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Initial Strategies

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence

Much research notes several ways in which our own expertise can be a barrier to student learning. Here are some strategies to make it the asset to students that we always intend it to be.

Be transparent

Studies indicate that instructors may too easily assume that "everyone knows" some of the skills and information that are second nature to us, simply because we no longer think about the components of complex ideas or steps and decision trees behind complex processes.  We can therefore easily assign the kinds of assignments necessary for students to demonstrate their mastery of our course, only to discover that at least some students did not understand some fundamental assembly of knowledge or a couple of critical skills.  We can easily slip into deficit-model thinking when this happens.  But more likely, we're simply witnessing the gap between students as novices and instructors as experts. For first-year students encountering your field for the first time ever, or for the first time at the exponential leap you will take from what they learned in high school, utter transparency about what you are teaching, why you are teaching it, and how it fits into a larger framework within your discipline can be critically helpful to students. Learn more about transparency here.

Scaffold complex learning

"Scaffolding" means that you reduce the amount of new learning and provide opportunities to practice before adding complexity (or removing supports). For example, to introduce research into a first-year introductory course, the instructor might provide a data collection form that spells out very specifically what students should observe and record (with low-stakes practice sessions to get everyone on the same page) so that the learning can focus on analyzing the collected data. Try monitoring your course design for expertise-related omissions (e.g., have you combined ideas or processes that students need to learn and practice separately first? have you provided the necessary framework to facilitate students' ability to apply a concept learning in one context to an appropriate but different context?).  

Many instructors have found the "decoding the disciplines" process to be an effective way to identify better ways to structure student learning.  The process begins with identifying "bottlenecks" in student learning (see References/Resources below) -- complex ideas or processes that students have difficulty understanding well enough to apply them in other contexts. Recording student "think-alouds" and using those to identify patterns is an effective method of determining where students go wrong in their thinking about complex ideas or processes.  Other strategies of particular importance with first-year students are reducing cognitive load and addressing common misconceptions. Consistent monitoring of student understanding and effective feedback also help students succeed.  

Give usable feedback

One other place where our expertise can pose a barrier to student learning lies in how we give feedback to students.  Telling your class that some percentage of them are likely to earn a D or an F on the next exam (or on the one they just took) is unlikely to convey the message we might think it does (see expectancy). If you typically provide a statistical analysis of how your class performed on an exam, try tying that information to the preparation strategies your students actually used (see exam wrappers) so that the data you provide helps students actually to use it.

The feedback we give on written assignments can be even more baffling to students.  Not understanding what to do about a comment (e.g. "unclear" or "logic?") tends to make students attend only to the comments they do understand, which tend to be the low-level grammatical errors and typos we have marked on their papers.  Research also indicates that most students attend not at all to feedback on assignments they think of as "one-off" (usually, to students, this means no opportunity to rewrite, even though, to us, it may mean we will assign this same type of writing assignment several times in this one course or through a program).  Many instructors know the feeling of seeing a pile of term papers from the previous semester go unclaimed by their authors until we finally recycle them, despite all the hours we spent providing insightful feedback. Here are some strategies that can help you avoid wasting your time while improving the clarity of the feedback you give. 

Develop metacognitive skills

See the "metacognition" page in CATL's Teaching Improvement Guide here:

Here's an example of a method that worked: Casselman, Brock L., and Charles H. Atwood. "Improving General Chemistry Course Performance through Online Homework-Based Metacognitive Training." Journal Of Chemical Education 94, no. 12 (2017): 1811-821.


Pace, D., & Middendorf, J., eds. (2004). Decoding the disciplines : Helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 98.  See also Pinnow, E. (2016). Decoding the disciplines: An approach to scientific thinking. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 15(1), 94-101.  See also Middendorf, J., Mickutė, J., Saunders, T., Najar, J., Clark-Huckstep, A. E., Pace, D., & McGrath, with K. E. and N. (2014). What’s feeling got to do with it? Decoding emotional bottlenecks in the history classroom. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education.  A 2017 edition of the Pace/Middendorf book was recently published.

Hoskins, D. (2013).  Provide Excellent Support: Initial Strategies.  In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from