Today the lab meeting was more of an extension of the lab reading group, reviewing and discussing ideas from “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines” by Jan Meyer and Ray Land*.

Threshold concepts came to the attention of the group via a comment Liz made on Ben’s talk on learning to program. This paper identifies a threshold concept as a core concept that involves a change in perspective, as opposed to a core concept that doesn’t involve that shift, that without understanding the learner will be unable to access further parts of the task. We started out by spending a lot of time discussing the examples used, as there are many scattered throughout the paper. The group agreed that the examples were quite difficult to understand, perhaps because they were threshold concepts we hadn’t quite grasped!

Jim commented that the concept of a threshold concept is actually intensely personal – what is difficult to understand for one person is straightforward to another, and as such, how useful is the concept? The paper appears to have gathered data from experienced teachers, who are picking areas that they see students having trouble with, so in this case the information is targeted more at the teacher than the student – kind of a danger sign, alerting the teach that some topics may need more time than others. As such, it may be useful to work out what kind of problems missing these concepts may have further down the line.

There was a lovely quote apparently from Veterinary Sciences: “where students encountered severe conceptual difficulty such areas of the curriculum were quietly dropped”, which led to us wondering what kind of things were dropped and how important they might be (and lead to the title of this post – is telling a horse from a goldfish a threshold concept?!).

Section 4 in the paper was all about forms of “troublesome knowledge”, using a pre-existing definition of knowledge that is counter-intuitive, alien or incoherent, and discusses the forms that that kind of knowledge can take. This caused some confusion, as some of the terms used in the paper were familiar to members of the group from cognitive science but were being used in ways that didn’t quite fit their definitions. A great example of one of the sections on troublesome language! This section led to an interesting discussion on whether we agreed or disagreed with the distinctions and the terminology used.

Another query that the group raised was who controlled these thresholds? They seem to only be identified as such after you’ve been through one, which often serves to bring the way you think or see the world closer to the accepted norm for a particular group or community of practice. The way that you “know” things then becomes as important as what you know – so it is more important to be able to understand why things work is more important than just knowing that they do, as this may limit your ability to apply in different situations.

(I’ve realised how difficult it is to talk about these things in the abstract! That explains all of those examples in the paper… )

As always, a lively and interesting discussion. After the meeting, Edgar found the following video that has a clearer sense of what the “threshold concept” may be (although different from the one portrayed in the paper):

Liz has provided us with further papers, and a link to some research done in 2006-7 at Cambridge on teaching threshold concepts.

(In less lofty news, Ellie did remember cakes!)

Next week we have Jim talking us through his new area of research. Lesley has told us there may be some cake in the lab freezer. Is next week the time to find out? Be there…

*Meyer, J.H.F. & Land, R., 2003. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the discipline. … Student Learning: Improving Student Learning Theory …, pp.1–16. Available here  [Accessed November 5, 2012].