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 students imagine success more easily, when complex tasks are broken down into their component parts, and each of these is explicitly modeled (Step 2 and Step 3).  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 discover potential conflicts of this sort early in a course and to explore ways to bridge the differences between students’ expectations and the material in the course.

Dealing with emotional bottlenecks is a complex undertaking, and more work needs to be done in this area.  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.

Anyone who is interested in working in this area can read an extended discussion of these issues in these publications:

  • Middendorf, Joan, Jolanta Mickutė, Tara Saunders, José Najar, Andrew E Clark-Huckstep, David Pace, and with Keith Eberly and Nicole McGrath, “What’s feeling got to do with it? Decoding emotional bottlenecks in the history classroom,” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 14 (April 2015) pp.166-180.
  • Pace, David. The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm (2017) Indiana University Press (Chapter V)
  • Joan Middendorf and Leah Shopkow (2017) Decoding the Disciplines: How to Help Students Learn Critical Thinking
  • Pace, David, ““Controlled Fission: Teaching Supercharged Subjects,” College Teaching, Vol. 51 Issue 2 (Spring 2003), pp. 42-45.

Assessing Learning

 At each stage of the decoding process it is essential to monitor both the cognitive and emotional progress of students. Therefore Step 6 of Decoding focuses on assessing where students are through the course.