline-based education researcher (i.e., a domain expert who focuses on education within that domain) and a learning scientist.
Learning sciences includes (not a typo) researchers in many fields who strive to understand learning and the effect of learning environments, such as educational psychologists, education researchers, and cognitive scientists. Learning scientists tend to focus on general theories of learning, motivation, and sociocultural factors and to use human-subjects research methodology and data analysis. Some learning scientists will specialize in a domain, but many focus on advancing a theory or framework and creating a bridge between theory and practice, which might not be restricted to one domain. Therefore, learning scientists and DBERers often have similar goals in a collaboration, but bring a different based of knowledge and skills to the work.
Challenges in Interdisciplinary Research
Collaboration within a field can be difficult as people attempt to reconcile different ideas towards one goal. Collaboration between fields, each with its own traditions in theory and methodology, can seem like a minefield. Below are some common challenges that DBERers and learning scientists face.
- Differences in hard and soft sciences – researchers in the hard sciences can often feel frustrated by the lack of predictability in human-subjects research, and researchers in social sciences can become frustrated when those in the hard sciences have unrealistic expectations or view research in the soft sciences as non-scientific.
- Differences in theories and frameworks – What constitutes a theory or framework can be different in different domains, confusing what is often a fundamental building block of research.
- Differences in research methodologies – those unfamiliar with human-subjects research can find its methodologies complex, varied, and full of uncertainty, and those who have endured countless hours of training in these methodologies can find it difficult to describe or justify methodological decisions in a concise way.
Strategies for Collaboration
In response to these challenges, Peffer and Renken make recommendations for strategies to overcome them. Engaging in these strategies might seem unproductive as they are devoting time to non-research activities, but the efficiency tradeoffs later in the research often outweigh upfront costs, especially if the project fails without them.
- Thoughtfully discuss team members’ perspective on science and set expectations for research.
- Engage in effortful discussions across disciplinary lines to identify and clarify differences (i.e., if you don’t understand something or it doesn’t sound right to you, speak up).
- Teach your teammates about various methodologies or recommend resources that briefly describe the foundations of methodologies (like Peffer and Renken’s paper)
- When planning interdisciplinary work, create well-defined roles in which researchers utilize their skill sets and perspectives to achieve group goals.
- Teach doctoral students to be successful in interdisciplinary collaborations.
Why this is important
Many collaborative research efforts fail because the team cannot effectively reconcile differences. This paper identifies common difficulties that teams face (you’re not alone!) and recommends strategies to deal with them. It is too easy to become silo-ed within a field, and there are too many benefits to interdisciplinary work. This paper helps us to recognize our differences so that we can overcome them.
Peffer, M., & Renken, M. (2016). Practical strategies for collaboration across discipline-based education research and the learning sciences. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 15(4), 1-10.
For more information about the article summary series or more article summary posts, visit the article summary series introduction.