On January 24th 2011 we were treated to a very thought-provoking seminar on “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: A Transformational Approach to Learning” as part of the University of Leicester’s Intrepid Researcher series. I won’t make extensive notes on the content of the presentation here because a very similar set of slides can be accessed here (Sept 2010, PowerPoint) and an older version here ( December 2008, pdf). A repository of resources related to the notion of Threshold Concepts is also available at this UCL site. I will reserve discussion here to a few of the main things that hit me.
Firstly, there is the notion that troublesome knowledge is really the key to maturing within a discipline – experiencing a certain amount of anxiety is a necessary part of moving on to deeper understanding. The concepts that trigger this experience within the majority of students may therefore be fundamental in their mastery of the topic. University education is analogous to gym membership (where work is required to reap the benefits) and not a stay at a luxury hotel.
Secondly, there is the importance of a mimicry phase in which students use the right words but in a way that reveals that they do not fully grasp the concepts that they are discussing. Reference was made here to Vygotsky and the use of new language in an ‘inverted commas’ way, though I have not managed to track down a citation for this. There were certainly echoes of this notion of using the right words without proper understanding amongst the first year short answer questions I have recently marked, but the starkest example of this was a final year project from a couple of years ago. The project overall was excellent and looked at the science and ethics of a recent bioethical innovation. The chapter examining the science of the topic demonstrated genuine understanding, but there was something instantly detectable in the chapter on the ethics that betrayed a limited grasp of the words being used.
Thirdly, the talk prompted me to reflect on the importance of trying to demonstrate the thinking that has led to particular knowledge (that is the process) and not just to the knowledge itself (the outcome). This point was attributed to David Perkins at Harvard. I do think that this is something I instinctively try and do, for example in talking through the experiments that have led to a certain hypothesis, but it was nonetheless helpful to be reminded of this.
Fourthly, there is the importance of dialogue with students at various points in order to help both you and them to understand their understanding. The notion of drawing a concept map about a particular topic and subsequently revising it later within the course was interesting. How else can we identify troublesome knowledge and help students in their transition to a deeper grasp of the principles? The industrial scale of modern courses was noted (Land shared someone’s observation that they used to teach big classes, now they teach small towns). I was reminded at this point of our experience using Friendfeed as a means of seeing not only what students are thinking but how they are thinking.
Under the direction of Alan Cann, our first year students have been using Friendfeed as a kind of meta-discussion board to raise problems and queries about a variety of their modules (the fact that it is not module specific helps to generate critical mass within the discussion). A number of staff, including me, have been active in responding to questions. We are therefore able to help students disentangle some of the issues that have cropped up. Over the Christmas vacation I was struck that I was answering the same couple of questions time and again. As I answered one of the questions for what seemed like the umpteenth time I confess that “why can’t you read the thread where this has already been discussed!” was a prevailing thought. However, in the light of Land’s seminar on threshold concepts I now see that there is value in the repetition of certain questions as it sheds light on the troublesome knowledge shared by many within the cohort and therefore issues which will require clearer teaching.