Decoding the Disciplines begins by identifying a particular place in a course (or in a series of courses) where significant numbers of students are unable to adequate perform essential tasks.
It is generally better to be explicit about the nature of the problem and to focus on the task that students are unable to carry out. It is important to focus on specific tasks that many students find difficult and to avoid beginning with moral judgments (students just don’t care) or general cultural theories (electronic media are corrupting the learning process). It is generally more productive to concentrate on the specific places where students get stuck and to try to understand the nature of the problem. The obstacles to learning come in two varieties, and somewhat different strategies are needed to deal with each:
- Cognitive Bottlenecks. In these situations students’ learning is blocked because they have failed to master particular mental operations. To help them overcome these obstacles, it is necessary to first make explicit for oneself precisely what steps are necessary to complete the work that students find so difficult.
- Emotional Bottlenecks. In other cases students’ difficulties revolve less around cognitive difficulties, than around the negative emotional reactions of students to:
- the processes of the course (e.g. students are upset that the work in this course does not match what they did in high school courses in the discipline);
- the subject matter (e.g. some of the findings in the discipline are at odds with things students were taught as they were growing up).