Threshold Concepts


stavropoleos courtesy of fusion_of_horizons

stavropoleos courtesy of fusion_of_horizons

Information Literacy Standards

If you’ve ever heard an academic librarian talk about information literacy, the librarian was most likely referring to the concept as defined by The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, adopted by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) in 2000. This document describes in great detail five information literacy standards and further delineates performance indicators and outcomes for each standard. The standards are being revised into a less prescriptive format called the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. This framework is scheduled to be adopted by ACRL this fall.

Threshold Concepts

The new framework is organized around threshold concepts. To learn more about threshold concepts I read Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing within the Disciplines, a seminal document by Jan Meyer and Ray Land cited in the framework.

Characteristics of Threshold Concepts

According to Meyer and Land, threshold concepts include following key characteristics (pp. 4-5):

  • Transformative: When a student understands a threshold concept, the student’s perception of the subject shifts.
  • Irreversible: Once learned, the concept is not forgotten which can lead to the “difficulty experienced by expert practitioners looking back across thresholds they have personally long since crossed and attempting to understand (from their own transformed perspective) the difficulties faced from (untransformed) student perspectives” (p. 4).
  • Integrative: The concept reveals disciplinary connections previously unknown to the student.
  • Troublesome: Troublesome knowledge is frequently counterintuitive such as the fact that heavier objects do not fall faster than lighter objects. 

Information Literacy Threshold Concepts

The Framework like the standards before it acknowledges that each information literacy concept will look different depending on the discipline. The Framework lists six information literacy threshold concepts:

  1. Scholarship is a Conversation
  2. Research as Inquiry
  3. Authority is Contextual and Constructed
  4. Format as a Process
  5. Searching as Exploration
  6. Information has Value

Teaching the Threshold Concepts

This fall I plan to explicitly address two of the threshold concepts in my teaching. Since I generally meet with students one time I want to focus on a concept that I can integrate into a one-shot session. I’ve chosen to focus on searching as exploration. Not quite sure what I’m going to do yet but I feel that my teaching during library instructions has gotten a little stale so I’m up for the challenge.

In addition to my library instruction sessions, I meet with students one-on-one during research consultations. Research consultations complement our information literacy program by extending the one-shot session. I meet primarily with graduate and doctoral students in the School of Education. Consultations generally last 30 to 60 minutes and present the perfect opportunity to discuss scholarship as a conversation.

What do you think?

What are the threshold concepts in your discipline? What teaching strategies do you use to introduce threshold concepts to your students?

About the Author: Robin Ewing is an Associate Professor in the library and is currently the assessment librarian.