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Yesterday, Lauren Pressley and I journeyed to Elon University to attend their 8th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference. It was well worth attending for many different reasons including the opportunity to meet colleagues from across the state. I ate lunch with Elon’s instruction librarian, Randall Bowman, along with a couple of other Elon faculty members. It was my first visit to Elon and was very impressed with the campus as well as the people. This conference was offered at no charge to the attendees including lunch, amazing!

The theme for the conference was “Thresholds to Learning” and it began with a plenary session led by Ray Land, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. The title of the presentation was Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: a Transformative Approach to Learning. Most of the presentation was spent describing the meaning of “Threshold Concepts” which he described as somewhat like a portal which opens up new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something. Unless a learner experiences this transformed way of understanding or viewing something, they cannot progress. He described the consequences of not being transformed as being “stuck.” These elements of knowledge needed to make the leap from being “stuck” often involve what he termed “troublesome knowledge.” There are a many reasons why learners my not move beyond this “troublesome knowledge” including the fact that it may be conceptually difficult or alien or perhaps the learner does not wish to change their way of seeing things. He offered numerous quotes including one that said that students are required to venture into new places, strange places, anxiety-provoking places. If here is no anxiety it is difficult to believe that we are in higher education.

During the last ten minutes of Land’s presentation, he presented “10 Considerations for Course Design.”

  1. Threshold concepts can be used to define potentially powerful transformative points in learning.
  2. Engagement is important
  3. It is important to listen for understanding (listen to your students to gauge where they are in their understanding)
  4. Reconstitution of self – pay attention to the discomforts of troublesome knowledge.
  5. Recursiveness – moving beyond the simple learning outcomes model. Reflect on past semesters to create the new one.
  6. Students must be able to self-regulate within the liminal state (stuck spot)
  7. Assessment – concept mapping
  8. Contestability of generic good pedagogy
  9. Students must gain epistemic fluency
  10. Professional Development

I believe that Catherine Ross plans to offer a book discussion of Land’s book in the Teaching and Learning Center for those of us who attended the session. I hope that I will be able to attend!

Concurrent Session I: Effective Feedback and Efficient Grading by Katie King and Peter Felton, Elon University

This was an excellent session that began with the question, “What is your grading philosophy?” “What do you grade and what do you leave off?” Through this session, I was please to discover that I’m on the right track! They gave examples of too much red ink and not enough red ink. They stressed the importance of giving students the opportunity to revise and to use the instructor’s comments. The most helpful part was a two-column chart that showed “Learning Orientation” in one column and “Performance Orientation” in the other. Students who are “Learning Oriented” want to improve competence, seek challenge, be successful through effort, persist and they view instructors as resources. Students who are “Performance oriented” want to prove they are competent (get the “A”), avoid challenge, exert little effort, and they view instructors as evaluators. I found these categories to be very help and on target with my experience with students! Catherine Ross was in the room and she described the performance oriented students as subscribing to “inoculation theory” which is the idea that “I’ve had AP biology so I can’t learn any more about that.” They gave several good ideas about how to create assessments worth everyone’s time.

Concurrent Session II: Writing Transitions/Writing Thresholds by Jessie Moore, Elon University

In this session, the presenter talked about how almost all universities require a freshman writing course with the theory that they will transfer their skills in other courses in college. It turns out that research shows that students have very few writing assignments during their first two years of college. We spent the session coming up with ideas for good assignments and critiquing a student paper that needed a lot of help. This was not my favorite session.

Concurrent Session III: The Threshold of Consciousness: How to Wake Up Your Students by Ed Neal, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

This session was well worth attending! He gave out a packet of hands-on activity exercises and ideas to help engage students in problem-solving and critical thinking. All of the strategies are low-risk and most can be easily adapted for the classroom (including LIB100).

Overall, it was a very good conference!