What we know: Designing courses for learning: Course design and activities built around threshold concepts and the use of concept inventories, can help students deal with “sticky” and “troublesome” knowledge

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Course design and activities built around threshold concepts and the use of concept inventories, can help students deal with “sticky” and “troublesome” knowledge 

What do we know?

This comparatively recent theory argues that all disciplines have ‘threshold’ concepts – concepts that it is necessary to understand if one is to move on within the discipline and that are crucial to further understanding. (A common example often given is that of ‘opportunity costs’ in the discipline of economics.)  These concepts are the ones likely to be found difficult and ‘troublesome’ by students because they challenge students’ prior knowledge and require reconceptualisation.  They are therefore the most likely places that students get ‘stuck’ in their learning, and the metaphor of ‘a portal’ has been used to describe them.  Getting through them may be difficult and painful (what has been called a ‘state of liminality’) and once successfully passed through it would be difficult, and probably impossible, to return because the learner’s views/beliefs/understandings have been so significantly changed.


Implications for improving student learning

In designing a programme of study it would be helpful to identify the key concepts, and which of those that would be seen as threshold concepts, and consider the logical structure of conceptual development of these in the course.  Threshold concepts in particular will need sufficient time, and activities designed around them to help students through the ‘state of liminality’ in ‘unlearning’ previously held views and the acquisition of new understanding.

The development and use of concept inventories (a criterion referenced test designed to assess whether a student truly understands a set of concepts) may help faculty to identify where the students are, both ‘before’ and ‘after’ given inputs and set tasks, and also to monitor general student progress regarding conceptual development through the programme.  It is especially important to try and identify student misconceptions and, at the appropriate time, to help them, through carefully designed activities, to deconstruct them (e.g. see A Private Universe, referenced above).

Further reading

Meyer, J.H.F. et al (Eds) (2010) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers

Land, R. et al (Eds) (2008) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers

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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

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

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

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

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 over the years has 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.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

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

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