Decoding On-Line Learning

Decoding On-Line Learning

Moving Beyond Pedagogical Triage in the Covid-19 Era

In the last few months teachers around the world at all levels of education have been presented an unprecedented challenge. Facing the possibility of losing an entire generation of students, they had to switch from face-to-face to on-line instruction in mid-semester without real preparation. In the process many of them discovered that, in addition to mastering a new technology, they had to grapple with major pedagogical problems. The ways of teaching that they had inherited from their own teachers could not be directly transferred to the new context, and they had to perform a kind of pedagogical triage to try to keep learning alive.

            Many of these teachers will be facing the same challenges in the fall, as the continuing COVID-19 crisis requires their institutions to rely entirely or in part on on-line instruction. Like officers on leave from the front lines, they have a brief period to reconsider their plans for the next battle. Fortunately, in the last quarter century the scholarship of teaching and learning has produced a large literature, filled with strategies that could be of enormous use to those who need new pedagogical resources for a transformed teaching context. Unfortunately, those who are most in need of these approaches do not have the leisure to absorb very much of this work.

            Therefore, it is incumbent on those of us who have been producing the scholarship of teaching and learning to isolate those insights from our work that could be of greatest use in this time of readaptation and to make them available to front-line educators who must rapidly adapt to new situations. To respond to this need, I have attempted to identify a handful of insights from the literature on Decoding the Disciplines that seemed to be particularly essential for those making this transition.  Here are some central tenets that have emerged from this work that might be particularly useful to those struggling to find their way in the new geography of higher education.

1) Focus on what students have to do, not what they have to know.

            It is natural for most teachers to concentrate on the content that they want their students to learn, but learning difficulties are much more likely to result from students’ lack of understanding of what they are expected to do. Your discipline requires a special set of procedures, and, if you concentrate on helping students master these, the transition to a new medium of instruction will be smoother for them and for you. You will probably have to make hard choices about what you can retain in the transfer to on-line instruction.  If you reduce emphasis on skills, in the future your students will be limited to the content that they remember from your course; if you sacrifice a little content in order to be sure they understand how to function in the field, they will be able to add to their store house of information on their own.

2) Concentrate on the most pressing bottlenecks to learning

In your face-to-face courses there are some tasks that students seem to master easily, and others that many struggle with. The latter should receive most of your attention in the transfer, since, at least initially, the transfer to the new medium will probably make these challenges even more daunting to your students. If you make a list of these bottlenecks to learning and focus particular attention on easing students past them, the transition to online learning will be probably easier for you and your students.

3) Define as clearly as you can just what students have to do to get past each bottleneck

To help students get past the bottlenecks you have identified, it is first necessary to have a clear notion of just what they have to do to accomplish the tasks that many of them find difficult. Unfortunately, twenty years of research with Decoding the Disciplines has demonstrated that many of the necessary steps are so automatic to faculty that they are no longer aware that they do them. Thus, before we can teach these moves to our students, we have to make them explicit to ourselves.

There is a good deal of literature on the process of making these steps explicit, but, under current circumstances, you may be unable to systematically explore this work. However, you can make some of these hidden processes clearer by trying to explain to others outside your field just what a student has to learn to do to get past a potential bottleneck in your course. Ask them to imagine that they were trying to do the task that is daunting to many students and to tell you what is missing in your explanation. Or, if you have a little more time, read the section on metaphors, analogies, mind maps, and rubrics in Joan Middendorf and Leah Shopkow’s Decoding the Disciplines: How to Help Students Learn Critical Thinking (pp. pp. 39-48, 59-63­). When you are done, you should have a tentative list of the steps that students have to master to do the potentially problematic tasks in your course.

4) Show students how to do each of these actions

Take the steps that you have made explicit in 3) and create lessons where you explicitly show students how to go through each process. You can, for example, show them step by step how you would solve a problem in your field. It will probably be necessary to repeat this several times, until it becomes second nature to your students. Note that you can almost always use material from your course as part of this modeling process, so that you are reinforcing skills and content at  the same time.

5) Give students practice and feedback on each of these actions

It is crucial that students have an opportunity to practice each of these steps repeatedly, so that they become automatic. Until they have an understanding of the process, it is important that your assignments allow them practice specific skills one at a time. For example, if you are working on helping students learn how to write papers, you would not assign an entire paper until after they had practiced each of the individual steps required in the process (e.g. generating a thesis, identifying relevant evidence).

This work does not necessarily have to be graded. It can be individual or team-based, and the feedback can individualized, or you can provide examples to the entire class of ways that students often miss crucial steps in the process.

6) Pay attention to the emotional hurtles that your students are facing

The switch to on-line education can create added stress for students, and working from home can create motivational and practical problems. To make the classes work, it is even more important than usual to employ a range of motivational strategies (not just the threat of a low grade), to get regular information about how students are experiencing the course, and to provide extra support.

7) Throughout the course create forms of assessment that will allow you to see to what extent students have mastered each of these skills before you ask them to complete complex tasks that require the integration of many skills

For those new to on-line learning it is particularly important to regularly get detailed information about the extent to which students are learning to master the essential skills of the discipline and to make adjustments accordingly.  Traditional exams often require the simultaneous use of many different skills and, thus give us little information about which steps students are missing, and they generally come too late in the course to provide an opportunity to respond to students’ learning needs. The practice exercises described in 5) above can provide us with information in real time about where students are or are not mastering crucial steps, and this can be used for midcourse corrections.

8) When time allows, explore the literature on Decoding

An extensive bibliography of books, articles, and papers on Decoding, arranged both by author and by field is available at And by emailing me at, you can join the Decoding the Disciplines list serve, where you can pose questions and share experiences.

David Pace, May 2020

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