Using the Decoding the Disciplines model, faculty who
are deeply ingrained in their disciplinary research
answer a series of questions to understand how students
think and learn in their ﬁeld. The cross-disciplinary
nature of the process clariﬁes the thinking for each
NEW DIRECTIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING, no. 98, Summer 2004 © Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 1
Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for
Helping Students Learn Disciplinary
Ways of Thinking
Joan Middendorf, David Pace
In the last twenty years, the call for faculty members to focus on critical
thinking has led to a laudable effort on the part of faculty members and
teaching support professionals to move the focus of courses to the higher
levels of Bloom’s (1956) classiﬁcation of learning behaviors. But efforts to
help students learn at the levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation may
be impeded by a mismatch between the kinds of thinking actually required
in speciﬁc classes and generic formulas for encouraging higher-order think-
ing. In fact, the notion of a uniﬁed “critical thinking” runs counter to an
important strand in current thinking about teaching that stresses the disci-
plinary nature of knowledge.
Critical Thinking and the Disciplines
In the last twenty years, a number of major researchers have stressed the
importance of shaping instruction to match the speciﬁc conditions of each
academic ﬁeld. In his 1986 inaugural address as president of the American
Educational Research Association, Lee Shulman argued that whereas teacher
training had been dominated by a focus on mastering disciplinary content
We want to thank Ray Smith, Jennifer Robinson, the fellows of the Indiana University
Faculty Learning Community, the staff of Instructional Support Services, the Dean of
Faculties Ofﬁce, and the Lilly foundation for the generous support that made this proj-
2DECODING THE DISCIPLINES
in the nineteenth century and on assimilating generic educational theory in
the ﬁrst three quarters of the twentieth century, attention should be hence-
forth expanded to the study of learning in the particular contexts created
by speciﬁc disciplines (Shulman, 1987). In the same period, other scholars
were developing the notion of “cognitive apprenticeship” in which the pro-
cess of learning an academic discipline was compared with learning to func-
tion in a foreign culture (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989). And in the
1990s, the importance of the differences among disciplines was made even
clearer by Tobias, who observed the difﬁculties that even intelligent and
highly trained instructors and graduate students faced when they were
transplanted into undergraduate courses far removed from their own spe-
cialties (Tobias, 1992–1993).
Two different but important approaches have made progress in under-
standing the way knowledge is structured and how experts think in speciﬁc
disciplines. Donald (2002) represents higher-order thinking in several dis-
ciplines to show how faculty and students perceive the learning pro-
cess, while the Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning
(Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000) links the scientiﬁc study of think-
ing and learning to classroom practices. Even though their approaches dif-
fer, both reach the conclusion that disciplines need to be more involved in
the research on how people think and how students learn. Donald states,
“There is a substantial convergence in the need for deeper understanding of
the disciplines. The continuing challenge is how to draw on the expertise
of scholars to improve post-secondary education” (2002, p. 299). Thus, we
have only begun to understand what kind of thinking goes on in differ-
ent disciplines, nor do we know the similarities and differences across the
This concern with the disciplinary nature of learning has been one of
the primary motivations for the development of a scholarship of teaching
and learning in which faculty from across universities make contributions
to pedagogical literature (Hutchings and Shulman, 1999; Huber and
Morreale, 2002). Many of the essays in this volume are examples of this
kind of extension of the responsibility for thinking and writing about teach-
ing and learning.
The contributors in this volume are from ﬁelds as diverse as creative
writing, marketing, and genetics. They have a deep understanding of the
content of their disciplines, and now they want to understand how students
learn this content. Their chapters show faculty in the disciplines doing this
kind of work and provide what we have named “Decoding the Disciplines,”
a process for getting them deeply into the speciﬁcs of thinking and learning
in their disciplines.
But these efforts did not begin as an endeavor to stimulate such schol-
arship. Instead, they emerged from an attempt to bridge the gap between the
marvelous strategies for increasing learning that have emerged from educa-
tional research in the past several decades and the concrete experiences
HELPING STUDENTS LEARN DISCIPLINARY WAYS OF THINKING 3
of faculty trying to help students master speciﬁc material in particular
The story of how the Decoding the Disciplines model is used in the
Indiana University Faculty Learning Community (IUFLC) will be left until
Chapter Ten. For now, sufﬁce to say that each year ten to twelve faculty
from across the disciplines participate in a two-week seminar in which they
practice new teaching strategies and serve as students for each other. The
IUFLC arose from a strong realization that the mental operations required
of undergraduates differ enormously from discipline to discipline, that these
ways of thinking are rarely presented to students explicitly, that students
generally lack an opportunity to practice and receive feedback on particu-
lar skills in isolation from others, and that there is rarely a systematic assess-
ment of the extent to which students have mastered each of the ways of
thinking that are essential to particular disciplines. The result of ten itera-
tions of this FLC was a seven-step framework (see Figure 1.1) within which
teachers can develop strategies for introducing students to the culture of
thinking in a speciﬁc discipline and, in the process, level the playing ﬁeld
for those students who do not come to college “preeducated.”
Figure 1.1. Decoding the Disciplines: Seven Steps to Overcome
Obstacles to Learning
4DECODING THE DISCIPLINES
There is nothing mechanical or deterministic about these steps. Rather,
they serve as a series of questions that instructors can ask themselves as they
work on responding to the speciﬁc challenges posed by learning in their dis-
ciplines. This process emerged from a shared effort involving more than ﬁfty
faculty members who have used this general model to produce their own
strategies for helping their students overcome bottlenecks to learning in their
classes. This approach does not stand in opposition to other, preexisting
strategies for increasing learning. The structure within which the authors in
this volume have worked has, in fact, made it easier to make effective use of
such methods as active, collaborative, and inquiry-based instruction. The
systematic identiﬁcation of what students have difﬁculty learning and what
they should know how to do makes the design of methods for practice and
effective assessments relatively straightforward. But the application of this
approach by the IUFLC fellows has produced some remarkable solutions to
learning challenges in a wide range of disciplines, and we hope that process
described here can be adopted and adapted by other institutions.
The remainder of this chapter serves as an introduction to the Decoding
the Disciplines model that has helped the contributors of this volume and
faculty in other programs at this and other universities become more effec-
tive teachers and advocates for student learning. We believe that this work
will respond to two central questions in contemporary pedagogy: First, how
is the nature of disciplines to be brought into the discussion of teaching and
learning? Decoding the Disciplines places disciplines at the center of the dis-
cussions of teaching, and paradoxically, the cross-disciplinary nature of the
work clariﬁes thinking in the disciplines themselves. As contributors Durisen
and Pilachowski conclude in Chapter Four, “Interactions with faculty in dif-
ferent disciplines clariﬁed the role of discipline-speciﬁc thinking in teaching
and learning and helped us to recognize the learning strategies that our stu-
dents bring to their study of astronomy.”
Second, this work may also provide a means of answering a second cru-
cial question: How can faculty in all disciplines be encouraged to become
involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning? Many of the essays in
this volume serve as evidence that the Decoding the Disciplines model can
give faculty who have never thought of publishing about teaching the tools
they need to conduct such inquiry. It focuses their attention on crucial dif-
ﬁculties students have in learning their disciplines, gives them a framework
within which to respond to these challenges, and provides them with mod-
els with which to assess evidence of student learning.
Step 1. What Is a Bottleneck to Learning in This
Decoding the Disciplines begins with a simple task: identifying bottle-
necks—that is, points in a course where the learning of a signiﬁcant num-
ber of students is interrupted (Anderson, 1996). Virtually anyone who has
HELPING STUDENTS LEARN DISCIPLINARY WAYS OF THINKING 5
set foot in a classroom can identify some area in which learning has not
occurred in ways that the instructor wished it to. Like many of these steps
in this process, this question seems so obvious that it is surprising in retro-
spect how often it is omitted. But in practice, many efforts to reshape classes
begin with questions such as, how can I make use of this new technique?
Or, how can I increase my students’ critical thinking? Such questions are
often too broad to provide a clear focal point for designing more effective
strategies. They sometimes draw attention to parts of the course that are not
in great need of reform, and they generally focus the process on the means
(teaching) rather than the end (student learning).
In the FLC seminars, there is a tactical advantage to beginning with the
bottlenecks deﬁned by the fellows because this makes their instructional
concerns central to the process. This approach also focuses the process at
the points where change is most needed, and it tends to narrow the work to
a “chunk size” that can be dealt with more readily. Because faculty can often
identify numerous places where there seem to be obstacles to learning, it is
important to prioritize those that most seriously interfere with the central
learning in a course. The nature of these obstacles may vary considerably,
with some involving both cognitive and affective elements and others more
Step 2. How Does an Expert Do These Things?
The second step in this process is for faculty to reconstruct the steps that
they themselves do when solving similar problems. This is generally the
most intellectually demanding of all the steps in the Decoding the Disci-
plines approach. The research of Donald (2002), Tobias (1992–1993),
Wineberg (2001), and Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) has demon-
strated how varied the thinking is in different disciplines, and the unique-
ness of particular ways of posing and solving problems is often invisible to
professionals in the ﬁeld. This step is difﬁcult because it requires metacog-
nition: faculty have to dissect their own innate thinking. Faculty generally
chose to go into ﬁelds where they were successful at that kind of thinking
and have been working within that particular disciplinary framework for
years. Therefore, they may have leaped almost automatically over obstacles
that can prove daunting for novices.
Instructors in every discipline can begin this process of exploring its
speciﬁc ways of operating by working to distance themselves from all that
is natural and automatic to members of their ﬁeld. We facilitate this process
in the IUFLC by having the fellows from different disciplines work together
so that they will be less likely to skip over steps that are “intuitively obvi-
ous.” Taking inspiration from the experiments of Tobias, we also sent the
fellows into classes that were as far removed from their own specialty as
possible. For example, the historians attended a genetics class, the geneti-
cists attended a philosophy of art class, and the humanities professors
6DECODING THE DISCIPLINES
attended ﬁnite math courses, all with instructions to take notes as if they
were to be examined on the material.
But the most intense intervention involved a ninety-minute interview
in which each fellow had to explain in precise detail just what an expert
would do if faced with one of the tasks that students had difﬁculty com-
pleting successfully. Typically, the instructor would provide an initial
response that contained unexplained terms and undeﬁned processes that
seemed too obvious to be consciously recalled. The task of the interviewers
was to repeatedly probe beneath the surface, asking questions such as, “Just
how are the students supposed to do that?” or, “What does that instruction
assume that students are able to do?” In the process they go from a vaguely
worded idea such as “critical thinking” to a more detailed analysis of the
kinds of thinking their students need to master. For example, a creative
writing professor realized he had to model the process of choosing descrip-
tive images and words. And a molecular biology professor realized he had
to teach students to visualize complex molecular structures as dynamic
three-dimensional cartoons, just as he did. During the interview, fellows
often experience an “aha” moment. The interviews give them a preview of
how deeply they will examine their students’ thinking.
These interviews can be duplicated in almost any educational institu-
tion by having instructors in different ﬁelds explain to each other how an
expert would overcome an obstacle that seems daunting to many of their
students. Anyone who attempts this will have to remember to remain
focused on what an expert does and not on the content of the lesson or the
steps that might be taken to teach students this skill. And it will generally
be necessary to probe many levels beneath the surface because the initial
response will almost certainly pass over steps that are so obvious to the
expert that they are not even noticed.
Step 3. How Can These Tasks Be Explicitly Modeled?
The next step is to devise ways to demonstrate to students the steps that
come naturally to the expert. There will generally be a need to set priorities
and to determine which operations are most essential and thus most impor-
tant to model. In some cases, this may entail some systematic assessment of
the levels of mastery of these operations that typically exist among the stu-
dents at the beginning of the course. But we strongly encourage anyone
using this method to devote some time to deciding which of these basic
skills do or do not have be modeled; this will probably determine which
members of the class will be included in the learning process, and that deci-
sion has important ethical and political dimensions.
Once one has decided which basic operations should be modeled, it is
then time to devise demonstrations that will help students to begin to
understand what this kind of thinking entails. Like the second stage of the
Decoding the Disciplines model, this often requires serious intellectual
HELPING STUDENTS LEARN DISCIPLINARY WAYS OF THINKING 7
labor, and it can be one of the most exhilarating parts of the process. In
most cases, a good deal of redundancy will need to be built into the process
and operations presented in several ways. Chapters Two and Five in this
volume provide strong examples of faculty modeling their thinking. In addi-
tion to faculty demonstrating the kind of thinking they want students to do,
in some cases (Chapters Three, Five, and Seven), faculty have to walk the
students through an exercise to build bit by bit the mental model that fac-
ulty use. This is still part of the modeling step; it is not to be confused with
the practice exercises of step 4.
It is important to remember both that complex ways of thinking are
rarely assimilated in a single presentation and that different groups of stu-
dents internalize such learning in different modalities (for example, visu-
ally, orally, and kinesthetically). Thus, it is often desirable to repeat the
modeling on several occasions (MacKinnon, 2003) and in several different
media (for example, in a classroom presentation and a class Web site).
Finally, it is wise strategically to build modeling exercises around content
that is particularly essential to the course so that the time devoted to mod-
eling serves other purposes for the course as well.
Step 4. How Will Students Practice These Skills and
Whereas in step 3 the instructor demonstrates the intellectual skill that the
students need to learn, the focus in step 4 is to have the students practice
the task and gauge the proﬁciency of their attempts. Decoding the Disci-
plines breaks down the basic operations required in a particular class and
presents them systematically to students. But students can rarely move
directly from hearing a complex set of operations described to internaliz-
ing the steps and then to applying them as part of a larger task some weeks
later. Learning to think and work within the culture of a particular disci-
pline is more complex than generally appears to be the case to profession-
als in the ﬁeld, and students must be given a chance to perfect these skills
and to receive feedback that clariﬁes where they are and are not succeed-
ing. We need only imagine ourselves in a learning situation that is unfa-
miliar to us—a ﬁrst lesson in knitting, a new computer program, or the
grammar of a foreign language—to realize that simply hearing a lecture on
a complex process is rarely sufﬁcient to permit us to actually perform the
task and to integrate it with dozens of other new procedures.
At this point, the marvelous new learning tools created over the past
several decades can be integrated into the process. All the strategies associ-
ated with active, collaborative, and inquiry-based learning can be used to
help students master the operations once they have been modeled, as seen
in Chickering (1991), Yuretich (2004), Silberman (1996), Smith and
MacGregor (1992), Michaelsen (1997), Wright (1994), and DiPasquale,
Mason, and Kolkhorst (2003).
8DECODING THE DISCIPLINES
The process of deﬁning and subdividing these operations, in fact,
makes the application of such strategies particularly effective. Creating an
exercise to allow students to actively perform some complex and ill-deﬁned
act of critical thinking is difﬁcult, and it is not likely to provide students
with clear feedback on their performance. If students do not succeed at a
task that requires the integration of a half dozen discrete but undeﬁned
operations, they are not likely to be able to distinguish between skills they
have mastered and those that must still be learned. By contrast, instructors
who have gone through the ﬁrst three steps of the Decoding the Disciplines
process have already deﬁned the focal point for such exercises, and they
need only generate a framework within which these operations can be prac-
ticed one after another. Once a particular set of skills has been mastered by
most of the class, the instructor can begin to generate more complex exer-
cises that provide the occasion for synthesis and application. And through-
out this process, the instructor can make strategic decisions about the
subject matter used in these exercises to be sure that the time spent on these
skills reinforces the most essential topics in the course.
Step 5. What Will Motivate the Students?
In the earlier stages of the development of this model, motivation was
treated almost as an afterthought. But as we worked with successive gener-
ations of FLC fellows, it became increasingly clear that motivation was of
sufﬁcient importance to warrant its own position in the sequence of steps.
If the students are not drawn actively into the modeling and the practice-
and-feedback phases of the process, real learning is highly unlikely to occur.
Fortunately, the structure of this system lends itself to the application
of the kinds of strategies supported by the literature on motivation
(Svinicki, 1999; Perry, Menec, and Struthers, 1995). If, as the ancient
Roman rhetorician Quintilian argued, “The job of the teacher is to arrange
victories for the students,” the Decoding the Disciplines process helps set
the stage for a series of small but cumulative successes. Because large, com-
plex tasks are divided into their constituent parts and each part is modeled
and practiced, students are more apt to conceptualize their situation as one
in which it is possible to learn and in which success or failure is seen in
terms of their own effort, rather than luck.
It is not sufﬁcient to assume that the structures of learning created by
this process will automatically motivate students. Conscious effort needs to
be dedicated to making the students partners in the learning process. The
nature of this process allows an instructor to present himself or herself as
an ally who has devoted considerable energy to creating a course in which
success is possible and who really wants students to do well. Students often
respond positively to instructors who are clearly dedicated to creating a level
playing ﬁeld on which students who have not been preeducated at elite
institutions will have the same opportunity to succeed as those who have
been more privileged.
It is, however, also important to avoid any sense that there is something
remedial about this process. High expectations are an essential element in
any meaningful strategy for increasing student motivation. The Decoding
the Disciplines model substitutes a series of small, manageable steps for the
giant leaps required in many traditional courses, but students should be
expected to cover the same intellectual distance as they would in other
courses. And there is a good chance that this approach will actually require
students to work more.
Step 6. How Well Are Students Mastering These
In the past, faculty have often found themselves in a dilemma. On the one
hand, the focus was on content learning that seemed to be relatively easy to
assess but that did not reach the level of thinking that most faculty mem-
bers desire to generate in their students. On the other was critical thinking,
which dealt with an appropriate cognitive level but was generally perceived
as impossible to assess (Cohen, 1987). In popular discussions, critical think-
ing often involves a number of different mental processes that are neither
clearly deﬁned nor adequately distinguished from one another. It is difﬁcult
to be certain when enough of these complex and often vague attributes are
sufﬁciently in evidence to declare that the threshold of critical thinking has
The more precisely deﬁned operations that are at the core of Decod-
ing the Disciplines make assessment a different matter altogether. Because
instructors have already broken bottlenecks down into the constituent
parts that they want their students to learn, it is much easier to determine
whether students have mastered them. Angelo and Cross’s (1993) Class-
room Assessment Techniques provide a good starting place for faculty to
learn assessment methods, with simple and direct ways to determine
whether students were able to perform speciﬁc disciplinary operations.
Faculty have adapted these techniques or devised other ways to gauge stu-
dent understanding. Often exercises that provide students with an oppor-
tunity to practice and receive feedback automatically provide the
instructor with a good deal of information about what is and is not being
learned. But as the essays that make up this volume amply demonstrate,
the mastery of deﬁned disciplinary operations can be assessed in a great
variety of ways.
The assessments that emerge from this process are also more useful. It
is easy to ﬁnd out which of the basic operations are being mastered by most
of the students and which need to be modeled or practiced more effectively
or repeated several times during the course. Moreover, the skills being
HELPING STUDENTS LEARN DISCIPLINARY WAYS OF THINKING 9
assessed are precisely those that the instructor has deﬁned as most important
for this particular class, an important consideration when more accountabil-
ity is being demanded of higher education.
Step 7. How Can the Resulting Knowledge About
Learning Be Shared?
This step of sharing initially arose out of the institutional concerns sur-
rounding the IUFLC. The investment of resources that Indiana University
was making in a relatively small number of instructors could be justiﬁed
only if the ideas that the fellows developed in the program were shared with
other faculty. Over time, however, we have come to recognize that this step
is an integral part of the process. Those of us who employ collaborative
strategies in our teaching often tell our students that they do not fully
understand something until they have succeeded in explaining it to some-
one else. Our experiences in the IUFLC have convinced us that this is just
as true for instructors. The process of sharing teaching goals and strategies
forces us to make explicit elements that might otherwise have escaped our
notice, to see possibilities that had previously escaped us, and to recognize
inconsistencies or ﬂawed logic. All of this can be cycled back into the pro-
cess of course development to steadily increase learning in our classes.
The sharing of knowledge may occur in many forms. At one extreme is
a simple conversation with colleagues; at the other, publication of one’s ﬁnd-
ings in refereed journals and even large grants for building on one’s work.
And in between are such means of sharing as presentations of model lessons
to other faculty, the exchange of course modules by instructors teaching sim-
ilar courses as well as course portfolios.
But whatever the medium of sharing, the steps of the Decoding
the Disciplines process make the interchange easier. The speciﬁcity of the
focus, the clarity of the modeling, the ingenuity of the practice exercises,
and the weight of the assessments all make it easier for instructors to learn
from each others’ experiments in the classroom. And, ironically, an
approach that begins with an emphasis on the differences among disci-
plines can in the end provide a means to communicate across the chasms
that separate academic ﬁelds.
In conclusion, it is important to stress that the Decoding the Disciplines
approach should not be viewed as a narrow, prescriptive formula for all
course development. The steps evolved as part of a group process of shared
pedagogical exploration (see Chapter Ten). In other contexts, new steps
may be necessary; some of ours may not be relevant; and the concrete strate-
gies for deﬁning, modeling, and providing practice may be completely dif-
ferent from those presented in this volume. This is only a tool, and it must
therefore be adapted to the task at hand.
We have found that this approach has served to help many of the
IUFLC fellows not only ﬁnd new ways to enhance learning in their classes
10 DECODING THE DISCIPLINES
but also bring a new excitement to their teaching. The model serves to link
teaching more closely with the kind of intellectual inquiry that drew the fel-
lows toward being teachers in the ﬁrst place, and it allows them to bring to
teaching more of the skills that they have developed in their research. It also
takes advantage of the differences in thinking among academic ﬁelds to
decode each individual discipline. The energy that this process has engen-
dered has carried the contributors to this volume beyond their individual
disciplines into the scholarship of teaching and learning. We hope that the
essays contained in this volume will convey this excitement to our readers.
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JOAN MIDDENDORF is codirector of the Faculty Learning Community at Campus
Instructional Consulting, Indiana University.
DAVID PACE is associate professor of history and codirector of the Faculty
Learning Community at Indiana University. He is also a fellow of the Carnegie
Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.
12 DECODING THE DISCIPLINES