Big Ideas, Authentic Learning

Featured Instructors:

Meena Khandelwal, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology and gender, women's, and sexuality studies 

Cornelia Lang, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and astronomy
Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy


Use thematic course design to promote students’ interdisciplinary curiosity.


  • Encourages students’ curiosity
  • Improves student-instructor connection
  • Invigorates faculty’s teaching and scholarship


Cornelia Lang and Meena Khandelwal describe how they each spearheaded a team-taught, multi-disciplinary course.  Big Ideas courses are general education, active-learning courses for about 80 undergraduates centered around thematic content and co-taught by multiple professors from different relevant disciplines.

Authentic Learning: Details & Examples

The first “Big Ideas” course originated with the astronomy course “Life in the Universe,” which explored the origins of the Universe and the formation of the solar system.  The instructors realized the course would benefit from experts in other fields who contribute information about DNA and early forms of life on Earth. Led by Cornelia Lang, The Origins of Life in the Universe is a two-semester course taught by 4 to 5 instructors each semester. The instructors are professors of:

  • Anthropology (Russell L. Ciochon and Robert G.  Franciscus),
  • Astronomy (Lead Instructor Cornelia Lang and Robert L. Mutel),
  • Biology (Andrew Forbes and John Logsdon),
  • Earth and Environmental Science (David Peate, Christopher Brochu, and Ann Budd), and
  • Rhetoric - Honors Section (Matt Gilchrist).

Instructor Meena Khandelwal working with students during class.
Meena Khandelwal’s course, “People and the Environment: Technology, Culture, and Social Justice” emerged from an interdisciplinary faculty group researching the intersections of engineering and cultural questions in the introduction of solar cookers in India.  The one-semester course is taught by Professors of 
  • Anthropology (Lead Instructor Meena Khandelwal and Matthew E. Hill),
  • Geography and Sustainability Sciences (Marc Linderman),
  • Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (H.S. Udaykumar), and
  • Urban and Regional Planning (Jerry Anthony).

The experiences of Lang and Khandelwal corroborate scholarly writing that highlights how interdisciplinary team-teaching with an active-learning focus benefits both students and faculty:

  • Students are able to work closely with several experts in a variety of fields.  
  • Additional faculty can help to identify and overcome disciplinary “bottlenecks” – aspects of a discipline that are particularly difficult for novices. 
  • Students develop an intrinsic interest in new fields and seek out additional courses in disciplines they first encountered in a Big Ideas course.
  • Since the class meetings are planned and attended by all instructors, faculty members improve their teaching through peer mentoring.  
  • Faculty members report their own professional development – in both teaching and research – is enhanced through discussions about Big Ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries.

Authentic Learning: Best Practices

Big Ideas faculty members choose one faculty member to take on the role of course director, organizing the instructors, performing a final vetting of the syllabus, and serving as a point person for dealing with administrative concerns.  

During the course, faculty found it helpful to meet on a weekly basis to bring together their perspectives on students’ learning and course goals.

Using a wiki or a dropbox can conveniently organize ideas about the course in both the planning and the implementation stages.

It may be advantageous to choose faculty members not only for their expertise, but also according to whether they are at a stage in their careers where they can take on this kid of course.

Students may be less anxious about the course if the faculty clarify who will be doing the grading and how students should direct their individual questions. It may be useful to explain that the instructors confer as a team on a regular basis.

Rubrics can ensure that grading reflects shared disciplinary and individual priorities. Sharing the rubrics with the students can help them to grasp the learning objectives of the assignments.

Faculty with different disciplinary backgrounds can design a syllabus satisfactory to all by using Backward Course Design, a process by which instructors first identify learning goals and then determine assessments, reading assignments, and in-class activities that will guide students to fuller understanding.

Labs and other projects can require students to synthesize disciplinary conclusions. 

I was in your People & the Environment course last semester and I wanted to let you know how much it has altered my critical thinking-- for the better….Today [I thought again about] Rajasthan, the Green Revolution, industrialized agriculture around the world. I thought about the environmental impact each of these subsistence methods had. I imagined what gender roles you might find in each society. I speculated about how their methods affected their diet, such an integrated part of culture. Lastly, I thought about how the government felt about each method. 

I doubt this depth of thinking would have happened without the help of your class and I wanted to thank you and let you know that all your hard work (it was evident how much you all put into the course) is much appreciated. 

-A former Big Ideas student

One of the benefits of the Big Ideas courses is that instructors are able to explain as well as model intellectual discourse.  They ask questions and build on each other’s expertise in a way that invites students into the conversation.

Student motivation can be boosted through frank discussions about the pedagogical motivations behind interdisciplinary, collaborative, and active learning. 

Students may require help understanding how individual lesson plans fit into the broader goals of the course, and recognizing various disciplinary perspectives as distinct, but cohesive.  In “Origins of Life in the Universe,” instructors created a timeline that depicts the 14 billion years of history covered by the course.  Each day the instructors begin by showing students where the day’s material will fall on the timeline.

The Big Ideas faculty have found that these courses benefit from meeting in TILE active-learning classrooms, which are equipped with circular tables, laptops, flat screen monitors, multiple projectors, and white boards that encourage and support collaborative and engaged learning.

Step 1. Find out about your students

Who Are My Students?

  • MAUI  can help you learn more about your students.
  • Your Department chair and other faculty members who have previously taught the course are an excellent source of information about the students who enroll in this course and strategies for teaching them.

Will your students be relying on your course as a pre-requisite, or to prepare them for a standardized exam?

What is the nature of the class?  How many students are first-generation college students?  Non-majors?  Upper-level?  Is the course a requirement or an elective?

Jot down your ideas and questions.


Authentic Learning: Bibliography & Related Content


Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A. B. & Fink, L. D., eds. (2002) Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Pace, D. & Middendorf, J. (2004) Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking. New Directors for Teaching and Learning, 98. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.    

Plank, K. M. (2011) Team Teaching: Across the Disciplines: Across the Academy. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.   

Rives-East, D. & Lima, O. K. (2013) Designing Interdisciplinary Science/Humanities Courses: Challenges and Solutions. College Teaching, 61(3): 100-106.

Sweet, M. & Michaelsen, L. K. (2012) Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005) Understanding by Design, 2nd ed.  Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

Related Content

The University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies encourages innovation, cross-disciplinary and collaborative scholarship and teaching, and engagement with local and global communities. The instructors of “People & the Environment” first worked together as part of an Obermann Working Group.  

Group Work -- Explore the pedagogical benefits of collaborative learning and get advice on setting up groups, designing effective assignments, grading, promoting student buy-in for group work, and more.


Obermann Center for Advanced Studies
​The University of Iowa Obermann Center for Advanced Studies encourages innovation, cross-disciplinary and collaborative scholarship and teaching, and engagement with local and global communities.