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.


How to Fix Reference

At the ACRL-NEC conference I attended recently there was a fair amount of talk about decreasing reference usage. I suppose I have heard rumblings about this, but I didn’t realize how serious a problem in many places. At Champlain College where I work, our reference usage stats are increasing, and I think some of the things we are doing could help other libraries as well.

First, it helps that we get to see students almost every semester through our revolutionary information literacy program spearheaded by Sarah Cohen. Students get used to seeing a librarian and realize that we can help them. Instruction is very closely tied to reference. Re-evaluate what and how much you are doing in the classroom. Don’t just tell students there are databases available to them. Tell them WHY Google is not always the best place to get information. Make the case for libraries.

Second, professors give assignments that require library resources or that students must talk to a librarian. I think this one would be the most beneficial for anyone in increasing their reference usage. Forcing students to use the library is a great way to help them try it out and see how beneficial using the library can be. I constantly see students amazed at how useful the library is after they get over the idea that “it’s all on Google.” One student even found that using the library was quicker than searching online because they didn’t have to wade through all the “useless websites.” So, talk to your professors. Ask them to build the library into their assignments. They’ll be rewarded with better student work and you’ll be rewarded with a busy reference desk. I know we are.

Finally, we record reference statistics differently from other libriaries I have worked at. Instead of doing the tally method we are using Zoho Creator to easily create a form to record every reference encounter. This form collects all the data and you can export it easily into an Excel spreadsheet. This makes data collection simple, but it also allows you to see what stories your numbers are telling.


I made up a graph With the help of my good bud Chris Campion I made up a a graph in Excel using our data and we can see that a good percentage of our questions are coming through chat. You can also look at other things like “when are the bulk of your questions coming in?” Are you getting a lot of questions later at night? Perhaps you might want to discuss changing your reference hours to support this trend in the data.

These are just a few ideas, but they seem to be working for us. What’s working at your library, or what isn’t working?


Going to the library is like sex

Follow me on this one. It’s a sensational title, but as I was in a library instruction class the professor actually compared going to the library to sex. You can’t get better marketing than this.

We were doing some Q&A towards the end of the session, when the conversation surprisingly turned to libraries and library science in general. They were asking me about my profession. These were things like, “what do you enjoy most about librarianship,” “is there a secret librarian handshake,” “and are libraries going to be around in a hundred years?” I gave them my honest opinion on these things, and they were pretty easy questions since we as librarians think about them all the time (except we probably do need a secret handshake).

But towards the end, the professor brought up a point about libraries as a physical space. He talked about how if it was possible to download all the experiences, thoughts, emotions, etc. of one human being, we’ll call him Mr. Jones, and upload it onto a computer or terminal, then someone could interact with that personality composed of all those experiences, but not the physical individual. It was his contention that the experience of Mr. Jones’ friends, relatives and especially romantic partners would be severely diminished  if they could only interact with this bodiless personality and not a physical person.

He then compared this to the library as a physical space. Of course we have all this information, and much of it can be accessed online, but again his contention was that your experience and your college career would be diminished if you were not able to interact physically with the library.

It was at this point that a sharp student asked if he was comparing the library to sex. His response? “Going to the library is the most fun you can have with you clothes on” (a la Jerry Della Femina).

I really respect this professor and love his enthusiasm and excitement about the library. But I also really found this philosophical discussion of the library very enlightening.

The library is not just a collection of information. In our Western society we are often very dualistic, separating the mind and body. But a human is not just the sum of his thoughts and experiences. It is also his physical pleasures, scars, and smells. So to is the library not just the information inside it, but the quiet study nooks, the frantic computer lab the week before finals and the interactions with friends, professors, and librarians. You’re missing an important part of college if you haven’t been to the library.