What we know: One possible tension

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

These claims about what we know about student learning are a personal view and undoubtedly would not gain unanimous support – and there are many arguments to be made about nuanced differences within many of these theories, and about the specifics of how they should affect practice.  But arguably there is a high degree of homogeneity and overlap between these theories, and a significant amount of agreement in what they are saying, with perhaps at least one exception.

In the literature regarding the ‘construction of meaning’ there is a strong argument for the need for what has been called ‘scaffolding’ in supporting students’ learning.  And this has been linked to a concept developed by Vygotsky – zones of proximal development (ZPD).  Put simply, the ZPD is the gap between what the learner can do without help and what they would be able to do if given help.  Vygotsky, and many who have accepted this concept, believed that the role of education is to identify and focus on giving the learner experiences within their ZPD. Scaffolding refers to the help that the student needs and, as is implicit in the metaphor, can be taken away as the student’s ability (‘the building) progresses until the next ZPD when new scaffolding will be required.

But in the literature regarding ‘threshold concepts’, there are a number of aspects that would seem to be incompatible, or at least create serious tensions with the ZPD/scaffolding approach.  Firstly, if understanding of a particular threshold concept is necessary for a student to progress it may not be possible to wait until they reach the appropriate ZPD.  Secondly, the scaffolding theory is at least partially driven by a desire to make the learning process as painless as possible.  But the threshold concepts theory would argue that the ‘state of liminality’ endured while grappling with a threshold concept and passing through that ‘portal’ will almost inevitably be a painful and difficult experience requiring, as it does, the loss of previously held understandings and beliefs.

The notion that all learning could be safe and relatively painless through scaffolded progression through successive ZPDs is an idealized impossibility but one that nonetheless is probably worth striving for.  However, we also need to accept the reality that learning, and higher education in particular, should be transformative and that can be a painful experience. (This was also discussed by Perry – see above – in relation to the difficulties that students have negotiating their progress through the stages of cognitive development). And this may be especially true when it comes to the challenge presented by threshold concepts which probably requires even more scaffolding in support of the student at that time, in helping them deconstruct previously held views and to move through the state of ‘liminality’.

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About the author

Chris Rust

Chris is Professor of Higher Education and Associate Dean (Academic Policy) at Oxford Brookes University for two days a week, managing a number of cross-university projects. Chris joined Oxford Brookes in 1989 and was head of OCSLD for ten years until taking flexible retirement in September 2011. For six years he was Course Leader for the initial training course for new teaching staff. In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and between 2005 – 2010 he was Deputy Director for two Centre’s for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE – the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development
  • many aspects of student assessment, including improving student performance through engagement in the marking process.
  • Over the years has also run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003, and became a professor in March 2010.

He is a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the original 14 Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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