Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Threshold Concepts Research

Helen King is leading a small-scale, pilot research project to investigate troublesome concepts in the Geosciences. The data has been collected via the Universities of Plymouth (UK), Colorado (USA) and Calgary Canada and will be analysed over the summer 2009 with a view to submitting for publication before Christmas.

I'm very keen on taking this research further and involving more institutions in more countries. Funding is obviously one of the key issues so if anyone knows of any appropriate sources I might investigate do let me know!

Monday, 30 June 2008

2nd International Threshold Concepts Conference, June 2008

Approximately 88 participants attended the three day conference which consisted of keynote talks, 20 minute presentations and 60 minute discussions. Abstracts for all the presentations can be found on the conference website at

13 participants were from the Geosciences and one strand of the conference was devoted to the discipline. It included 7 presentations, 1 garden discussion and 1 workshop:

Why is Geologic Time Troublesome Knowledge? Kim Cheek (Valley Forge Christian College, USA)
Kim discussed various aspects of geologic time including succession and duration; she suggested three possible reasons for student difficulties – the long durations compared to everyday experiences, a lack of understanding of large numbers, and a lack of subject matter knowledge.

Deep Time: A Critical Barrier, an Anchor or a Threshold Concept? Roger Trend (University of Oxford, UK)
Roger discussed the idea that deep time is at the very heart of the geosciences and yet remains poorly understood within (UK) society. “The oft-heard primary teacher’s non-illuminating response of “millions and millions of years ago” to the inquisitive child sums up the current state of affairs.” Deep time meets the defined characteristics of threshold concepts. Roger also noted that the notion of ‘threshold concepts’ is akin to critical barrier or anchor concepts found particularly within science education.

Interactive Approaches to Teaching First Year Geology Mapwork: 2-D, 3-D and 4-D Visualization. Gillian Drennan (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa)
Gill outlined a teaching intervention to support 3-D and 4-D visualisation that included hands-on modelling exercises which allowed students to construct 3-D geological structures and examine their projection on maps and cross-sections; these helped them to understand the interaction between geological processes such as faulting, folding, tilting, erosion and deposition.

"You can't see things on a flat bit of paper, you've actually got to see if for yourself in 3D": The role of geological mapping in helping to cross the threshold into spatial literacy. Alison Stokes (University of Plymouth, UK)
Alison also emphasised spatial literacy as a possible threshold concept in Geoscience. She described research undertaken during a 2nd year geology mapping fieldtrip during which students had the opportunity to both see 3-D geological features in the field, and then translate those features onto a 2D map. The students’ immersion in the field environment seemed to be key to the development of their spatial literacy.

Uncertainty and Complexity: Thresholds in Climate Change Science. Brendan Hall (University of Gloucestershire, UK)
Brendan described his research project looking at the perceptions of complexity and uncertainty held by academics and students in the teaching and learning of climate change science, with a view to interpreting these through the lens of threshold concepts.

Using Threshold Concepts to Promote Students’ Integrative Learning on a First Year Residential Field Course in Geosciences. Bettie Higgs (University College Cork, Ireland)
Bettie described how a first year fieldcourse was transformed from a ‘lecture-in-the-field’ format to a series of field-based seminars. Opportunities were provided for students to integrate learning from different disciplines in science and to consider their own approach to learning. She discussed the possibility that there may be threshold concepts that connect different disciplines particularly within the context of Geoscience.

‘Threshold Concepts’ in Geology as Key Concepts Integrated Across Disparate Spatial and Temporal Scales: Student Learning Difficulties with the Concepts of Density and Erosion. Andrea Bair (University of Colorado, Boulder, USA)
Rather than discussing particular Geoscience topics, Andrea highlighted the problem of core concepts from other disciplines (such as physics and chemistry) that Geoscientists then apply in different ways. She suggested that directly addressing student difficulties with these concepts (e.g. density) may not always help and that they need support in bridging the gap between the concept and the Geoscience application.

Identifying Threshold Concepts in Geoscience: Taking Inventory with Students and Faculty alike (garden discussion). Leslie Reid (University of Calgary, Canada)
Leslie discussed her research project which includes surveys and interviews with both staff and students to identify possible threshold concepts. The research is in response to concerns about the heavy content load of many Geoscience courses and a discussion amongst staff as to whether the content could be reduced to focus on the most important (possibly threshold) concepts.

What on Earth? Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge in the Geosciences (workshop). Helen King (Higher Education Consultant)
This workshop brought together the Geoscience participants at the conference and provided an opportunity for discussing personal interests in the topic and the way forward for the discipline in the area.

These sessions were well attended by participants from a variety of disciplines (not just the Geosciences) and the size of the Geoscience contingent made for some interesting and useful conversations over the three days. The presenters took a variety of approaches: some identified particular topics as possible candidates for Threshold Concepts, e.g. deep time and spatial literacy; others discussed teaching strategies for supporting the development of Threshold Concepts, in particular fieldwork and (inter)active learning.

Interestingly, the discussions around Threshold Concepts in the Geosciences raised some more general issues about learning and teaching in the discipline. These included:

  • The issue of ‘knowledge transfer’ from other disciplines such as chemistry, physics and mathematics and the need for explicit links or bridging areas to be made between these and Geoscience concepts (just because the student understands the physics principle does not necessarily mean they’ll automatically understand the Geoscience application);
  • The differences in scale between teaching and application. For example, students may study ‘rocks in a box’ in the laboratory and find it difficult to associate these to the scale of outcrops and exposures in the field;
  • The integration of Geoscience concepts over time and space;
  • What do we do in our teaching that may actually make concepts more troublesome? For example, using water to illustrate density (when discussing plate tectonics) may cause some students to make the assumption that the mantle is therefore liquid!;The nature of the ‘stuffed curriculum’ in Geoscience – can the identification of core or threshold concepts enable content-load to be reduced?

This second international conference on Threshold Concepts was notable in its diversity. Diversity of disciplines, nations and viewpoints. The convenors were, of course, strongly wedded to the idea of Threshold Concepts, had accepted their existence, defined them in their discipline, and were moving on with the theory. Other colleagues were interested in the idea but were still exploring its meaning: what actually is a Threshold Concept? Can it only be a concept or could it be a theory or skill? Are they really irreversible? What is a transformation? Discussions with the Geoscientists at the conference suggested that, in our discipline, we are still throwing around the idea, questioning assumptions and seeing how comfortable we are with it. We may (or may not) end up running with it but the discussions it has provoked have been progressive and invaluable; not least because there hasn’t previously been much (research-based) exploration around troublesome concepts in the Geosciences.

For some colleagues there was some concern about ‘fitting the data to the model’ and looking too much through the lens of Threshold Concepts. A more iterative process of researching learning in the discipline and then identifying models that might fit the data might be a more comfortable approach. Future research in this area for the Geosciences would be very valuable, particularly in identifying ‘sticking points’ in student learning and elucidating how experts think and practise in the discipline.

The next International Threshold Concepts conference is to be held in Sydney, Australia in July 2010; and the sixth International Geoscience Education conference on 28th August – 5th September 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa (

Friday, 2 November 2007

Threshold concepts at GSA

At the recent GSA 2007 meeting in Denver we took the opportunity to introduce the geoscience community to threshold concepts by presenting a poster at one of the Geoscience Education sessions. This proved to be really successful, with many people stopping by during the 4 hour session either because they had heard of threshold concepts and were interested to hear more, or because they knew nothing about them and were curious to know what it was all about.

We had absolutely no idea how threshold concepts would be received at GSA - Julie, Helen and I believe that threshold concepts exist in the geosciences, but would anyone else? Well apparently they do, and it seems that there is a very important dialogue to be had about what exactly students 'need to know' in order to become geoscientists. The reference on the poster to the 'stuffed curriculum' drew some wry smiles.......this is something that seemed to resonate with a lot of people! So by the end of the session we'd had some great conversations, and felt really encouraged by the positive way in which our poster was received. There were also a couple of comments about our blog not being updated since May, so clearly people have been looking!

What happens now? We'd like to use this blog as a vehicle to continue the discussions that were started at GSA. Everyone should be able to post comments to, and read, the blog entries which will be a record of our ongoing dialogue. The next major 'event' where we'll have the opportunity to get people together in person will be the 2nd International Threshold Concepts Symposium in Kingston, Ontario next year, so it would be good to get some idea from the geoscience community about a) what we think might be threshold concepts in the geosciences, and b) how our curricula can be developed to ensure that students acquire these threshold concepts.

So the floor is open - over to you!

Monday, 28 May 2007

The story so far.......

In summer 2006 the UK Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES) Subject Centre held its annual meeting with the theme of Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. Following the publication in December of a Special Edition of the GEES publication ‘Planet’ Helen King was contacted by Professor Erik Meyer (University of Durham, UK), one of the originators of the threshold concepts idea, who drew Helen's attention to the next International Symposium on Threshold Concepts which will be held in Ontario in June 2008. Knowing that Julie and I were both interested in threshold concepts Helen suggested that we offer to host a special session on geosciences at the conference (more details soon!) whilst Julie proposed that we write a joint paper for the Journal of Geoscience Education to introduce the main ideas and terminology to the geoscience community (Stokes et al., 2007 – in prep).

Since then there has been a constant exchange of emails between the three of us exploring some of the ideas around threshold concepts, but also throwing up a lot of questions. So, following is an attempt to briefly summarise the main threads of the discussion that has been taking place since the beginning of 2007 between Helen, Julie and myself in relation to threshold concepts in the geosciences. In the interests of keeping this post a manageable size (and hopefully not boring people!) we’ve tried to keep detail to a minimum, but would be happy to expand and elaborate on any point that anyone would like to pick up on.

The main thread of our discussion has focused on what constitutes a threshold concept in geology, and this is the main area that we are keen to start exploring more widely. Julie started off by suggesting that major scientific concepts like DENSITY might actually be threshold concepts in geology, because once a student really understands density then lots of geological processes are suddenly very easy to understand, e.g. SUBDUCTION. We then started to think about whether RATES or SCALE of geological processes, rather than specific phenomena, might be threshold concepts (incorporating concepts such as DEEP TIME and THINKING IN 3-DIMENSIONS). However, having subsequently struggled (and failed!) to identify a suitable example for our paper we decided it might be better to just open up the debate!

Another line of discussion concerns the fact that threshold concepts are not uniquely defined, so it’s often difficult to articulate exactly why we think something is or isn’t a threshold concept. So is something missing from the definition (i.e. that they are transformative, integrative, irreversible, bounded, and frequently troublesome), or is it the nature of threshold concepts that they are changing and personal, rather than universal and unchanging? And what makes something a threshold concept rather than simply ‘difficult’? Helen’s previous post also raises the interesting question of whether threshold concepts are purely cognitive, or whether they can also be based in behaviour, i.e. practical skills.

We’re also interested in the link between threshold concepts and becoming a geoscientist, i.e. does crossing those conceptual thresholds form part of the journey that a student makes from being a novice to becoming an expert? If so, what happens if they don’t actually acquire the understanding necessary to cross the threshold – can they still become an expert geoscientist? Does it matter?? And are we conscious of crossing a conceptual threshold, or is it only when we recognise the transformation in ourselves, in terms of our thinking and practicing, that we know that it’s been crossed – i.e. we’re conscious of the product, but not necessarily the process? Helen makes a really interesting analogy between being the ‘liminal space’ – the limbo state where a student neither understands nor not understands – and ‘Schrodinger’s Cat’!

Finally, how can threshold concepts help us to ‘define’ what is geology and what is, say, geography or environmental science? The boundaries between these disciplines are often very blurred, and the difference between being a geographer or a geologist may come down to the way that somebody thinks and practices (threshold concepts), rather than their stock of knowledge (core concepts).

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

What is a threshold concept?

One of Meyer and Land's key characteristics of threshold concepts is that "They are irreversible – once learned, threshold concepts are unlikely to become ‘un-learned’ or forgotten." This reminds me of riding a bicycle and other learned practical skills (difficult when you start and you have to overcome a mental and physical 'blockage' to acquire them particularly when they require counter-intuitive actions e.g. leaning downhill on a snowboard).

Are threshold concepts, then, purely mental things to be acquired or could they also be physical skills (bearing in mind the links between the cognitive, physical and affective domains)?


For several months now Alison Stokes (University of Plymouth, UK), Helen King (University of Plymouth, UK) and Julie Libarkin (Michigan State University, US) have been discussing threshold concepts in the geosciences - what they are, how we recognise them, and the role that they play in becoming a geoscientist. The conversation is throwing up some fascinating suggestions and ideas which, rather than keeping to ourselves, we'd like to unleash on the wider geoscience community. A precis of our conversation to date will follow shortly, but essentially this blog will take over from our ongoing email discussion. Feel free to ask questions, add comments or put forward your own opinion - this is an emerging debate and one which you are all welcome to join!