Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (a brief introduction)

Troublesome knowledge (Perkins 2006) and threshold concepts (Meyer and Land 2006) help us to understand why learners do not learn at a steady rate. The trajectory of learning is peppered with stormy patches to be navigated. These periods may be associated with emotional turmoil, irreversible changes in perspective and challenges to identity.

Perkins (2006) explains why knowledge may be troublesome (e.g. It may be ritualistic, conceptually challenging or alien). This in turn helps us to understand how students may grapple to assimilate and accommodate information, how they may behave when thresholds are not dealt with (e.g. mimicry) and how they may be supported by teachers (see for example Cousins 2006).

According to Meyer & Land (2006) a liminal state exits for learners between entering and emerging from engagement with a threshold concept. There are parallels here with the emotional turmoil associated with critical thinking (Brookfield 2011). Cousins (2006) suggests that teachers may support students in their liminal state by empathising with them and by tuning into the factors which influence the learning journey of individuals to inform their support approach. Additionally she suggests teachers should permit liminal states and facilitate learners to know that they are not alone in their tumultuous time. Land (2011) advocates meta-learning approaches to equip students to cope with liminality. His recommended approaches include reflective logs, cognitive mapping and diarizing the learning journey (see Land 2011).

The use of recursive approaches (Cousins 2006; Land 2011) and varied learning techniques (Marton and Trigwell 2000; Land 2011) may be useful if learning happens in the manner proposed. Such methods enable the learner to approach a challenge from different angles. Learners will ‘click’ with one method or another or may build up a triangulated picture through the mixed methods to which they are exposed. Methods that are active, perhaps with creative and social dimensions, are deemed appropriate (Meyer and Land 2006; Hill 2010) for assisting learners through troublesome knowledge. These may include discovery learning, inquiry based learning and role-play, discussion, creative writing and experimentation (Perkins 2006). However, Hill (2010) cautions that not all learners always want to be active and prefer transmission modes.

Practitioners need to bring about pragmatic constructivism recognizing the reality of their operating context and traditions and nuances of the discipline when deciding on precise learning activities. The active learning process can be consuming on the part of both learners and teachers, so choices in the learning context should be sustainable and the curriculum not crammed (Cousins 2006).

Research in to threshold concepts has tended to focus on subject areas (e.g. economics, mathematics and research methods) across different levels, including for doctoral research students (see Kiley & Wisker 2009). The focus on subjects makes sense since precise choices of appropriate learning activities may be a product of:
-Subject tradition and nuances
-Types of knowledge under consideration
-The cause of ‘the trouble’
-Learner’s own prior view of the world

In their paper, Kiley & Wisker (2009) looked specifically at thresholds for doctoral students and suggest that there are six specific threshold concepts at this level for research students:

-Argument
-Theorising
-Framework
-Knowledge creation
-Analysis and interpretation
-Research paradigm

In a programme with a large social learning element the online discursive dimension may be loaded with it’s own challenges; especially since it encompasses, or at least touches upon, the core threshold concepts as cited above (or others). While academic community is proposed as a solution to negotiating threshold concepts (Wisker et al. 2010) engagement is also, in itself, a challenge.

Teachers may scaffold student progress but the responsibility for working through troublesome learning points ultimately remains with the learner. Bruner (1966 cited in Allen 2005) asserts that instruction should ultimately lead to self sufficiency in learners. Marton and Trigwell (2000) suggest that independence is important for the real world beyond student life.

For a comprehensive resource see Michael Flannegan’s pages: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html

Allen, K. (2005). “Online learning: constructivism and conversation as an approach to learning.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 42(3): 247-256.
Brookfield, S. (2011). The Risks of Becoming Critically Reflective, Laureate Education.
Cousin, G. (2006). “An introduction to threshold concepts.” Planet (17): 4-5.
Hill, S. (2010). “Troublesome knowledge: why don’t they understand?” Health Information & Libraries Journal 27(1): 80-83.
Kiley, M. and G. Wisker (2009). “Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing.” Higher Education Research & Development 28(4): 431-441.
Land, R. (2011). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, Laureate
Marton, F. and K. Trigwell (2000). “Variatio Est Mater Studiorum.” Higher Education Research & Development 19(3): 381-395.
Meyer, J. H. F. and R. Land (2006). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: An Introduction. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, 3-18. Routledge: London.
Perkins, D. (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In J. H. F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, 33-47. Routledge: London.
Wisker, G., Morris, C., Cheng, M., Masika, R., Warnes, M., Trafford, V., Robinson, G., & Lilly, J. (2010) Doctoral Learning Journeys (draft report). HEA: York

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