An undergraduate education is traditionally supposed to provide students with both breadth and depth of knowledge, which derive from their general-education requirements and major, respectively.
Increasingly, education experts also want students to develop a third skill, integrative thinking. It entails learning the deeper, underlying meaning of a discipline, making connections across courses and subjects, and applying different intellectual perspectives. Even better, some researchers say, is creative thinking, in which students master multiple disciplinary approaches to generate fresh and original ideas.
Students who major in two fields are more apt than their single-majoring peers to think both integratively and creatively, according to a new study. But they achieve those goals largely on their own, often despite the obstacles put in their way by academe.
"Double majors give students the opportunity to build bridges between domains of knowledge, and many students travel those bridges regularly," said Steven J. Tepper, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and a co-author of "Double Majors: Influences, Identities, and Impacts," a report describing the study. The report was published on Friday by the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt, and was supported by the Teagle Foundation.
The combinations of majors among students in the study varied widely. Most paired a social science with either a science, a humanities, or an arts discipline.
About one-third stuck to the same domain of knowledge: two arts disciplines, two in the humanities, two in the physical sciences, or two in the social sciences. The researchers dubbed students in that group "deepeners" because their two majors allowed them to hyper-specialize in one domain.
About 10 percent of students were what the researchers called "spanners" or "Renaissance students." They majored in one natural or physical science and one arts or humanities discipline, allowing them to bridge the furthest intellectual distance.
The combinations of majors also produced different effects on learning.
The deepeners were the most adept at integrating knowledge, Mr. Pitt and Mr. Tepper found. About 80 percent of them reported that their teachers encouraged them to apply material across majors, that they had completed an assignment for one major that could be reworked for the other, and that they could think of an assignment that drew on both majors.The spanners were able to integrate nearly as well as the deepeners. But they were also most likely to report being able to think differently and approach assignments more creatively.
"I'm never stuck in one frame of mind because I'm always switching back and forth between the two," said a student named Richard, a theater and physics major, who is quoted in the study. "Whenever I am thinking about ways to do things, I never only think of what I learned in the class earlier that day because I had two completely separate and different classes to draw on."
While integrative thinking is important, creativity is even more valuable, the researchers said.
Mr. Tepper, who stuidies creativity, said the ability to see connections between very disparate methodologies and ways of knowing allows students to generate new ideas and novel theories.
Students often develop such abilities despite cultural and structural obstacles in academe. Even on campuses with interdisciplinary departments or centers, the researchers wrote, faculty members can often be chauvinistic about their discipline, slow to see connections between the fields in which their students are majoring, or unwilling to let students experiment.
"It's not like my business or econ teachers will bring up specific things about the Chinese and U.S. market," said Hannah, who is double majoring in Chinese and business. "When it comes to tying them together, it is just me doing it on my own."
Another student, Sara, said her biology adviser seemed to make assumptions about her abilities that she ascribed to the professor's dismissiveness of her other major, art history. "Scientifically, I am just as capable as everyone else in the lab; but I am always the one given the more fluffy jobs," she said. "They don't really know how to deal with me."Modest Recommendations
After sharing the study's results with deans and faculty members on participating campuses, Mr. Pitt said he had come to appreciate how much timing matters. It is not until students are in their junior or senior year that they start to develop expertise in a subject. Asking them to draw connections between disciplines too soon is a risk. "We don't want to confuse our students who are just learning the material," he said.
The cognitive benefits of double majoring could be enhanced with fairly minor modifications, the researchers wrote in their recommendations. For instance, students should be required to articulate the reasons they are double majoring and reflect on how their majors relate. Faculty members in each major should jointly supervise a student's capstone project, independent study, or thesis. Professors could also help students "cross-pollinate" their classrooms by asking them during discussions to apply what they learned from their other discipline.
Implicit in the study's findings is also a disquieting critique, said Mr. Pitt. Students who double major tend to excel academically and be highly engaged in extracurricular and social activities. Perhaps such results suggest that majors are not as rigorous as faculty members think they are.
"Elite schools are supposed to be more challenging," he said, yet the double majors he and Mr. Tepper studied were able to finish their programs "with a higher GPA and with higher levels of student engagement. How is that even possible?"
Double Majors Produce Dynamic Thinkers, Study Finds - Faculty - The Chronicle of Higher Education