Step 2.

uncover the mental move

What mental move does the specialist perform to get past the bottleneck?

The second step in the Decoding process is to make explicit the mental moves and essential instructions that students must master in order to overcome specific bottlenecks in a course. Many of these mental moves are so “built-in”, so automatic to instructors, that they have become all-but-invisible.

Think of it as trying to give someone directions to a location in the town or city where you live, but leaving out crucial parts of the route that are obvious to anyone else from there. As experts, the analysis, evaluation, and decision making we do without a second thought is second nature. Thus, it is easy for us to skip over crucial steps that are so obvious to us that we fail to mention them.

As instructors, it can be confusing as to why students are not grasping concepts. “It’s so simple, why don’t my students just get it?” It is a paradox; the very knowledge we need for teaching to occur, becomes invisible to an instructor guiding student learning.

But if we can unpack the expert's intellectual process -- the critical knowledge within their field --  and make that clear, we can better model these decisions for students.

Getting started

To begin to map out the mental actions taken by you as an expert, first reword your bottleneck as a question like so:

If students have difficulty formulating a hypothesis… then ask ‘how does one move from the details of an experiment to a hypothesis?’

If students struggle to critically appraise a piece of work in the context of its relationship to wider debates in the field… then ask ‘how does one place work in the context of scholarly literature?’

If students encounter graphs of data and it puts fear in their hearts… then ask ‘what do we need to notice, remember and evaluate in order to understand a scientific graph?’

The next step is to take this question and really grapple with what you do as an expert in response. How you do this depends on whether you are on your own or have the ability to work with someone else. The process always needs to end in dialogue because we are working on your blindspot. Eventually, even on your own, you'll want to find someone to dialogue with, preferably from outside your area of expertise.

Methods for Uncovering Mental Actions: In Teams

The original method associated with the Decoding process involves an interview between two interviewers and an instructor (you). This is a powerful method for becoming clear about the steps that students must master to overcome specific bottlenecks. The interviewers help the instructor to fully explore how they themselves accomplish the critical thinking that many students have trouble with.

If you do not have access to interviewers familiar with the Decoding process, you can work with one or two other instructors (it is important here that they are not overly familiar with your subject area or your interviewers may have the same blind spots you do), or Teaching and Learning staffers, to complete an interview. The goal is to reveal what we no longer see as experts.

Guidelines for Conducting a Decoding Interview
  • Ask interviewees to describe a place in one of their courses where significant numbers of students have difficulty doing some task that is crucial to success in the course.
  • Ask them to start from a specific, recent example when they used the mental action or to imagine doing the task that is difficult for many students. Then ask, “What do you do?”, or more simply, "how would you begin?"
  • Imagine yourself doing what they describe. Are crucial steps being left out?
  • Ask questions where you don’t understand. Probe where the interviewee cannot explain.
  • Summarize what the interviewees say; restate their points. Confirm that you are accurately capturing what they are saving.
  • Reassure interviewees throughout that it is okay to not be able to immedciately explain their tacit knowledge.
  • Gently redirect if the interviewees talk about how they teach their students, how they learned it, or if they launch into a lecture.
Decoding Interview Examples


Methods for Uncovering Mental Actions: By Yourself

Sometimes you don’t have access to the people or resources to complete a Decoding interview. Or perhaps you’ve been through an interview before, and want to now apply the Decoding process to other bottlenecks. In that case, you can still work to uncover the mental moves you take as an expert that may not be clear to students.

There are several methods we encourage you to try:

  • Analogies
  • Physical / 3D Modeling, e.g. Playdoh, LEGOS, sticks, etc..
  • Rubrics
  • Bottleneck Writing Tour

Analogies (and metaphors) are inferential frameworks that help students transfer related ideas to new domains [Jones et al 2011]. The research on analogies shows that analogies are a powerful and effective method.

Physical Modeling

By modeling with Playdoh, LEGOS, or any easily manipulated material, instead of words, you build a representation of the concept.


List the bottleneck, the mistake students make, and the correct performance, for a specific assignment.

Bottleneck writing tour

Faculty answer a series of questions about the bottleneck and the thinking they do to get through it. By responding to the prompts, they decode their own thinking.

Once the mental moves required for success at the task at hand have been identified, these must be modeled for students in Step 3.