Decoding the Disciplines arose from the realization that within each academic field there is a disciplinary unconscious — not the repressed unconscious of Freud, but rather the automatic processing that allows us to drive a car while thinking of quite different matters. Researchers, as a result, can concentrate on acquiring and interpreting historical evidence, while their brains automatically run through numerous moves below the level of consciousness. Teachers bring to the classroom, however, an expectation that students will be able to make these moves without being told to do so. This can be problematic, because processes that are so familiar to us that they are invisible may be precisely those that create bottlenecks to learning for our students. Moreover, because these moves were learned tacitly by the researchers themselves, they often find it difficult to articulate exactly what these operations are. It will be very difficult to fully share the richness of our disciplines with our students (and the public) without bringing these processes to the surface, but this requires a systematic deconstruction of disciplinary practice.

In the process of Decoding a Discipline three types of bottlenecks to learning may be unearthed: 1) procedural obstacles in which students have not mastered the steps that are necessary for successfully completing the tasks required in a course; 2) epistemological bottlenecks in which students fail to understand the basic nature of knowledge construction in a discipline; and 3) emotional bottlenecks in which students affective reaction to the nature of the discipline or of the subject matter hinders learning. In all cases the purpose of Decoding is to set in motion a series of steps (modeling, practice and feedback, motivation, and assessment) that will allow larger numbers of students to enter the learning process.