Step 1.

identify a bottleneck

Where is student learning being blocked?

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 adequately perform essential tasks.

When identifying bottlenecks, begin by thinking about major obstacles that block student learning for many students. You should aim to clearly define these bottlenecks without reference to disciplinary jargon, and without judgment about the students.

Once identified, choose a bottleneck to work on and write it out. Be explicit about the nature of the problem – it’s better to focus on what students have to DO and not on what they have to know.

Writing a Bottleneck

Here are examples of productive and unproductive ways to complete this step:


Vague: Students cannot interpret texts.

More Specific: Students in literature classes have a particular problem in the basic approach to textual interpretation. Students forever want to go directly to interpreting a text without first getting a good grasp of a text’s content. They need to observe before they interpret, but they are constantly skipping a thoughtful observation stage. Skipping this stage leads to poor interpretations.(This observation is specific enough and provides enough information that it can serve as a starting place for the analysis of the bottleneck.) Tony Ardizzone, Fritz Breithaupt, and Paul C. Gutjahr. 2004. “Decoding Humanities.” In Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking, (New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 98), 67-73, edited by David Pace and Joan Middendorf, 45-56.


Vague: Students have difficulty moving from fact learning to a deeper understanding of biological processes.

More Specific: Students have difficulty visualizing chromosomes, appreciating the distinction between similar and identical chromosomes (i.e., homologs and sister chromatids), and predicting their segregation patterns during mitosis and meiosis. Miriam Zolan, Susan Strome, and Roger Innes (2004). Decoding Genetics and Molecular Biology. In Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking, (New Directions in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 98), 67-73, edited by David Pace and Joan Middendorf, 23-32.


Vague: Students are unable to program a web application.

More Specific:
When constructing a web application, students struggle to understand the flow of logic and data through the application triggered by user interactions.

Once the bottleneck has been identified, it is necessary to explore the nature of the problem. In the case of cognitive bottlenecks this involves systematically making explicit the mental moves that students must master to get past the bottleneck. Sometimes, the bottleneck may be more emotional in nature, and in some cases there may be both cognitive and emotional bottlenecks to learning.

Types of Bottlenecks

Cognitive Bottlenecks

In these situations students’ learning is blocked because they have failed to master particular mental moves. To help students 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. See Step 2 of the Decoding Process >>>

Emotional Bottlenecks

In other cases students’ difficulties revolve less around cognitive difficulties than around the negative emotional reactions of students to either 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) or to its subject matter (e.g. some of the findings in the discipline are at odds with things students were taught as they were growing up).  This second set of emotional bottlenecks will be dealt with in Step 5 of the Decoding Process >>>

Bottlenecks of Racism, Colonialism, Identity and Implicit Bias

Disciplines have historically hidden and erased certain knowledge. For this reason, a group of researchers developed the Disrupting the Disciplines framework to assist instructors to think beyond the bottlenecks of content, and to consider bottlenecks related to colonialism, racism, identity and implicit bias.

Disrupting the Disciplines

How do I know if my obstacle is really a Bottleneck?

Using non-graded classroom assessment techniques can help you determine if your bottleneck is really the issue.

For example, in one science course, the instructor believed the bottleneck to be that students could not read, but it was really that students were unable to read scientific articles. [WILL ADD EXAMPLE HERE]