Inter-disciplinary teaching and learning – social work and occupational therapy – some reflections

Dr Simone McCaughren is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College Dublin

I commenced employment with Trinity in October 2020, having worked as an academic in University College Cork for 18 years. What a better time to move to a new university (albeit in my home city) than during the Covid 19 pandemic! I have a particular interest in interdisciplinary teaching and learning (IDTL) and for years have been co-teaching social work and law students with a colleague from the School of Law. More recently I piloted a practice skills-based module where I liaised with a colleague from the School of Nursing in co-designing a series of simulated practice scenarios where social work and nursing students engaged in recorded role-plays.

There are several definitions as to what constitutes IDTL and in its truest form “interprofessional education involves educators and learners from 2 or more health professions and their foundational disciplines who jointly create and foster a collaborative learning environment. The goal of these efforts is to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes that result in interprofessional team behaviors and competence” (Buring et al, 2019, p. 2).

One of the first modules that I was given to teach when I joined Trinity was Social Work for Interdisciplinary Practice. Given that the module had to be taught online I seized the opportunity to approach colleagues across college as the online delivery meant that we could overcome some of the obstacles often associated with IDTL, the logistical challenges. Timetabling issues and room capacity considerations didn’t matter in the virtual world. I contacted colleagues in the discipline of Occupational Therapy and put my proposal to them and together we agreed on some objectives for our joint teaching. It was our hope that students would have the opportunity to learn with and from one another in exploring their own professional role and the role of the other profession in relation to theirs: to identify overlap, similarities and differences between social work and occupational therapy roles; to explore common goals for intervention through a case study; and gain an appreciation for the contribution of each of the healthcare professions. The session ran for a full-day and there were more than 70 students. The breakout rooms were used for ice-breaker exercises that addressed professional stereotyping that was approached in a fun and creative way. Then the students moved into breakout rooms to consider a practice scenario relevant to both disciplines but where students had an opportunity to view it through more than one lens.

We are all guilty of working in our silos and we are all busy trying to juggle the demands of academic life. Interdisciplinary teaching and learning requires reaching out to other colleagues and at the very least exploring the possibilities of collaborative interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Drawing on some reflections from this and previous IDTL endeavours the advice I would have is as follows: get it ‘RITE’! Take risks and challenge yourself as an educator. Adopt an inclusive approach where students become part of a new approach to teaching and learning that includes an ongoing process of student feedback. Transdisciplinary connectedness – reach out to colleagues in other Schools. There are mutual benefits in working together towards common goals. Experiential student-led learning leads to more empowerment for students in the learning process.

There is no doubt that IDTL is time-consuming and requires a commitment and buy-in from colleagues as well as students. However, student feedback was overwhelmingly positive and colleagues remarked on how beneficial the session was for both groups of students, allowing them the opportunity to share their knowledge and expertise in a comfortable environment. Perhaps with the advent of more online learning and teaching strategies, some of the barriers traditionally associated with IDTL can be overcome. We have the opportunity now to embrace technology in advancing and breaking down the professional silos and overcoming logistical timetabling issues that can now be digitally defeated. Rather than push against some of the barriers that technology-enhanced learning can provide, perhaps we should look at how we can enhance student learning by developing new and innovative interdisciplinary learning activities.

Buring SM, Bhushan A, Broeseker A, Conway S, Duncan-Hewitt W, Hansen L, Westberg S. (2009). Interprofessional education: definitions, student competencies, and guidelines for implementation. Am J Pharm Educ. 2009 Jul 10;73(4):59. doi: 10.5688/aj730459. PMID: 19657492; PMCID: PMC2720355.