II. The University
8. Depth and Breadth of Understanding
Breadth of understanding is an expression of the ability to operate across disciplinary boundaries in a coherent and productive way, with principles drawn from different disciplines. Depth of understanding depends upon mastery of a body of knowledge, but it is not to be confused with knowledge, and is not necessarily commensurate with the number of courses taken in a subject.
Depth and breadth of understanding depend upon, and themselves contribute to, independence of thought; they contribute also to a love of learning. Possession of a historical perspective may be essential to a broad and deep understanding of a subject.
At the lowest level of experience, in courses introductory to a subject, students might be shown how sets of facts may be related to others both laterally and vertically (or hierarchically). The outcome of this might be simply consciousness, on the part of the student, of the possibilities of understanding, as distinct from simply knowing.
The next higher level moves from demonstration to the student of interrelationships to the development of the student's own ability to create interrelations. The experience provided will develop a creative imaginativeness skillfully exercised on a body of material mastered in some detail. But the experience, like that provided for independence of thought, goes beyond display of erudition, and requires alert curiosity and a refusal to be content with mere assemblage of data. At this level, the student should be expected to integrate knowledge and modes of interpretation and comprehension from different disciplines so as to generate a new understanding. The highest level takes the student to the ability to deal in abstractions, to generate abstractions.
In general, depth and breadth of understanding are characterized by the ability to recognize the implications of the information at hand and to put it into a broader context; and by the ability to draw upon different disciplines to provide a clearer and deeper understanding of the discipline with which the student is immediately concerned.
These outcomes might be assessed in a piece of written work such as an independent research paper, in the design of an experiment, in the identification and solution of a problem, or in a work of aesthetic creation.