Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking
A summary of an article by Joan Middendorf and David Pace
Learning a new academic discipline is what Middendorf and Pace call “Cognitive apprenticeship” which, according to them, can be compared to “learning to function in a foreign culture.” Even highly trained scholars, the authors contend, are challenged when taken out of their own fields. If this is true for trained scholars when they explore fields other than their own, it will be true for students in virtually every field because they are experts of none. That is why it is important that the professor translate what may be familiar language to him into language that a freshman taking his class can easily understand. The process has been referred to as decoding the disciplines.
They point out the need to involve disciplines a little more in the research on how people think and how students learn which should focus on two things:
- How knowledge is structured and how faculty and students perceive the learning process.
- Linking the scientific study of thinking and learning to classroom practices.
It is important, for example to understand what kind of thinking takes place in different disciplines and the similarities and differences across the disciplines.
Decoding the Disciplines
Learning strategies from research and personal faculty experiences in their effort to help students learn specific material in their disciplines need to come together to make a breakthrough in decoding the disciplines for novices.
The rationale for decoding the disciplines lies in the fact that
- The mental operations required of undergraduates differ enormously from discipline to discipline,
- These ways of thinking are rarely presented to students explicitly,
- Students generally lack an opportunity to practice and receive feedback on particular skills in isolation from others,
- There is rarely a systematic assessment of the extent to which students have mastered each of the ways of thinking that are essential to particular disciplines.
This leads to two central questions in contemporary pedagogy:
- First, how is the nature of disciplines to be brought into the discussion of teaching and learning?
- How can faculty in all disciplines be encouraged to become involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning?
Decoding the disciplines therefore places disciplines at the center of the discussions of teaching and learning.
The dynamic of decoding the disciplines focuses teachers’ attention on crucial difficulties students have in learning their disciplines.
The seven Steps to Decoding the Disciplines
Step 1: Determining what may be a “Bottleneck to Learning” in the Class
This can be summarized to finding areas in a course where most students do not get the message. Before determining what strategies and techniques may work in a class or course, instructors should first determine what challenges most students most and why.
Step 2: How Does an Expert Do These Things?
On the part of the faculty this means “reconstructing their own steps” when solving problems. This is very important. Professionals in a field usually do not realize how different and unique the ways in which they pose and solve problems are from discipline to discipline
It is important to note that what may be natural and obvious to instructors and experts in the discipline may not be so for students and novices.
The preliminary job in Step 1 may begin with instructors of different disciplines working together to identify areas that may be intuitively obvious to them, but difficult to understand by students. Instructors can visit classes very far from their own disciplines. For example, historians can attend a genetics class and vice versa.
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 important to model. In other words, this consists in helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking.
Step 4: How Will Students Practice These Skills and Get Feedback?
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 Disciplines breaks down the basic operations required in a particular class and presents them systematically to students. Learning to think and work within the culture of a particular discipline is more complex than generally appears to be the case to professionals 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 succeeding.
Step 5: What Will Motivate the Students?
Motivation should not always be taken for granted. Instead they recommend that a “conscious effort” be made to make students “partners in the learning process.”
Step 6: How Well Are Students Mastering These Learning Tasks?
This is about identifying the basic operations that are being mastered by most of the students and the ones that are not and need more practice.
Step 7: How Can the Resulting Knowledge About Learning Be Shared?
Instructors may share knowledge in many forms: conversation with colleagues, model lessons, exchange of course modules, workshops, publication of one’s findings in refereed journals.
And in between are such means of sharing as presentations of model lessons to other faculty, the exchange of course modules by instructors teaching similar courses as well as course portfolios.
Example: Decoding Math Problems
Students can be assigned math word problems and asked to translate the words into symbols and numbers. Students can also be given math problems with numbers and symbols and asked to translate them into words.
In order for students to improve their reading comprehension, an understanding of the mathematical text is to be expected. According to Fuentes (1998), this process can be achieved by giving students a lot of experience in reading word problems and translating their meaning into numbers and symbols and vice versa. He points out the fact that every word in a word problem is necessary for the problem to be solved. Therefore, having a lot of experience with word problems will enable students to see problem solving terms used in a variety of situations with a different usage.
“The mathematical language that we use (symbols, pictures, words, and numbers) is sometimes unique (only used by mathematicians) or is taken from everyday language everyday language and turned into something else (i.e. table)” (Kotsopoulos, 2007, p. 302). Mathematical language can cause confusion when it is used in a format with which the students are not familiar.
A simple word like table means something different in math from what it means in general English.
- Clement, JeLena, J. (2008) Can decoding increase word problem solving skills? Math in the Middle Institute Partnership Action Research Project Report. University of Nebraska.
- Middendorf, J.; Pace, D. (2004) Decoding the disciplines: A model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 98, Summer 2004.
Large Class Tips:
- (Graded) Classroom group assignment is a very good way to manage the active learning of students in a large class. Cooperative/collaborative learning Students work together to discuss or solve problems,
- It is obvious that students working in pairs or larger groups can help each other and learn from each other.
- Even though they learn a great deal from the teacher, they can still get bored listening to just her.
- Cooperative learning also helps to hold students’ attention, a special concern for large classes, and to increase student thinking. So it is good to give the students a “break” listening to the instructor.
- Plan a group exercise in which each group member will have their own special task that is connected to the others
- In conducting group exercises, it is advisable to organize the groups to suit the student’s abilities:
- Mixed-ability groups:
- The more able learners in the group can help the others to master the work so that the teacher need not teach some parts.
- Same-ability groups:
- The teacher can leave the groups of faster learners to get on with the work on their own while giving extra help to individual learners in the slower groups.
- Group leaders/monitors:
- The strategy consists in appointing faster, more able learners as group leaders or monitors who can help slower learners.
- During all group work, the instructor needs to move around the classroom to see what progress learners are making and what difficulties they have and provide feedback when needed.
- Evaluating Group Work
- It is always a good idea to grade group work as a way of insuring that it is taken seriously. For that reason, some type of group product may always be required.
- It is also a good idea to occasionally require an individual product based on group work, such as a one-minute paper about an issue learned from the exercise, a short quiz, or an oral presentation by randomly selected group members
- Using peer evaluations at the end of an exercise is another good practice. It is usually entirely fair to the students as long as long it is done anonymously.