Thoughts on “Creating Learning Outcomes from Threshold Concepts”

As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at an article I wrote called “Creating Learning Outcomes from Threshold Concepts for Information Literacy Instruction,” which was published in College & Undergraduate Libraries in 2017.(1)

Truth be told, I tend to forget about this article. Like, when I was planning this series of posts, I skipped right over it until I went to update my Publications page at the end of the year and realized what I’d done. Oops.

I don’t know why this article is such a blank spot for me compared to the others I’ve published. I guess it might be because even though I didn’t think of it this way at the time, I tend to view it now as a sort of “contractual obligation” article. Meaning I wrote it because I was interested in the topic but also frankly because I needed a second peer-reviewed article to get tenure and I needed it relatively fast.(2)

That’s not to say that the topic the article covers isn’t important. The question of whether tutorials could help students cross thresholds of understanding was especially relevant to me at the time I wrote it because for a while tutorials were the only type of teaching I was doing and, due to various institutional politics, it was unclear whether or not that was going to change. So if I wanted to be part of the conversation around the Framework, which had only been recently introduced, I needed to figure out how to apply it to the type of teaching that was available to me.

I did this by creating a tutorial called Working with Scholarly Articles that purported to teach students not just the usual stuff about how to identify peer-reviewed articles but also about the role these articles played in the scholarly conversation. The intention was to basically teach students the Scholarship as Conversation frame via a relatively short tutorial.

I still think work like this is necessary because even though my job responsibilities did eventually change, there are many librarians who are interested in the Framework but whose teaching opportunities are relatively limited. While the Standards and their focus on the basic mechanics of research were a good fit for tutorials and one-shot sessions, it was less clear when it was first introduced (and maybe to some librarians still is) whether the Framework’s more nuanced understanding of information literacy could be taught effectively in these venues. I wanted to show that it was.

But even as I was writing this article, my thinking started to evolve. The spark of an idea that eventually became “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” had already taken hold (in fact, I had to stop work on that article in order to revise this one when it was roundly rejected by the first journal I submitted it to—more on that in a second). I had a hard time reconciling some of these new ideas with the ones I was writing about. But I needed to do it because I needed that second publication to put on my CV, so I forged ahead even after I stopped entirely believing what I was saying.

Which is to say, I think tutorials are still an important part of librarians’ teaching and that they absolutely can help students learn about the more complex aspects of information literacy.

But I think it’s a mistake to treat threshold concepts like learning outcomes, which is essentially what I was trying to do even though I argued that I wasn’t (I mean…look at the title of the article). With learning outcomes, all students are expected to learn the same skills and concepts from the same instruction and activities at the same time and at the same pace. If a significant number of students fail to meet the learning outcomes we’ve set for them, we take that as a sign that we should either change what we’re teaching or how we’re teaching it. That’s why learning outcomes make a convenient assessment tool.

With threshold concepts, learning is more of a personal journey toward understanding and it’s actually kind of unreasonable to expect that students will cross a threshold of understanding at the same time as a result of the same instruction, no matter what that instruction looks like. What finally causes an idea to “click” for some students and thus change their thinking will be different than what works for other students. And many students may never cross the threshold into more expert thinking at all, no matter how much or what type of instruction they receive. This doesn’t mean that the student failed or that the instructor failed. It just means that when it comes to learning, you can’t cross every threshold. You can’t be an expert in everything. All of this is why threshold concepts make a bad assessment tool.

So if I were to write this article again, I don’t think I’d be so concerned with trying to prove that tutorials can teach threshold concepts. I think I’d focus more on how tutorials can be tools for deeper, more conceptual learning—not just the more skills-based instruction that we tend to use them for.

I also would avoid implying that the frames for the Framework are something that we should be teaching students directly. This was something I was already talking about by the time I did a presentation about this same tutorial at LOEX (I think) either shortly before or shortly after the article was finally published but I’m not really sure it comes out in the article itself.

Basically, when the Standards were our core document, they described information literacy as a set of basic skills such that it was both possible and relatively easy to have a lesson on, say, The Ethical Use of Information that directly hits all of the basic concepts associated with that specific standard. It’s technically possible to also do this with the Framework. For example, you could plan a lesson called Scholarship as Conversation that treats the knowledge practices described in this frame as learning outcomes. That’s probably how a lot of librarians use the Framework in their teaching, or did at first.

I think, though, that this type of teaching takes the Framework way too literally and perhaps even misuses it. Instead of teaching the frames the way we used to teach the standards, we should instead be thinking about how to use the Framework and the threshold concepts it describes to inform our teaching.(3) To use a cooking metaphor, using the Framework to inform your teaching is like using mint to flavor a meal. Teaching the actual frames in a straightforward and literal way is like serving mint as a meal.

At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe in the time since I wrote this article.

So maybe part of the reason I keep forgetting this one is because it reflects a time when I was still very much in the liminal space when it came to understanding what threshold concepts are and how to use them as part of my teaching. Maybe that’s why, in rejecting my article, a peer reviewer commented that I didn’t seem to understand very much about the Framework or its related concepts, which hurt a lot at the time, especially after all the work I’d done to try to develop a thorough understanding of what I was talking about but was also probably right.(4)

That was actually my first and so far only time having an article outright rejected by a journal. I mean, I’ve gotten some revise and resubmits that bordered on rejection, but in this case the reviewers didn’t even want to see a revision of the article—they just really, really hated it. Luckily, the next publication I submitted it to accepted my revised work, so I had my second peer-reviewed article after all. But let me tell you—I may not always remember that this article exists, but I definitely remember that rejection. If nothing else, it taught me a lot about the type of peer reviewer I don’t want to be. 

*

  1. Also known as my only non-open access article. Here is the full citation if you’re interested in hunting it down: Hosier, A. (2017). Creating learning outcomes from threshold concepts for information literacy instruction. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 24(1), p. 1-13. doi: 10.1080/10691316.2017.1246396
  2. This article was technically my third peer-reviewed article, but the first one didn’t count toward my tenure case because even though it’s about work I did for my current institution, I wrote it during a time I was working somewhere else. Dumb.
  3. That said, I have at least one colleague who uses the Framework as a text which students then have to analyze against their own ideas about research and information, which I think is a cool approach.
  4. The reviewer also hated the paper because I hadn’t used a particular instruction design model as part of the tutorial’s design. I tried to address that in the revision that was eventually published and I agree that the article could have used more of a theoretical backbone but I also kind of hate it when reviewers reject a paper based on something you can’t change.

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