Seven Steps for Decoding Student Misunderstandings

David Pace and Joan Middendorf created a model for decoding the disciplines as a method for faculty to uncover the ways students think and learn in various disciplines. Following their seven step process allows faculty members to understand the role they play in students’ misunderstandings of course content.

Did you ever wonder why students don’t understand what you have told them over and over? When did you first notice that students were getting lost in your course? Recognizing the bottleneck is the first of the seven steps.  The second step is uncovering the assumptions you make about what students need to know to understand further the new knowledge. One way to determine your assumptions is to repeat the same explanation to someone, not in your discipline. Then, ask them what part they don’t understand. Suddenly you realize “Oh, I have to explain this first, so that can understand that.”

Step three then is to model your thought process or the mental tasks in your explanation. The fourth step involves having the students through exercises or some other type of reinforcement practice and receive feedback on what they just learned. At step five, you need to consider student motivation and work on their resistance.  Here Pace and Middendorf discuss three potential emotional bottlenecks that may be further complicating their learning: their lack of motivation, procedural bottlenecks, or narrative bottlenecks. To reduce these sites of resistance, they suggest to increase visibility, address preconceptions and model conceptions, and discover the preconceptions preventing overcoming the bottleneck, respectively.

In step six we pause to assess the students’ mastery of thinking and learning in the discipline. Lastly, Pace and Middendorf ask how you will share the decoding model with your colleagues.  As a faculty member, how will you spread the word to your colleagues so they too can discover their course bottlenecks? Rather than say, “Yes, this point is where most students have trouble, wouldn’t you rather say, “This point used to be a problem for students until I realized they also needed to understand X?”

The book can shift faculty perspective of thinking some students just don’t get it, to realizing more can get it if faculty do more to help students understand the disciplinary way of thinking.

Decoding Website.


Pace, D., & Middendorf, J. (Eds.).  (2004). Decoding the disciplines: Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

David Pace, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor, Dept. of History, Indiana University – Bloomington

Joan Middendorf, Instructional Consultant, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Indiana University – Bloomington

Leave a Reply