Decoding the Disciplines

Decoding the Disciplines

Most instructors notice places in their courses where students find it difficult to learn. Decoding the Disciplines holds that these stuck places, or “bottlenecks” to learning, mark the important ways of knowing in a field. By “Decoding” what an expert does so that they do not get stuck at the bottleneck, we can spell out the expert’s mental process, the “critical thinking” of a discipline. Decoding the Disciplines is a theory of pedagogy with principles for identifying bottlenecks and decoding tacit disciplinary knowledge. With expert tacit knowledge “Decoded,” we can make it available to students.

A graphic showing the 7 steps of decoding in a circle, indication an iterative process

Where can you learn Decoding at IUB?

Every year CITL offers learning communities in which faculty can explore new ideas about teaching in community. Some of them use the Decoding the Disciplines framework. Also, several graduate pedagogy courses use Decoding the Disciplines method:  Mimi Zolan (Biology Z620: Mentored Teaching class); George Rehrey (CITL V621:SPEA’s Seminar on Teaching Public Affairs); Joan Middendorf (CITL HESA’s C750:Learning and Teaching on the College Campus--for graduate students from ALL disciplines)

What are bottlenecks and why do we care about them? Most anyone who has taught a college course more than once realizes that the learning does not proceed in a uniformly smooth fashion. We all encounter bottlenecks, places where the learning of a significant number of students is blocked.

We used to think these bottlenecks were simply conceptually difficult places. However, after encountering hundreds of them from many disciplines, we came to realize that that there are patterns to bottlenecks; they are red flags that signal where students need to be shown the “mental actions” that a specialist in the discipline uses.

By focusing our teaching energies on one or two bottlenecks, and really teaching to them, we will be helping students learn a few crucial mental actions so they can successfully operate in our discipline. We will no longer just focus on the content of our field, because they have shown us exactly where WE are doing something that is special and difficult and now all we have to do is to help them get through the bottleneck.

Examples of Bottlenecks—Students find it difficult to…

  • Analyze a primary source (history) or data (geology, biology, social sciences)
  • Visualize molecular processes (chemistry, biology) or political processes (political science, public affairs)
  • Read and interpret a graph (physics, economics, statistics, biology,…)

Experts often perform disciplinary “critical thinking” tacitly and implicitly. They may be naturally good at their disciplinary mental actions, which means it can be difficult for them to describe how they do it. Step 2 Decoding aims to uncover not the inert content of a course—something experts can easily explain—but instead to grasp the mental process faculty experts rely on to operate within their field. Over time alternate strategies for making implicit disciplinary reasoning explicit have been developed, and a wide range of methods is now available to scholars, such as the classic 2-on-1 decoding interview, fishbowl interviews, the self-guided “bottleneck” writing tour, rubric decoding, and analogy decoding, to name a few.

Having identified the bottleneck in Step 1 and “Decoded” the expert critical thinking in Step 2 of Decoding the Disciplines, in Step 3 we model the mental action for students. Modeling can take place in or outside the classroom—it is the “lecture” step. Lecturing by itself, is useful for conveying information, but is considered lower order thinking according to Bloom’s taxonomy-- students simply have to remember facts.

Lecture time is more effective when used to model the kinds of thinking the instructor wants students to engage in. Instead of just walking the students through an example, such as analyzing a text or showing them how to solve a problem, the modeling lecture provides an analogy for the kind of reasoning used on the example as well as commentary about how-to-think about the content, not just the example.

Analogies (and metaphors) are useful in lectures to model disciplinary thinking, especially when students are struggling with a concept. Analogies are powerful because they can connect unfamiliar concepts with existing knowledge in a way that students will understand and remember. The best analogies are chosen from outside the discipline, and are based on something that is already familiar to the students; the more vivid and concrete, the better. After providing the analogy, the instructor gives a within-the-discipline example, pointing out where their attention is focused. The analogy shows the students which “mental muscles” to use, while the meta-commentary explains the why and how of the instructor’s reasoning.

With training, inexperienced instructors can teach a college class as well as or better than longtime professors who rely on content-based lectures. Some research has shown gains in up to twice the learning when content coverage is moved outside the classroom, with the in-class time used for deliberate student practice at thinking scientifically, such as making and testing predictions and arguments, solving problems, and critiquing the reasoning of themselves and others (Deslauriers, Schelew, Weiman, 2011).

The videos linked to below, provide two examples of professors using analogies in their lectures to help their students make conceptual leaps.

1. Watch for the analogy about marriage Professor Tony Ardizzone (Creative Writing) uses to model how to pick just the right word for a poem. Then he gives a within-the-discipline example along with meta-commentary to show the critical parts of writing a poem.

2. Professor Leah Shopkow (History) created a metaphor from cooking to show students how to get the right balance of explanation and evidence for their historical writing. Students referred to the metaphor throughout the rest of the semester.

Having Decoded the mental process of the expert at Step 2 and modeled it for students at Step 3, the students need practice in order to try out and reinforce new ways of reasoning. There are so many teaching methods—how can we choose which one will best structure student practice efforts? By analyzing the type of reasoning entailed, we can match that type of reasoning with teaching methods that structures that kind of reasoning. The table below shows types of reasoning (adapted from Bloom’s taxonomy) and some teaching methods that produce that kind of reasoning.

Type of Reasoning


Remembering (Reproducing)

Flash cards, mnemonics, quizzes

Understanding (Paraphrasing)

Graphic organizers, discussion

Applying (Solving)

Worked-out problems, role playing

Evaluating (Judging)

Peer evaluation, rate products

Analyzing (Dissecting)

Interpreting a data set

Creating (Producing)

Develop a…game, proposal, process, experiment

How can instructors ensure that students come to class with course assignments prepared and readings completed? Students often ignore traditional assignments, such as “read the text” or “write a question based on the reading” because these neither structure analytic processes nor hold students accountable. Experience has taught many students that they will do “just fine” in courses where they do not complete such assignments. Some students will put forth little effort for assignments that only the instructor will see; the “private shame” of such assignments is not leverage enough. According to research findings of IUB faculty and staff, the more assignments are structured to be authentic, public, and facilitative of peer interaction, the more likely students will be to complete them (Shopkow, Diaz, Pace, and Middendorf, submitted).

Two methods (along with their many variations) for holding students publicly accountable are described below: Team-Based Learning and Just-in-Time Teaching.

Team-Based Learning (TBL)

In Michaelsen’s TBL students study course content outside of class in preparation for an in-class quiz that they take individually. After the individual quiz, the students repeat the quiz as a team. (Michaelsen, Knight and Fink, 2004). Quizzes may be recorded on scratch-off forms, available at the CITL, or by using simple on-line quizzing (e.g., Test & Surveys tool in Oncourse) with results immediately available. Performance on the quizzes can bring positive peer pressure for group members to contribute. With the course content addressed, the majority of in-class time can be devoted to deliberate student practice of concept application, such as making and testing predictions and arguments, solving problems, and critiquing reasoning. In order to further reflection on teamwork, team members evaluate each other’s efforts several times over the semester. Alternatively, the TBL method may be combined with Just-in-Time Teaching as the method for structuring student preparation. For more information, see the CITL resource on TBL.

Just-in-Time Teaching (JiTT)

Just-in-Time Teaching depends upon instructors being able to review some type of student assignment a short time (usually just a few hours) before class (Novak, 2011). These assignments, called warm-ups, are typically short web-based exercises that help the instructor to identify potential student difficulties in time to address them in the upcoming class. Using the Oncourse Tests & Surveys tool is an effective way to deliver the warm-up activities and to collect student responses; responses can also be collected in Google Survey. To reduce the time spent on grading, instructors can simply assign them a binary score indicating whether the assignment was acceptable.

JiTT also shapes classroom time. The instructor may display and discuss representative student responses to reinforce a point; students may be required to print their feedback page and bring it to class for collaboration and combination within their teams; teams may compare responses, thereby building a natural platform for inter-team competition. Whatever the technique, JiTT allows the instructor to focus class time on concepts that are problematic or particularly challenging to students. In-class practice is more efficient for them, and students see the benefit of class time because they learn how to perform the crucial skill or process.

Who Is Doing This at IUB?

In this video Prof. Leah Shopkow (History) describes her methods for holding students accountable, including designing assignments to engage students, getting students to read, structuring peer review of team work, and applying all of this to large classes.

Students in Prof. Shopkow’s classes describe the effects of her methods on their motivation to come to class and to come to class prepared.

Brian D’Onofrio (Psychological and Brain Sciencesuses JiTT to ensure his students come to class prepared.

The purpose of assessment at the classroom level is to check student understanding—what are they getting and what they are not getting? Having modeled the specific mental move we want students to learn and given them practice at it, in Step 6 Assessment of Decoding The Disciplines, we want to check if they have mastered it.  When planning assessments, keep the following in mind

  1. Only focus on one or two operations at a time. (Later, once students have mastered a set of constituent skills, will be the time to ask them to synthesize a set of skills.)
  2. Think of structures for small, focused assessment to reveal student efforts on particular mental actions. Classroom assessment techniques (CATS, Angelo & Cross, 1993) can be very useful for this. For example, before law students can analyze a case, they need to be able identify all of the critical facts, the procedural concepts, and legal standards that apply. With CAT #8, Categorizing Grid, at a glance the instructor (and student) can see if anything is missing from the grid: critical facts, procedural concepts, and legal standards.
  3. Pre- and post-tests assess learning before and after a lesson, early and late in a module, or after repeated practice. Pre- and post-tests allow us to see a change in the skill (and usually, where students may need further instruction or practice).
  4. Occasionally ask a reflective question to get students to become more strategic about their learning. After a content question, ask them, why do you say that? Or ask them to give their reasons and evidence for a statement. When assigning a problem set, ask them to describe their reasoning for the steps they took as well as working out the answer, Documented Problem Solutions CAT #21.  In the law example above, the students might also be asked, what did you find most difficult in completing this grid? What makes you say that?”

Frequent use of classroom assessments can create a feedback loop that provides insights to student thinking and can make student learning difficulties clear to instructor and students.

Once we have identified bottlenecks where students get stuck, uncovered the tacit critical thinking of the expert, we can then help students through the bottleneck through modeling, practice, and motivation—all the Step 1-6 of Decoding the Discipline. At Step 7, we consider the many ways to share the results of our “decoding” efforts. 

Teaching in community is one way to share; communities of practice can provide many insights and much support. CITL leads several faculty learning communities each year (link to FLC’s page), some of which use the Decoding the Disciplines framework.

Faculty can share in other ways, from discussing assessment results with a colleague in the next office, to leading a departmental meeting on teaching, to writing a textbook.

Some faculty turn their Step 6 assessments into research on teaching and learning, going public with what they have learned from their Decoding efforts—the bottlenecks or ways of reasoning in their field, useful analogies, all supported by evidence. Having committed to a deadline for a chapter or to present at a conference requires us to pull it all together, in the process of which we often gain new insights.

Kennesaw State University's teaching center keeps a directory of all Teaching Journals and Teaching Conferences


Angelo, T., & Cross, P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., Weiman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science (New York, N.Y.), 332 (6031), 862-4 PMID: 21566198.

Lahm, S. & Kaduk, S. (2016). Essay on Decoding the Disciplines as a starting point for research-based teaching and learning. (Mieg , H.A.; Lehmann, J., eds.) Learning through Research: A Practical Handbook. FHP -Verlag.

Michaelsen, Larry; Knight, Arletta Bauman; and Fink, L. Dee (2004). Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Miami: Stylus.

Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (accepted). Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks: Decode Your Disciplinary Critical Thinking. Stylus: Sterling, VA.

Miller-Young, J., & Boman, J. (2017). Uncovering ways of thinking, practicing and being through decoding across disciplines. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 148.

Novak, G. (2011). Just-in-Time Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, (128) p. 63-73, Wiley Online Library DOI: 10.1002/tl.469.

Pace, D. (2017). The Decoding Paradigm. Indiana University Press.

Pace, D., & Middendorf, J., Eds. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Shopkow, L., Diaz, A., Middendorf, J., & Pace, D. (2013). From bottlenecks to epistemology: Changing the conversation about the teaching of history in colleges and Universities. In R. Thompson (ed.), Changing the Conversation of Higher Education. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.