Crossing the threshold

June 2014


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With one professor describing it as “the most important and innovative teaching development in the last 20 years” and an increasing number of faculty and students singing its praises, we find out what is the fuss over the ‘Threshold Concept Theory is all about.

When Professor Jonathan Scott arrived at the University of Waikato in 2006, he was aware there was a record of underperformance amongst first-year electronic engineering students, and as with the rest of the world, retention rates in the discipline were concerning. He had to do something to turn the stats around.

He crossed the campus to the Wilf Malcolm Institute for Educational Research, based in the Faculty of Education, in search of some teaching help. In what was a serendipitous moment, institute director Professor Bronwen Cowie was looking into a relatively new teaching theory called ‘Threshold Concept Theory’. Equally fortunate was that senior research officer Ann Harlow in the office next door had just finished a project and had a gap in her calendar to work with Professor Scott. He volunteered to be, with his class, the guinea pigs upon whom to test the theory.

That was more than four years ago.

The idea of threshold concepts emerged 11 years ago from a national research project in the United Kingdom. It was developed by Professors Erik Meyer and Ray Land who’d found that certain concepts held by economists were central to the mastery of their subject. The two men argued that the concepts could be described as ‘threshold’ because they had certain critical features in common: they were integrative, troublesome, transformative and irreversible. They required people to transform previously held views or understandings.

Professor Scott spent three months boning up on the theory. “Part of the problem with electrical or electronic engineering is that you’re essentially dealing with something you can’t see and that scares the living daylights out of some people. The more I read about threshold concepts, the more sense it made. It gelled with engineering.”

After the first year, work continued as a two-year Teaching Learning and Research Initiative (TLRI) was awarded. As Professor Scott worked with each new intake of students, Ann Harlow went into labs to monitor progress, interviewed students and carried out online surveys, while Senior Research Fellow Dr Mira Peter undertook the quantitative analysis. Retention rose to 80 per cent, “which is considered superb in the worldwide electronics business,” says Professor Scott.

It required a big shift in the way Professor Scott taught his subject. “The first thing I had to do was reduce the content – and I really had to think about how to do that. With electronic engineering you hit the ground hard, you don’t start easy and build up, and you have to grasp some pretty difficult concepts from the start. Instead of teaching five concepts in that first year, I cut it down to two.”

Ann Harlow says that for any number of reasons students might fail to grasp the threshold concepts, which is what makes them ‘troublesome’. What they’re being asked to learn might be counter-intuitive, alien, involve difficult language and even seem incoherent. “So learners may find themselves in a state of limbo, in what we call the liminal space – a suspended state of being stuck.”

Teachers therefore need to address troublesome features and present the concept in a variety of ways, says Ms Harlow. “Sometimes the students will grasp a concept in one situation but not in another. They’ll get it one day and not the next. Then you get your light-bulb moment, when you cross the threshold, and once you learn it you never go back. You cannot remember what it’s like not to have that understanding.”

To help students with their learning, Professor Scott introduced scratch cards so students could get immediate feedback on tests. He worked with summer scholarship student Toby Balsom to design online tutorials that students could use instead of old fashioned tutorials. Once they’ve mastered five problems in a row, they can move on to the next section. These have garnered great praise from the students.

“Sometimes it takes more than a year for a student to truly grasp a threshold concept. Learning by rote just won’t work,” Professor Scott says.

The TLRI research project, facilitated by Ann Harlow and Dr Peter, also included practitioner researchers in different disciplines across campus – in English, leadership and doctoral writing. “We regularly get together to analyse progress and there’s a lot of argy-bargy as people get their heads around Threshold Concept Theory. It does require steady reading and a big investment in motivation and time.”

But Ann Harlow cautions that teaching threshold concepts requires a lot of commitment by lecturers, and that insights gained by learners as they cross thresholds can be exhilarating, but also might be unsettling, often requiring an uncomfortable shift in identity, as one student commented.

“There are a few ideas that are difficult, like ‘Thevenin’, but that is highlighted as being tricky and he [Prof Scott] spends quite a few lectures just so that we can pick it up. When we first did it I had no idea, and thought, ‘Sure, I’ll take your word for it.’ But now I can do most of it on my own. I would recognise it now – it’s hard, but I can do it. It is just remembering how to simplify the circuit down, because everything has its own set of rules – like whether it’s in parallel or series, there is a lot to remember. Once you pick it up it’s OK, but when you are learning it is a struggle.”

At the end of 2013, Ms Harlow and Dr Peter convened a conference called ‘Transforming Disciplines: Emergent Learning and Threshold Concepts (ELTC)’. Attendees came from universities in New Zealand and Australia and covered diverse fields including engineering, physics, religious studies, medicine, accounting, economics, drama and blended learning. Ann Harlow says the conference provided an excellent opportunity to contextualise the theory inside the traditions and practices of many given disciplines.

Professor Meyer, co-developer of the theory, was there and gave the opening address. His focus was on variation within the theory. His example was open catchment hydraulics and demonstrated the structural complexity of the ways in which students can develop a capacity for meta-learning by judging responses to assessment tasks, generated by others and themselves. He said threshold concepts provided teachers and learners with a new analytic lens.

“A number of presentations pointed to the need to explore with students their conceptions of what learning actually is, which in itself is complex,” says Ms Harlow. “They need to know the processes and purposes of learning. Once the concept is grasped, the challenge becomes bridging one concept with another and understanding the ways they relate. Taking this stance has implications for curriculum design and assessment. I don’t think it’s for the faint-hearted.”

Professor Scott is a committed convert. “I’m confident enough to say this is the most important and innovative teaching development in the last 20 years, but it’s easy to mess up, and requires hard work. It requires a lot of effort to understand and use the theory.”

A question that arises at events such as the ELTC conference is ‘where to next?’ “I really want to flip the classroom,” says Professor Scott. “Instead of students coming to class and being given a talk on what they have to learn, we would say ‘read this’ or ‘watch this’ and later when they come to class we give practical examples of what they’ve been reading about, solve problems together.” It is already being done in online courses and in some Californian schools, with the aid of sites like the Khan Academy.

The learning of threshold concepts – moving through the so-called ‘portal to understanding’ – tends to happen when you are applying ideas, not when you are hearing about them at a lecture. It’s at this time that the support of knowledgeable staff is most important. Flipping the classroom leaves the students to gather information by themselves and brings in staff when the students are called upon to apply what they have read about.

Dr Peter and Professor Scott are currently applying for a new TLRI grant to conduct research into what impacts a flipped classroom might have on student learning of threshold concepts in electronic engineering. 


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