RIOT: Threshold concepts and information literacy

Hofer, Amy R., Lori Townsend, and Korey Brunetti. 2012. “Troublesome Concepts and Information Literacy: Investigating Threshold Concepts for IL Instruction.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 12 (4): 387–405.

Townsend, Lori, Korey Brunetti, and Amy R. Hofer. 2011. “Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 11 (3): 853–869. doi:10.1353/pla.2011.0030.

We’ve been discussing threshold concepts for information literacy in LIS recently and we wanted to expand our discussion to include the disciplinary perspectives of our colleagues.

Threshold concepts were first introduced into the literature by two researchers in the UK, Jan Meyer and Ray Land, in the early 2000s while considering how to transform undergraduate education in the UK.  They presented threshold concepts as one framework for considering how we think and practice within disciplines. Meyer and Land write, “A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something.”

They defined 5 criteria for threshold concepts:

Transformative: Once the concept is learned, it changes the way the learner thinks about the discipline and causes a shift in perspective.
Integrative: It brings together multiple learning objectives into one whole concept.
Irreversible: Once understood, it’s a lasting understanding.
Troublesome: It’s the place where learners usually get stuck.
Bounded: It may be a concept that’s unique to the discipline or that defines the boundaries of the discipline.

With these criteria in mind, Hofer, Townsend, and Brunetti have been exploring how defining threshold concepts for information literacy might help structure instruction that gets students past the troublesome knowledge associated with finding, evaluating, and using information.  In the 2012 portal article, they write, “As a theoretical frame, threshold concepts can help librarians devise targeted curricula by prioritizing trouble spots in a way that professional standards documents do not.”  The researchers surveyed information literacy instructors to compile a list of common stumbling blocks for students and then attempted to organize those things into seven broader areas that could be potential threshold concepts for information literacy.

• Metadata=findability
• Good searches use database structure
• Format is a process
• Authority is constructed and contextual
• “Primary source” is an exact and conditional category
• Information as a commodity
• Research solves problems

My initial reaction to the list, perhaps because so much of my work is with first-year students, is that it seems to represent the stumbling blocks for librarians in learning their discipline and not necessarily where we expect students to get stuck, often because we don’t expect them to reach these points in their thinking and learning. Similarly, the authors state, “While ‘information literacy’ may not be a discipline per se, the common way of thinking and practicing shared by information professionals constitutes a body of knowledge for which there are learning thresholds.”  But in the same way that an instructor in a biology class is trying to get students to think like a biologist, librarians are trying to get students to think like an information professional when approaching their research problems. Identifying the troublesome knowledge embedded in that process could help us reconsider our pedagogical approaches to those concepts.

A few questions for discussion when we meet:

-What are the pieces of troublesome knowledge associated with research in the disciplines you support or the population you work with on campus?

-How does the threshold concepts framework complement or complicate the use of the ACRL standards for information literacy?

-How might the library build instruction support and services to help learners move past the threshold in their disciplines and/or the thresholds for information literacy?

-I feel like the greatest advantage of the threshold concepts framework is that they provide a statement of difficult knowledge that can be used to represent the perspective of the novice learner when working with practitioners/faculty. How can we use threshold concepts in collaborating with faculty around assignment design and instruction?

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