Book By: David Pace & Joan Middendorf
Review By: Chizuko T. Allen
University of Hawaii at Manoa

How many research universities are so committed to excellence in teaching that they form a faculty learning community?  This book details such a program, “Decoding the Disciplines,” at Indiana University (IUFLC).  The program was by no means remedial as it attracted fifty-three best and brightest faculty members on the campus between 1998 and 2003.  

The Editors, who coordinated the program, provide theoretical backgrounds in the first chapter. In recent years, some scholars compared the process of learning an academic discipline with learning to function in a foreign culture. The differences in mental operations required in different disciplines are so great that even faculty could not digest undergraduate content in subjects other than their own. Although all university faculty are trained in their subject matters and some are even familiar with general educational theories, very few know how to teach their disciplines to a novice. Students are often left to learn necessary skills on their own. 

IUFLC addressed the different mental processes that various disciplines require of students. The faculty jointly identified intellectual bottlenecks in each of their classes, explored steps that an expert in the field would take to get through the bottlenecks, and created models to show students these steps. They then gave step-by-step instructions to their class, assigned needed exercises in various formats, and received the student feedback needed to make instructional adjustment along the way. Assessment was conducted to find out the extent of student mastery. Faculty shared the results and knowledge gained from the experience with colleagues. 

A history professor, for instance, realized that a bottleneck in his class was separating the central thesis and subsidiary arguments from supporting evidence. He had students conduct exercises, individually and in small groups, to prioritize text elements after demonstrating how he himself does this task. A genetics professor found that her students had difficulties distinguishing between similar and identical chromosomes and predicting their segregation patterns. She created chromosome models using colorful pipe cleaners and beads that helped students visualize important genetic concepts. A marketing professor thought that students had difficulties switching viewpoints from individual consumers to marketing managers. Thus, he had students repeat exercises in which they were forced to choose advertising strategies based on objective data from groups of consumers.  The remaining faculty members that reported represented the disciplines of astronomy, creative writing, literature, molecular biology, and statistics.  Post-instruction assessment showed a significant gain in student learning in the targeted areas in each class. 

Accounts by the participating faculty members illustrate the effectiveness of the “Decoding the Discipline” teaching method. The only element missing was the student perspective; the book included no responses from students beyond the figures and graphs showing feedback and learning outcome. 

Whether teaching or advising, those who introduce disciplines to non-major students can learn much through the practical processes detailed in this book. Ideally, every campus should have a faculty learning community exemplified by IUFLC but teaching faculty and advisors on campuses without such a group can still make a difference by following the successful pattern detailed here. Further information is available at the web site: http://www.indiana.edu/~flp/ .


Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking. (2004). 
Book by Pace, David and Middendorf, Joan. (Eds.). Review by Chizuko T. Allen. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 124 pp. $29.00. ISBN #0-7879-7789-6.

Actions: E-mail | Permalink |