Notes on: Barradell, S. (2013) 'The identification of threshold concepts: a review of theoretical complexities and methodological challenges'.  Higher Education 65: 265-276.  DOI 10.1007/s10734-012-9542-3

Dave Harris

It is common to identify threshold concepts between lecturers and students must sometimes with educational developers: '"transactional curriculum inquiry"'.  Interviews, analyses of exam responses and classroom observations are also common.  However, there is a lack of agreement among the participants and also a need for wider professional and/or public involvement.

Apparently, Entwistle had an early input.  The threshold concept originally emphasise transformation of distinguishing them from core concepts which build upon layers.  A threshold concept is '(likely to be) transformative, (probably) irreversible, (potentially and possibly inherently) troublesome, and contains the capacity to be integrative and bounded' (266). The original Meyer and Land paper was exploratory.  There is been a lot of interest since,  but the terms have not always been investigated rigorously.  Should a threshold concepts have all five characteristics?  Are some more important than others?  What about hybrids?

Some researchers stressed troublesomeness, but lots of other concepts might be challenging.  Usually troublesomeness is combined with transformative potential.  These are fairly easy to identify and quite likely to be important in learning.  Some researchers have found that it is difficult to separate the attributes anyway, and that the last two derive from the first three.  There might be differences in different disciplines.  Finding all five seemed particularly difficult in some cases.  Individual attributes also seemed difficult in some cases, so that in physics, it was hard to develop boundedness as a criterion. If troublesomeness is the issue, it does not clearly define a threshold concept specifically.  The presentation of the concept might be a factor.  Academics' perception might not be the same as students' ones.  However, some common interpretation seems to be required.

The regional context for the work was a discussion of learning outcomes and how they might be distinguished between core and transformative.  The idea was to aid both teaching and student learning.  However, we know that many factors are involved in the learning experience of students, including teaching style: student focused approaches are 'generally considered more effective'[citing an old study by Prosser and Trigwell] (267).  Threshold concepts seem to preserve this focus on the student experience of learning [classically from an academics' perspective, however, hence the neglect of instrumentalism and emotions?] They also help streamline what is taught, identifying critical points in learning, swapping insights for mere content.  They offer the potential of integrating concepts between studies and across year levels to produce the whole framework in which 'content is selected, organized, presented and assessed'.

Such a framework might involve: mapping curriculum content to identify the transformative and troublesome aspects, and to consider links with prior knowledge and how it might be integrated in specific disciplines; contextualize seeing knowledge in different disciplinary ways, to explore of boundedness and integrative possibilities and make learning irreversible; recognise emotional aspects associated with learning, if we extend the notion of transformation to include identity; helping students to find their place within a discipline; providing appropriate scaffolding as students work through the liminal zones to consolidate or make irreversible cognitive gains.

Academics' knowledge and experience clearly influences their teaching, especially if we include pedagogical theory.  Threshold concepts might be a way of involving novices in teaching and learning practice, building on subject expertise but extending into the educational domain.  Again improving the learning experience of students is the key in identifying threshold concepts.

Threshold concepts are not easy to identify, so the actual identification process becomes important. The concepts were identified first in economics, and so they have been embraced in the more quantitative disciplines.  Research activity has used a variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques as well as reviewing old examination papers and observing classroom behaviour.  Transactional curriculum inquiry [originally a term used by Cousin 2009 Researching Learning in Higher Education, New York: Routledge] ] is required, and teachers have had to learn threshold concepts themselves, although students offer additional comparisons, sometimes to get lecturers to revisit those concepts that they now take for granted.  This is a job for educational developers, however.

Three examples are then chosen [economics, engineering and healthcare].  Economics is an example used by a Meyer and Land themselves, there is apparently a large scale international project to identify threshold concepts going on in engineering, and new interest in Health Care, especially in physiotherapy.

In economics, a number of methods to identify threshold concepts have been pursued, involving conversations between lecturers and students.  For example colleagues were asked to identify threshold concepts, and 42 were identified, although only eight gained sufficient consensus.  The 'variability of economics practice' across three universities involved might have been responsible for the large numbers identified, but it is more likely that different interpretations of what a threshold concept was were responsible.  Another study used answers to tests in economics to examine the concepts being used, and differences between lecturers and students were noted.  Past examination papers were also examined, on content that have been identified as covering threshold concepts.  The bimodal distribution that resulted in grades were interpreted as indicating whether students were using integrating threshold concepts or not.  The combination of methods used indicates some transactional processes, but students were not asked what they were learning independently, just whether they had grasped threshold concepts identified by the staff.

In engineering, one study focused on students first, observing a lab setting.  The focus was on student difficulties.  In another case, a simulation tested the characteristics of integration and boundedness.  This overcome some other problems in asking students to recall the difficulties, especially if threshold concepts are irreversible.  However, troublesomeness did not seem to arise specifically from threshold concepts, but indicated many other factors including student preparation and student motivation.  The current collaborative international project tries to involve perspectives of Academics' tutors and students.  Threshold concepts are identified primarily through the transformative potential ['chosen after personal communication received by the authors from Jan Meyer'(271), which included troublesomeness].  Some additional facilitators were used to help participants identify threshold concepts, and a list was finally produced, together with a prediction about what made these troublesome and transformative and how students might be helped - so nice and centred on student learning.

Two subsequent phases ensued, one consider the experience from within a single subject, while another investigated interdisciplinary interaction.  There is apparently a similar project in Indiana University 'that shares many principles with threshold concepts', and which forms 'Faculty Learning Communities', where a small groups of faculty members from different Academics' specialisms are actively collaborated and think about how to support student learning.  Interdisciplinary dialogue helps academics' 'to explain the true essence of the discipline and its ways of thinking and practicing'

This later project included students as well, however and also had discussions between different institutions, aiming at greater rigour.  It refers to 'threshold capabilities' although this idea has not yet led to empirical work.  The categories of irreversibility, integration and boundedness were not included, and things might have been different if they had been.  There were still 'varied interpretation as to whether five or 13 threshold concepts had been identified by participants' (272).

In Healthcare, threshold concepts are becoming known.  An early personal reflection identified hearing as a threshold concept, based on occupational therapy and physiotherapy and the critical incidence identified by students on placement.  Caring was troublesome for students and ultimately transformed their practice.  However, student data were subsequently interpreted by the author, so it is not a well developed transactional inquiry.  An action research project in Australia showed the practical potential, after deciding that the proper threshold concept must satisfy all characteristics, for reasons not offered.  Using this more stringent definition, and after consultation with staff, five agreed threshold concepts were produced and these 'aligned positively with [an agreed] overall curriculum reform agenda'.

These examples show that is not easy to identify threshold concepts, then it takes time and discussion and debate to do so.  Collaboration is essential between academics and also with students.  It is vital to learn from student experience [but not if they take an instrumental stance?].  Further, whole disciplinary and professional communities ought to be involved to develop shared understanding which will lead to more rigour.

Stakeholders beyond the immediate environment need to be involved such as representatives of the profession, to introduce professional issues.  This might be easier to manage on professional degrees where there is already collaboration.  It does acknowledge the existence of professional standards that graduates also need to investigate.  They might not be threshold concepts in themselves, again but they can be linked to them.  Threshold concepts might further encourage dialogues between theorists and practitioners. 

Some other projects seem to find it easier than others to achieve agreement among the participants, so some kind of 'consensus methodology' might be important (274), but the identification process and where threshold concepts need to encounter professional competences.  Recommended techniques include Nominal Group Technique and the Delphi Technique.  Both are apparently, and in Health Sciences.  Consensus and is to be established between practitioners and theorists, between the concepts appearing in the literature and those emerging empirically.  These techniques might be used to structure transactional inquiry.

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