Threshold concepts – notes from the reading group

Suzi read Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts by James Rhem (2013)

This relatively short article is part general discussion but mostly practical advice. The points I found most interesting were:

  • “Learning thresholds” might have been a better name, according to Ray Land.
  • There’s been success using threshold concepts as a way to get academics talking about their subject from an education point of view. They are something that people “get” and often enjoy engaging with, though they might struggle to agree on a definitive list of concepts for their subject.
  • To get through the liminal space takes “recursive, deep learning” (which I take to mean an immersive experience). This can be difficult to achieve.
  • We need to help students become more resilient and more optimistic, to help them make it through (there was little idea of how to do this though).
  • Trying to simplify the concepts for students may be counter-productive as it may encourage mimicry.

It made me reflect on conversations I’ve had about students mathematical ability when they arrive at university: they might make it through a-level but not really understand or be able to apply the concepts. This seems very similar to the contrast between mimicry and crossing the threshold.

Mike read Demistifying thereshold concepts by Darrell Rowbottom is a critique of the concept from a philosophy professor (2007)

Threshold concepts, as an idea, appeal to me, but I have found them to be a slippery/troublesome concept in themselves. It was interesting to read this critique which critiqued Meyer’s and Land’s ideas, and those who state they have found examples of them in particular subject areas. The paper took issue with:

  • the interpretation of a concept and the application of the theory, which Rowbottom states is closer to ability
  • explores whether these things are bounded in the way the term threshold implies. Thresholds will be relative (different for different people)
  • the woolly language used eg they are ‘significant’ in terms of the transformation that occurs
  • suggests they are not definable and not measurable. You cannot empirically isolate them or test for them (the latter is part of a wider issue for education for me).

Whilst much of this is valid, and as Suzi mentioned, Land would  use a different name if starting from scratch, I still think the idea has some use. I suggest most theories of education are difficult to isolate or prove, and  thinking about the most troublesome and transformative concepts can still help design curricula and focus teaching and learning.

Gem read  What’s the matter with Threshold Concepts? by Lori Townsend, Amy Hofer and Korey Brunetti is a guest post on the ARClog Blog (Blogging by and for academic and research librarians, posted Jan 2015).   This short piece was a response to some of the arguments against Threshold Concepts. The authors attempted a reasonable rebuttal of seven main arguments against Threshold concepts (listed below for interest) and they made some good counter-arguments, some with respect to information literacy instruction (discipline-specific).

Arguments against Threshold Concepts

  1. Threshold concepts are aren’t based on current research about teaching
  2. Everything is a threshold concept
  3. Threshold concepts are unproven
  4. Threshold concepts don’t address skill development
  5. Threshold concepts ignore the diversity of human experience
  6. Threshold concepts are hegemonic
  7. Threshold concepts require us to agree on all the things

The authors (I felt) successfully argued that there was theoretical value to using these concepts and helped me appreciate the usefulness of this theory as a pedagogic model (this was discussed further with the reading group). Jargon and woolly language is a real barrier to comprehension and being able to critically appraise different educational theories (for me at least coming from a science background). I have struggled with some theoretical approaches to pedagogy but the Threshold concept model, or at least my understanding of it, is one approach that I see useful and comprehensible from the point of view of both teacher and leaner having related experiences of both to this model.

Their conclusion “it’s useful to think of threshold concepts as a model for looking at the content we teach in the context of how learning works” was very thought provoking.

For me I relate traversing the liminal space as acquiring a new, albeit difficult skill (ability, idea) and then the consolidation of this new acquisition. The application of this new skill occurs only once I have passed through the Threshold and am on the other side (thus able to apply this new knowledge successfully to a task).

Roger readThreshold concepts: implications for game design”. This paper describes a project to develop an educational game covering threshold concepts in information literacy.  The authors give an account of the lessons learnt through the process of designing and testing the game.  They conclude that their original idea of a single player game did not reflect the team-based nature of research, the individual competitive game structure did not match the collaborative educational approach they were trying to model, and opportunities were needed for expert input in the game process. They suggest strategies for future improvements including using more open game structures, incorporating debriefing and offering social as well as individual learning contexts.

Other suggested reading