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 (


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