The Bumpy Road to Expert Status

Articles Discussed
Carter, M. (1990). The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing. College Composition and Communication, (3), 265. [Read]
Foertsch, J. (1995). Where Cognitive Psychology Applies: How Theories about Memory and Transfer Can Influence Composition Pedagogy. Written Communication, 12(3), 360–83.
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, (3), 373. doi:10.2307/25068074 [Read]
This week, Jenn brought me to her domain, assigning a couple of articles (Carter and Foertsch) that discuss composition theory.  Both authors arrive at a pluralistic model to understand the process that moves a student from novice writer to expert.  Along the way I was able to learn more about the two opposing schools of thought:  1) novices learn by using general knowledge (“universal, fundamental structures of thought and language”) to develop expertise as writers and 2) local knowledge is the key, as knowledge is “constituted by a community and writing is a function of a discourse community.”
Each of these opposing models was expressed in various terms and contains important concepts, outlined in the table below:

Most interesting to me was the alternative models of how a student moves from novice to expert, which I attempt to summarize below and simplify greatly:

  • General Process Model: Experts, through experience, have developed more effective general strategies than novices.  These general strategies can be tranfered from one domain to another and are thus more powerful than those that derive from local knowledge.
  • Local Knowledge Model: Experience in a domain is the dominant way a novice progresses to become expert in that domain.  General knowledge is not sufficient to advance within a discipline.  (The idea of experience is given a framework within cognitive psychology by Foertsch, as she distinguishes between semantic and episodic memory and their role in solving new problems we encounter.)
  • Pluralistic Model: General and local knowledge fall along a continuum and novices move along that continuum from general to local.  Absent the same knowledge and tools to integrate new knowledge as a disciplinary expert, a novice will rely on general knowledge strategies to acquire local knowledge.  In this manner, the novice acquires more local knowledge and eventually can operate primarily from a local knowledge approach within the domain.

I include the third article (Land and Meyer) to my list this week, because the process of acquiring expertise within a discipline is a central problem that is addressed by the authors — in their case through the use of a framework of threshold concepts.  I provided an overview of threshold concepts in an earlier post, but I think it would be useful to revisit the idea in light of this pluralistic model of expertise.  The central idea of threshold concepts is that there are certain important concepts in all disciplines that are particularly difficult for students to grasp.  Within the models presented by Carter and Foertsch, I would say that these problematic concepts represent ones that cannot be understood using only a general knowledge framework.

In large part this is because another necessary criterion of threshold concepts is that they are particularly troublesome, and often the underlying knowledge is counterintuitive to the uninitiated.  The ugly underside of this aspect of threshold concepts is that they often go unrecognized by experts in the discipline.  Having fully integrated these concepts within their larger disciplinary knowledge base, experts may be blind to the troublesome nature of these threshold concepts and not fully appreciate or even recognize the struggle their students face.

While difficult to move beyond, threshold concepts, once understood, are transformative to students’ understandings and are integrative in the sense that they help provide a more unified and comprehensive understanding of the discipline.  As important and significant mileposts along that disciplinary continuum, threshold concepts may be those anomalies where the accumulation of general knowledge does not provide a sufficient basis to continue their progress in the discipline.  Constructing learning opportunities that infuse a unique local knowledge perspective at these junctures may aid in pushing students along that continuum, happily moving ahead until the next troublesome concept slows them once again.

Threshold Concepts

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]