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Basic Disciplinary Skills

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence

Instructors can help first-year students with the transition to college and to UWL by attending to three general issues:  introducing and providing opportunities to practice basic skills that often vary by discipline, helping new students to feel like they belong at UWL, and reducing barriers to student success.  All are important for student success and retention in college. This page is about Basic disciplinary skills.


Students in their first year of college bring with them a wide range of academic skills and experiences.  Most students will benefit from learning and practicing the foundational skills of your discipline and the skills of college in general. First-year students in your introductory course are just embarking on the study of your discipline - they are barely novices if they have even heard of your discipline at all. You will need to think like a freshman again in order to support your students' learning.

For students from historically underserved groups (e.g., low-income, first generation to earn a bachelor’s degree, students of color, students whose first language is not English), making the goals of your course, and the assumptions, skills, and processes of your discipline as transparent as possible can help students make sense of your field, and perhaps even consider pursuing it for life.

Summary of Research

First-year college students are likely to cross disciplinary borders several times a day, almost as if they were moving from one country to another every hour or so. Students can benefit from knowing that some of these skills differ by discipline (e.g., how they will need to read for a science course might be very different than for a literature course). 

Instructors can help students understand those differences and why they exist. Conversations with other instructors of first-year students who teach in different disciplines could help you help students understand the differences across disciplines and why they matter.

Here are some of the foundational skills all successful college students need to develop early in their academic careers. Some of them differ by discipline:

  • Study strategies:  CATL's Teaching Improvement Guide page offers several ideas for helping students learn how to study.  The videos linked in the Resources section at the bottom of the page (by Stephen Chew) were developed to show to students; they help break down some of the myths about learning that students bring with them to college. 
  • Notetaking:  Especially if you are introducing students to the research methods of your field, help students understand how experts in your field record notes for research projects.  Try some show and tell, and provide low-stakes (e.g., ungraded) opportunities for practice.  Demonstrate the skill yourself first, and then ask students to talk themselves through the same process with a partner but using a different text.  Repeat several times over a few weeks.
  • Reading:  If you can, share some examples of good reading processes or notes produced by previous first-year students (e.g., ask students to record their approach to a short text; collect some examples of good notes from students).  Some instructors return to these skills as students progress through a major. noting that the purpose of reading and note-taking typically changes.
  • Writing:  Disciplinary differences are critical here.  First-year students may not know that such differences exist.
  • Organizing ideas, facts, concepts:  All disciplines make assumptions.  Helping students to understand the assumptions your field makes, and why, can help them understand the research methods and methods of communication your discipline uses.
  • Metacognitive skills  Learning is never as quick or easy as students (or instructors!) think it should be, and most students who struggle either never seek help or seek it after it is too late to catch up.  Learning a variety of methods to monitor their own learning will help students identify when and why to seek help.


  • Collect data on what students do that works.  For example, use a paper wrapper or an exam wrapper with particularly difficult assignments that allow you do identify the strategies most used by students who do well in your course.  The warning instructors often use that a high proportion of students get a D or and F on a test doesn't send the "study hard" message we intend; rather, it undermines most students' expectations about your course (they don't see the course as doable); students from populations with negative stereotypes about their group's intelligence may feel particular pressure.   provide examples of the note-taking methods that one or two of your most successful students used to do well in your introductory course. 
  • Provide opportunities to practice.  Whatever the skill is, students will need multiple iterations with varying contexts and increasing levels of complexity, to develop the depth of learning they need.
  • Be specific.  How one takes notes from a lecture will be very different from how one takes notes for a research project, and the latter will differ dramatically by discipline.  Teach students the basics for the range of skills they will need in your course.    
  • Be transparent. Explain the learning process embedded into your course design.  Aligning the components of the course with the course learning outcomes can help students understand why they are doing the tasks you assign.  Make your discipline transparent too:  exposure to the skills of the discipline can demystify the processes by which your field produces new knowledge.
  • Scaffold: Add just one new skill or complex concept at a time.  Scaffolding helps students avoid cognitive overload that can produce unnecessary struggle.
  • Gauge the workload carefully:  How well are you "right-sizing" the demands of your course to your students' levels of prior learning and the levels of learning you need them to attain?  Rice University's Center for Teaching Excellence provides this Course Workload Estimator that can help you gauge how much time your one course is demanding. Build in time for students to practice basic skills and to get feedback on their work.
  • Intervene early.  Research indicates that students who are struggling are best able to turn their performance around if an intervention happens by the fourth week of the term. Find ways to gauge students' understanding of basic terms, concepts, and skills, and if a student seems to struggle, talk with that student right away. Try not to assume that you know what is causing the problem - let your student identify the problem.  If the student is not attending class, contact the student's advisor or someone in Student Life. 
  • Departmental and college-level conversations can help you identify the basic skills in your discipline.  Bear in mind that the truly foundational skills might precede the signature skills that you spend all your time teaching (developing skill in using scientific method, say, might demand prior skill in lab techniques, or math, or systematic notetaking, for example). 


Cerbin, W. (2015). How can I improve . . .  student learning? In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning.

Nilson, L. B. (2003). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. San Francisco:  Anker Publishing.

Look for, or adapt, disciplinary resources as well.  For example:  Stanford History Education Group. [n.d.]. Reading Like a Historian and Civic Online Reasoning.


Hoskins, D. (2017).  First-year students: Basic disciplinary skills.  In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from