The idea of threshold concepts is a helpful one, I think, because it encourages educators to interrogate their subject and their teaching of it for the broader, more thematic elements in order to identify ‘what is fundamental to a grasp of the subject they are teaching’ (Cousin, p.4, 2006), and use these as the basis upon which to build teaching upon.  In my reading of the idea of threshold concepts, they seem to be elements of a subject that are explanations of the why, rather than the what.  Cousin refers to Meyer and Land’s (2006, quoted in Cousin, 2006) illustration of how you might identify a threshold concept, giving the example of chefs understanding of ‘the concept in physics of heat transfer as a function of temperature gradient’ being key to developing skills in cooling or heating ingredients.  It is, for Cousin, an underlying principle that, once understood, can be applied to specific processes or functions, and in a variety of contexts.

Some of the skills I attempt to teach Psychology students are:

  • Constructing effective literature searches
  • Searching for (academic) sources and literature
  • Critical assessment of types of source
  • Referencing, and how to reference sources appropriately

I would describe these as important skills for all students to acquire in higher education, however I would probably identify them as key processes (or the whats of the research process), rather than threshold concepts in and of themselves.  Each of these skills are elements that students should factor in to the writing of a successful essay at undergraduate level.  In relation to the marking of academic essays, there is (for example) reference to the effective use of research in the rubric, and so this is a reason why students should learn the skills above.  However, I think that the more unifying concept here for why these skills are important are the principles behind academic, essay or scientific-article writing.  If students understood the conventions of this form of writing, the academic process behind it, and could identify a good or bad essay, you can then identify what these skills look like when applied well (or badly) in this form of writing.  It would help to uncover the why in relation to these skills and so the threshold concept here is, I think, the nature and process of academic writing.  The teaching of the skills themselves would then fit in to the learner’s understanding of essay-writing, and the practice of the skills would be contextuialised, explained and grounded within this.

Perhaps it is reasonable to assume that different skills have a number of threshold concepts?  For example, it is important for students to understand the concept of plagiarism.  This concept is an explanation for why students should reference their research.  However, perhaps plagiarism is a concept that fits in with that of academic writing, and that of academic honesty and diligence.  In which case, while plagiarism itself is an important concept to grasp, it perhaps isn’t necessarily a threshold concept.

A further facet of the referencing problem is that, with the plethora of sources of information available to students, and the usually singular medium (the internet) with which they access them, they can sometimes struggle to identify the type of source (newspaper article; blog; journal article; government report etc.) that they have found.  This in turn leads to issues such as finding and identifying appropriate scholarly sources, and applying the correct referencing convention for the type of source.  In this sense, a further threshold concept might be identified as the ability to identify types of source, regardless of their form/medium.  While this is in some ways a very functional skill, it underlies a number of other skills that students need to make use of and so might be considered a threshold concept in itself.  It would provide students with the ability to identify types of source correctly, perhaps through an understanding of the different types of writing, and their various mediums and publication methods, which would then feed into the process of evaluating, selecting and using sources effectively in their own work.

It would seem to me that threshold concepts can provide a helpful tool with which to approach teaching.  Thinking about curriculum in these terms could facilitate the approach to the teaching of a subject or skill in a more thematic way, but I think that this needs to be carefully managed and probably best used in the planning of whole courses, or modules at the very least, rather than discrete elements such as topics.  That way the concepts that cut across the various elements of a course can be “joined up”, and inform (or be revisited within) the teaching of discrete modules or topics.  The danger is that these concepts are not then bound to the content, processes or skills that are subsequently taught, which is why these should inform the teaching that follows so that the application of these concepts are flagged-up in an appropriate, direct way to contextualise both elements.

For me, thinking about the learning objectives of my workshops, and the concepts that underpin them, would help me to approach the teaching of these skills in a more thorough, thoughtful and perhaps rigorous way.

References

Cousin, G. (2006). ‘An introduction to threshold concepts’, Planet, 17 (December 2006), pp. 4-5. Available at: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/Cousin%20Planet%2017.pdf

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