Step 5: Dealing with Emotional Bottlenecks

In developing Decoding the Disciplines we soon found that obstacles to learning were not limited to cognitive problems.  Even when a path had been opened for students to master the basic mental operations required for success in a course, emotional bottlenecks might still hamper learning.  It was, therefore, necessary for instructors to pay special attention to the emotional obstacles to learning, which might be creating problems for their students.  These obstacles come in three forms, and each needs its own response.

  • Lack of motivation — Many students can been conditioned to view academic work as a burden to be borne as little as possible.  For students to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by a Decoded course, they must be willing to make a certain level of commitment to the work required. The nature of Decoding does make this easier, since breaking down complex tasks into their component parts and modeling each can help students imagine success.  But it is, nonetheless, necessary to also develop strategies to encourage student involvement with the work of the course.  We have found that found that activities that disrupt student expectations for course and tasks that require them to make their work visible to a larger audience to be particularly effective.
  • Procedural Bottlenecks — Students sometimes have ideas about how one works in a discipline that are very different than what will be expected of them in our courses. This mismatch can produce emotional resistance to the required kinds of thinking and activities that hampers learning.  By directly engaging with these preconceptions, by explaining the nature of our disciplines, and by modeling the specific steps required for success, we can minimize the impact of this obstacles.
  • Narrative Bottlenecks — Sometimes the emotional resistance to learning emerges from the collision of students’ preconceptions of the subject matter of our courses and the ideas that they encounter in our course.  In such cases it is generally important to explore the kind of assumptions and mental process that support the preexisting beliefs and systematically provide students with alternative ways to deal with the topics at hand

Dealing with emotional bottlenecks is a complex undertaking, and we recommend that anyone who is interested in working in this area read the extended discussion of these issues in the forthcoming books on Decoding or Middendorf, et al, ““What’s feeling got to do with it? Decoding emotional bottlenecks in the history classroom.” But three general principles have informed the work on this subject:

  • It is generally best to deal with potentially dysfunctional emotions before they emerge as a visible problem
  • Emotional responses are rooted in particular cognitive ways of seeing the world, and it is often easier to make changes in the cognitive, rather than the emotional realm.
  • Many emotional bottlenecks result from a mismatch between student preconceptions of either the procedures or the subject matter of a course, and it is generally useful to find out about such ideas and to respond to them early on.