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Eureka! Teaching threshold concepts to students

Speedy and decisive action is needed from the government to ensure our future energy security. Flickr/Cayusa

That “Eureka” moment when a student thunders over an educational hurdle opening up a new realm of learning, is the holy grail for educators.

The technical term is a “threshold concept”, and they’re being discovered in every discipline from economics to engineering, design and English grammar.

Origins of the concept

These fascinating beasts were introduced to us by Erik Meyer and Ray Land nine years ago.

They wanted to understand the factors that lead to high quality learning in five subject areas. The term distinguishes between core concepts which open a gateway or portal to otherwise inaccessible material, and ideas which might mark “seeing things in a new way”.

The transition through the portal can be problematic, troubling and often humbling, and students often mimic the new status without understanding the meaning of what they are doing.

Curriculum progress

A very important aspect of curriculum reform will therefore be identifying threshold concepts so that ways of helping students pass through the threshold may be considered and built into the course structure.

There has been an increasingly loud buzz around this issue with more and more teachers locating threshold concepts in different disciplinary areas. The most recent book Threshold Concepts and Transformative Learning summarises developments in this new field of educational research and development.

At UWA we have a unique opportunity to redesign our curriculum using the threshold concepts approach, as we prepare for our New Courses 2012.

In order to help us achieve this aim, we have been awarded an Australian Learning and Teaching Council grant to identify and explore fundamental engineering thresholds – those which any engineering student will need in order to progress to upper levels.

We are collaborating with academics across Australia as well as in the UK and Sweden for this process, whereby potential thresholds are debated and discussed.

Challenging students

Once a threshold concept has been identified, a next step is the consideration of how students might vary in their experiences of learning it, with a knowledge of such variation informing new forms of pedagogical practice.

What is known as “variation theory” provides one basis for developing such new ways of teaching.

The idea is that we understand the concept “night” by the existence of “day”. The first step for students to develop their knowledge of, and capability with, any new concept is for us to help them discern its critical aspects by experiencing variation around it.

An example used in The University of Learning: Beyond Quality and Competence is that of students considering: (a) a car moving on a straight, flat road, with ever-increasing speed up to a given limit and (b) a car moving at a constant speed on a curved off-on ramp between two motorways. Students note that the car in (b) is changing direction while the car in (a) is not. Also that in (b) the speed is not changing while in (a) the speed does change.

They begin to think about force and acceleration in ways that lead them to the conclusion that some form of force is needed to increase the speed of a car moving in a straight line. And that force is also needed to change direction, while keeping the speed constant.

Integrating courses

We need to prepare learning situations in which students can focus on the troublesome aspects of threshold concepts in different ways and contexts – but it is equally important for us to point out that this is what they are doing so they experience it.

One way is to integrate courses, so that students “see” the threshold concepts more than once and experience them in different ways.

We are, for example, creating a foundational integrated “block” of courses for students in first and second year in which we specifically teach concepts that are known to be threshold, in multiple contexts.

Our main aim? To never again hear a student in second year say “no, we didn’t learn that last year” when we know we taught it to them!

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