Step 1 — Identify a Bottleneck to Learning

Decoding the Disciplines begins by identifying a particular place in a course (or in a series of courses) where significant numbers of students are unable to adequate perform essential tasks.  It is generally better to be explicit about the nature of the problem and to focus on the task that students are unable to carry out.

Here are examples of productive and unproductive ways to complete this step:

1. English
Vague: Students cannot interpret texts.
Useful: “Students in literature classes have a particular problem in the basic approach to textual interpretation. Students forever want to go directly to interpreting a text without first getting a good grasp of a text’s content. They need to observe before they interpret, but they are constantly skipping a thoughtful observation stage. Skipping this stage leads to poor interpretations.” (This observation is specific enough and provides enough information that it can serve as a starting place for the analysis of the bottleneck.) Tony Ardizzone, Fritz Breithaupt, and Paul C. Gutjahr. 2004. “Decoding Humanities.” In Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking, (New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 98), 67-73, edited by David Pace and Joan Middendorf, 45-56.

2. Biology
Vague: Students have difficulty moving from fact learning to a deeper understanding of biological processes
Useful: Students have difficulty visualizing chromosomes, appreciating the distinction between similar and identical chromosomes (i.e., homologs and sister chromatids), and predicting their segregation patterns during mitosis and meiosis. Miriam Zolan, Susan Strome, and Roger Innes (2004). Decoding Genetics and Molecular Biology. In Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking, (New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 98), 67-73, edited by David Pace and Joan Middendorf, , 23-32.

It is important to focus on specific tasks that many students find difficult  and to avoid beginning with moral judgments (students just don’t care) or general cultural theories (electronic media are corrupting the learning process).  It is generally more productive to concentrate on the specific places where students get stuck and to try to understand the nature of the problem.  The obstacles to learning come in two varieties, and somewhat different strategies are needed to deal with each.

  • Cognitive Bottlenecks

In these situations students’ learning is blocked because they have failed to master particular mental operations.  To help them overcome these obstacles, it is necessary to first make explicit for oneself precisely what steps are necessary to complete the work that students find so difficult.  (Step 2 of the Decoding process)

  • Emotional Bottlenecks

In other cases students’ difficulties  revolve less around cognitive difficulties, than around the negative emotional reactions of students to either the processes of the course (e.g. students are upset that the work in this course does not match what they did in high school courses in the discipline) or to its subject matter (e.g. some of the findings in the discipline are at odds with things students were taught as they were growing up).  This second set of emotional bottlenecks will be dealt with in step 4 of the Decoding process.

Once the bottleneck has been clearly defined, it is necessary to systematically explore the nature of the problem.  In the case of cognitive bottlenecks this involves systematically making explicit the mental operations hat students must master to get past the bottleneck. (Step 2)  If the problem seems more emotional, one can proceed to Step 4 of Decoding in which the origins of such resistance to the learning process is examined.  In some cases there may be both cognitive and emotional bottlenecks to learning.