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Yesterday was the 8th annual Elon Teaching and Learning Conference and the theme this year was “Thresholds to Learning.” Joy and I drove down together for the day. As always, it was a great event. I’m always surprised at the quality of presentations given that it’s both local and free. I’ll send something out next year when they announce the dates, so keep it in mind if you’re looking for something low-barrier in the instruction realm.

The first keynote was by Ray Land, Professor of Higher Education and Director of Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. He spoke on his area of expertise: Threshold Concepts. He’s written and edited a few books on these, which I’ll be sure to get at the TLC liaison. The idea of a Threshold Concept makes perfect sense once you hear about it. It’s those pieces of knowledge that change who you are as a person and how you see the world. You cannot unlearn them. The example that resonated most with me was that after taking women’s studies courses, you can’t see the world the same: family is different, work is different, your expectations for your own role change. He also pointed to other familiar concepts like evolution, deconstructionism, and very specific discipline based concepts like “photoprotection in plants” or “confidence to challenge” in design. The very last few minutes were about how to concretely apply this idea to course design and teaching, and I really would have liked to have seen a whole second session on that. They recorded his session and it’ll be available on the website later today.

Throughout Land’s presentation I was thinking about what this means for information literacy instruction. I could think of two of those major shifts I went through. One was that there was an economics of information. As a child, prior to learning about employment, publishing models, tenure, and the like, I thought people sought out knowledge because that was important to do. And they made true knowledge available because that was the right thing to do with it. It never occurred to me that certain questions were asked because the investigator could get a grant to support the research or because it was something that could get published by a journal that was trying to make money. This was a major Threshold Concept for me. Another was that there are complex systems that might reveal information that would otherwise be unknowable. A librarian specifically taught me this when showing me Web of Science to track citations for a philosophy paper. Learning this system showed me a new type of information that I didn’t even understand could exist prior to that session. And learning it helped me realize that there were probably lots of other types of information out there that could only be revealed through these complex systems that I also did not even know existed. (…making libraries all the more exciting!)

Joy and I chatted about how for today’s students, that you can’t find everything on Google is a Threshold Concept. It didn’t occur to me because search wasn’t so useful when I was in college. It was clear you’d have to do something to go beyond whatever you found on the web for an academic paper. Today’s students have a very different experience. And learning that they would have to go beyond the web is a certain Threshold Concept: it’s troublesome knowledge in that they prefer the old world they lived in where Google could get them everything, it’s irreversible that once they learn about how limited that world is they’ll know they have to keep looking elsewhere for information, it’s integrative that it becomes part of who they are to continue to have to seek information through more complex means, and on and on.
Land mentioned that some faculty are reconstructing their classes around Threshold Concepts since they’re the ones that take more of a personal approach to helping students fully understand them and integrate them into their understanding. These faulty take the approach that the rest (or much of the rest) are details that can be self-taught, found through another resource, or could be taught in class to bolster the Threshold Concept. Interesting stuff!

I also attended a session on the SCALE-UP model, which reminded me a lot of Erik’s POGIL work and a session on online learning. The most personally interesting session I attended was about if counter-normative pedagogies (like Service Learning) have Threshold Concepts. This was more of an intellectually interesting question rather than something directly applicable to work. As someone who has done some work in faculty training, I was interested in the idea that there might be a Threshold Concept around student centered learning or some other non-traditional approach. I also attended this session because it was led by one of my college professors! She taught the (fantastic) service learning class I took at NCSU and made quite an impact on me. She’s apparently now doing consulting around service learning and working at UNCG. Small world!

All in all, a great day! Let me know if you want to chat about any of it!