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Threshold Concepts In Practice: An Example From The Classroom

image via Jarret Callahan on Flickr

image via Jarret Callahan on Flickr

I recently read the new draft of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and really liked some of the threshold concepts. They felt more holistic than simply trying to teach skills piecemeal. I also was teaching a brand new class last week that wasn’t completely coming together for me — that is, until I tried using a threshold concept to frame the lesson. This seemed to make it click.

I was preparing for an information literacy lesson for sophomores on ethnographic research that our teaching librarians team worked on as a group and that my colleague Lindsey Rae was instrumental in leading and designing. It was a solid lesson that involved a significant amount of active learning, but I felt like I wanted to make a few adjustments to make it work for me. I had a copy of the draft Framework sitting on my desk at the time and realized that this lesson fit in perfectly with the threshold concept Research as Inquiry.

This semester as a part of our information literacy curriculum we are looking at the theme “research strategies” and are discussing different strategies in different classes such as: mindmapping, developing keywords, doing interviews/ethnographic research, etc. And I realized that these are all methods of inquiry. They are ways of developing, formulating, restating, improving, and answering questions. And when I was able to frame the lesson in terms of the research process as inquiry it all came together.

I set up the lesson by saying that research is about asking and trying to answer questions and that ethnographic research was another way of doing that. They had already done textual research using books and articles and this was yet another way of getting answers that had different a different value proposition than reading texts. After practicing doing a little background research and interviewing their classmates I asked them what worked well and what didn’t and they enumerated a number of best practices for interviewing (including things like asking open-ended questions, being polite and respectful, and withholding judgment). I then asked about what the value of ethnographic research in comparison to reading a text and they gave a number of excellent answers including:

  • You get a personal perspective
  • You can see how beliefs work in practice
  • You can ask followup questions and have a conversation
  • You get a richer picture and come across anecdotes and stories that you might not in texts

This was a sampling of the responses, but this was a class that I merely facilitated — students drove the lesson and supplied all the answers. I wrapped it up by reframing the lesson in terms of inquiry and compared that research process to a room in which the lights slowly come on. At first you see very little and then you see some shapes and outlines. As you try different methods, explore more, and ask better and better questions, you begin to see colors and rich detail and really understand what the room looks like.

Using these threshold concepts may not work for everyone, but I can see them being exceedingly helpful to frame lessons and curricula. They help you focus on what is really important as opposed to getting stuck in what you think you are supposed to be teaching. Instead of just teaching a lesson about doing ethnographic research I taught a lesson about inquiry and asking increasingly sophisticated questions. An ethnography is just one lens and one method for doing that.

Andy Burkhardt

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience using these threshold concepts in the field. I’m very excited by the direction this framework is heading and the sources the group is using to frame their work, but I have been kind of hung up on threshold concepts in context of short, one-time contacts with students. There remains a lot of work to be done applying and testing this framework and your post offers a great start in that direction and gives me some ideas to try out. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Ryer, for the comment and I can see your concern with threshold concepts being not as easy to utilize in short, one-shot sessions. I think the Framework can be helpful for setting up lessons and making sure we are focused on not just skills but larger concepts. I also think that these concepts are probably impossible to completely teach in one session. It seems like these concepts are larger and go across different information literacy instructions sessions, but also various classes and disciplines. Professors can be teaching these as well. They seem helpful for staying on message though and bringing students back to the larger concepts so they can integrate them into all their classes and their professions as well.

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