Creating Cultures of Collaborative and Innovative Scholarship: The Case of Decoding the Disciplines

Peter Riegler, Leslie Cameron, Jared McBrady, and David Pace

ISSOTL Conference — Thursday, October 28

(Also available at


            Scholars of teaching and learning in more than 15 countries are now using Decoding the Disciplines as a framework for reaching more of their students. They begin by focusing on places where many students are having difficulty doing essential tasks in a course and then seek to make explicit just what they must do to get past these bottlenecks to learning. Teachers typically take part in an interview process that reveals the steps that students need to master to succeed in particular courses.




Decoding emerged from 3 assumptions

  1. That is often wise to focus on places where students get stuck (i.e. bottlenecks to learning)
  2. That we need to explicitly show students what they need to do to get past crucial bottlenecks
  3. That many of the crucial steps are so automatic to teachers that they are not taught

From these assumptions, a seven-stage process for increasing student learning emerged. The box below captures the essence of the process, although the steps need not always be pursued in this precise order.




Stage 1

Instructors identify “bottlenecks” – places where students got stuck in class

Stage 2

Instructors make explicit the steps that students must follow to get past the bottleneck.

Stage 3

Instructors model for their students the steps the steps that they must master to get past the bottleneck/

Stage 4

Instructors plan ways that students can practice those tasks and receive feedback

Stage 5

Instructors counter emotional bottlenecks that might interfere with this process.

Stage 6

Instructors plan how to assess student learning

Stage 7

Instructors to share this work and what they have learned with a larger community


            As noted above, Stage 2 of this process (making explicit the steps that students must follow to get past the bottleneck) often involves making explicit those disciplinary processes that have become so automatic for professionals in the field that they are no longer conscious of them. Therefore, in order to make us more aware of the steps that students need to master to overcome bottlenecks to learning, we have created an interview process that assists faculty in this process. (See appendix 2 below).


            As Decoding has spread across the globe, practitioners have become increasingly aware that the Decoding interview process has a highly valuable secondary effect – it can provide a powerful tool from bringing groups of faculty together or even for helping students themselves understand how to success in a discipline. This will be the focus of our session today.


            If you would like to know more about Decoding the Disciplines, we have included ways to access resources in appendix 1 below.


Appendix 1 – Decoding Resources

 If you are interested in exploring Decoding more deeply . . .


  • Read general introductions to Decoding
  • The original (2004) introduction to the field
    • David Pace and Joan Middendorf, Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking (New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 98 (Fall 2004)
  • Two more recent introductions to Decoding
    • David Pace, The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm
    • Joan Middendorf and Leah Shopkow, Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks
  • A collection of articles on Decoding that provides a fine picture of how the approach can be used to facilitate communication among faculty
    • Janice Miller-Young and Jennifer Boman, eds. Using the Decoding the Disciplines Framework for Learning Across Disciplines, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 150. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
  • A survey of the development and diversification of Decoding since 2004


  • Visit the Decoding the Disciplines website (
    • To access the Decoding website for an extensive bibliograph and other resources
    • To join the Decoding the Disciplines list serve and network with others using the approach.
  • Create a Decoding faculty community in which you can exchange interviews and brainstorm how to use the approach to transform your teaching.




Appendix 2 – The Decoding Interview


Making explicit the steps need to master to get past the bottleneck can be a complex task. To aid in the process, we have created an interview process in which teachers are pressed to describe how they would go about completing the task that is difficult for many students. Initially, interviewees often offer superficial responses or respond as if they are speaking to someone who already knows what to do. The interviewers need to ask probing questions to help the interviewees uncover and make explicit their tacit knowledge and mental actions used. In short, interviewers need to find out the mental “tools” interviewees use.


Here are some steps for interviewers to consider:


1.     Ask interviewees to start from a specific, recent example when many students encountered a bottleneck. Then ask, “If you were faced with this task, what would you do?”

2.     Imagine yourself doing what they describe. Are crucial steps being left out?

3.     Ask questions where you don’t understand. Probe where the interviewees cannot fully explain.

4.     Summarize what the interviewees say, Restate their points.

5.     Reassure interviewees that it is okay to not be able to immediately explain their tacit knowledge.

6.     Gently redirect if the interviewees talk about how they teach their students, how they learned it, or if they launch into a lecture.


If interviewees seem stuck, interviewers might try the following additional questions, as appropriate:


1.     How do you do that?

2.     What does that tell you?

3.     What information are you getting from that?

4.     How do you know where to focus first?

5.     Why is doing that important?

6.     What do you do next? How does what you did before influence what you do next?

7.     Are you asking a set of predetermined questions (based on some unmentioned heuristic[1])? What are the questions?

8.     Do you choose an option (or strategy) from among several possibiles alternatives? If so, how did you know which to choose and which to leave out?


Key Points:

  1. Confusion. As an interviewer you should not pretend to understand and skip over parts where you feel confused. When you feel confusion, you need to ask more probing questions to reveal the assumptions the interviewee is skipping over.
  2. Digressions. You should try to avoid being sidetracked by digressions. Gently redirect interviews if the interviewees begin to digress into how they would teach students, or how they learned it, or if they launch into lectures.
  3. Interviewee’s comfort level. Notice if the interviewees get uncomfortable from continued probing. The interviewees’ discomfort is a signal that you have arrived at tacit knowledge that is difficult to put into words. Reassure them that their responses are appropriate but continue to probe at this point.
  4. Reassurance. Continually provide reassurance to the interviewees. Let them know that it is often hard to put into words exactly what they do, and they are doing a great job in the interview.
  5. Working through silence. When you encounter silence, rephrase the question, or ask a different question.

Note: Joan Middendorf has developed important alternatives to the decoding interview that involve the use of metaphors, analogies, mind maps, and rubrics in situations where a full interview (Middendorf and Shopkow. 2018. Decoding the Disciplines: How to Help Students Learn Critical Thinking. Sterling: Stylus, 39-48, 59-63.

[1] mental shortcuts used to make thinking quicker and easier