Alice and doorway
Well, that’s a threshold I can’t cross!

Threshold concepts are, in essence, those stumbling blocks that prevent a student from advancing within a chosen discipline.  Those fully invested in a discpline have a shared vocabulary, body of knowledge (and approach to it), tools, and sometimes, biases.  However, pracitioners in a discpline are often so immersed in their field that the foundational framework from which they think and work is often unspoken and unrecoginzed.

A student new to a field of study, however, must somehow learn and integrate these foundational concepts of the discipline.  Often the concepts must be encountered in a progressive manner, with one leading to insights that prepare them for the next.  In formulating the idea of threshold concepts, Jan Meyer and Ray Land provide a theoretical and practical method to help teachers identify and address these important disciplinary understandings.

As they point out, not every important concept within a discipline should be identified as a threshold concept.  Indeed, they outline five qualities that characterize a threshold concept:

  • Transformative: grapsing the concept will help a student experience a “shift in perspective”
  • Integrative: it brings together other competencies or disciplinary concepts into a unified understanding
  • Irrersible: no turning back!
  • Bounded: in the disciplinary context, it helps define the unique boundaries of the field
  • Troublesome: moving beyond the idea is difficult and not initially intuitive or even logical

I find this construct to be very compelling, as it fits in well with what I observe while working with students.  Amy Hofer, a librarian at Portland State University, writes about how this idea of threshold concepts can be applied to information literacy.  While the focus of threshold concepts is within a discpline (e.g., helping students “think like a biologist”), Hofer contends that all college students would benefit from “understanding some of the information science concepts that underlie the practice of librarianship.”

The concepts that rise to the level of “threshold concepts” are certainly open to debate, and in fact, ideally should be constructed within the context of local discussions.  However, as a starting point, those identified by Hofer seem to be appropriate.  They strike me as a useful checklist to consult when planning strategies and programs that will help high school students make that difficult transition to college.

Here are those troublesome threshold concepts Hofer identifies (Note: the article itself — link below — provides more detail on each of these):

  • Metadata = Findability
  • Good Searches Use Database Structure
  • Format as a Process
  • Authority is Constructed and Contextual
  • Primary Source is and Exact and Conditional Category
  • Information as Commodity
  • Research Solves Problems

Simply used as a starting point for discussion, this list holds great promise.  I easily see connections to the objectives outlined by Jenn in her ENG 105 syllabus, and it points the way to further initiatives that will help students transcend these major stumbling blocks in order to advance as readers, researchers, and writers.

Documents Referred to in this Post

Hofer, A. R., Townsend, L., & Brunetti, K. (2012). Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 12(4), 387–405. [Read article]
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373–388. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5 [Read article]

3 thoughts on “Threshold Concepts

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