Threshold Concepts: Helping Students Break through Learning Barriers

breakthrough-1027872_960_720Many, if not all instructors have seen their students struggle to grasp or even fail to understand a concept important to progressing in a course or subject area. This type of learning block can derail a student’s development and have a ripple effect in their studies, particularly if that concept is a building block for future learning. These types of concepts have been identified by researchers in a UK national research project into qualities of strong teaching and learning in the undergraduate disciplines (Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses). Erik Meyer and Ray Land, economics professors, found that certain concepts were held by economists that are central to mastering their subject, and that such “threshold concepts” had common features. The acquisition of threshold concepts has been likened to passing through a portal, where learners enter new conceptual territory. New ways of thinking or practicing, previously inaccessible, come into view for learners. Without these concepts, which often afford a transformed view of the subject landscape, students often cannot progress.

Further work over the past decade has examined threshold concepts in a wide range of subject areas, finding that identifying threshold concepts in an instructor’s discipline is a useful first step to tackling “troublesome knowledge”. A group of professors has created a process to increase student learning of threshold concepts called “Decoding the Disciplines”. The process begins with identifying learning bottlenecks making explicit tacit knowledge of experts (like professors) to help students master the mental actions needed for success.

For more information about Threshold Concepts and the Decoding the Disciplines model:
Decoding the Disciplines website
ETL Project (Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses)
International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
Threshold Concept in Practice (text)

Design Your Own Professional Development

Friday, January 20 9AM – 12:30PM

Join eLIS for a constructivist professional development workshop in an “unconference” model to kick-start your use of technology in instruction for the Spring semester. For those unfamiliar, an unconference is an organic, participant-driven professional development event. We will gather together from 9-9:30AM to brainstorm the key topics that participants would like to cover, and then we’ll break out into three one-hour workshops based on the topics the group generates.

Examples of topics we might engage in together:

  • Designing online discussions
  • Choosing technology tools to support learning
  • Using the online environment to support learning
  • Using video and multimedia in your class

Examples of technology tools we may discuss as part of the training:

  • Blackboard Basics
  • Advanced Blackboard topics such as using rubrics or the grade center
  • Using Atomic Learning in your classes
  • Conducting a webinar with Collaborate Ultra
  • Using Kaltura for sharing video in myLesley

Registration will be required. Click here to register.


Create a Storyboard

Traditionally a storyboard is a sequence of drawings, often with dialogue or directions, that is used in filmmaking to visualize and organize a scene before it is filmed. Storyboards are very good for media projects where you need to prepare before you begin filming or creating content, but they can be used for lots of other things. You can essentially use a storyboard for anything where you need to move through a process or a collection of content or information.

Storyboards are great for designing a course or even just a learning activity. They allow you to work through a process step-by-step before your students have to do it. By creating a storyboard, you can see the big picture of your course and how everything connects together… or doesn’t. You ensure you haven’t overlooked potential obstacles as well as potential opportunities. Visualizing how all the pieces of a course or assignment work together can help you communicate it to your students making sure they too know how their learning is connected.

The video below walks through creating a journey map for getting a cup of coffee. Sounds simple, right? Even simple things can have many steps. How many did you think weren’t important to mention, but were actually quite critical to the end goal?

Journey Map from Stanford on Vimeo.

Backward Design

Backward Design is a method of designing courses that works backwards from the desired end goals of a course rather than beginning with a list of content and activities that will be taught.

To begin the backward design process, you identify what your students need to know and be able to do once they have completed the course. These are your course goals or outcomes.

Next, you identify what evidence you will need to determine if your students are meeting those goals. How will you know they are able to do the necessary tasks you identified as your course goals? Will a test truly tell you if they have mastered a skill or will they need to create a project?

Finally, you design the activities and coursework students will complete to develop the skills and knowledge and result in the evidence you need to assess them.

This backwards process ensures that your students have all the content and activities that they need to achieve the goals of the course. It also helps eliminate extra course content that may not work towards those goals creating a focused and streamlined course and allowing plenty of time for students to practices their new skills in ways that are meaningful and directly relate to the content.

The two videos below will provide you with a couple of examples of backwards design.


Visible Thinking

Visible Thinking is a research-based approach to making learning visible so that it can be reflected on and built on. It emphasizes three core practices: thinking routines, the documentation of student thinking and reflective professional practice. It is the difference between teaching skills and teaching students to think creatively and critically. The use of thinking routines encourages the development of habits of observing and analyzing situations and problems. Project Zero developed thinking routines as simple structures that help students work through complex information to make it accessible and then to reflect back on what they have learned.

View the video below for an introduction to Thinking Routines. Then review the tools to find one to begin using in your classes now.