Tag Archives: standards

Discussion: Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy – Discussion

We had an interesting conversation about threshold concepts at our RIOT meeting.  Meghan posed several questions about the articles she presented, which you can see in her post.  The question that sparked the most discussion was “what are the pieces of troublesome knowledge associated with research in the disciplines you support or the population you work with on campus?”  Here are a few of those potential threshold concepts in the disciplines.

Kristen on English Literature:  primary sources, which was something mentioned in the article, and contextual knowledge.  Kristen surveyed her faculty about what was working and what wasn’t working as well in terms of information literacy instruction and the contextual knowledge piece came up for graduate students.  For example, when students are researching a specific literary work, they will try to find everything about the work itself.  What they don’t understand is that they need to find sources about literary criticism, genres, etc. as well – sources that don’t necessarily mention the work but can be applied to the work and show what it means to practice literary analysis and criticism.

Carolyn on Psychology:  true experiments.  Students need to find these in library databases and in order to do so, they need to first know what they are.  (None of us knew what they were but Carolyn taught us!)  This video was created by a TA at the request of a psychology librarian to help students.

Marta on Architecture:  why you would use a discipline-specific databases like Avery rather than a broader search tool like Summon.  She tries to demonstrate and explain this by discussing how Avery uses the language of the discipline and allows for more focused searching.

Laura on Art History:  critical reception – students need to find out how a work was received when it was first performed/exhibited and students still tend to want to look for current articles, even if something was created a long time ago.

Michele on freshmen:  not all information exists – many students seem to think that if you have a question, the information exists to answer it (example from real life was to find statistics on how many illegal immigrants die in the desert between Mexico and Arizona when trying to cross over; or finding peer reviewed journal articles by terrorists).   Based on the conversation, it appears this isn’t limited to freshmen.

April on Business:  some information is private – or if it isn’t private (such as financials from the corner coffee shop), it costs a lot of money (such as $30K market research reports)

We also discussed “research solves problems.”  This seems to be an issue across the board and students may not understand why they are doing research, or, why they would have to do research in a particular way in a particular discipline.  Marta gave the example of a physics student thinking that architecture assignments that required students come into the library to use print sources were essentially busy work because he didn’t understand that much of the information in that discipline only exists in print.

Laura brought up that while some research is done to find evidence to support an argument, in other disciplines like the arts, “doing research is about inspiration.”  I think that was the quote of the morning.

We wrapped up by briefly talking about the question Meghan posed about how we can use threshold concepts in collaborating with faculty around assignment design and instruction.  We recognized that faculty have threshold concepts too when thinking about their students.  We didn’t get far in this conversation but began to touch on how faculty and grad student instructors don’t necessarily understand what their students do and don’t  know and what kinds of assignments would be effective (not scavenger hunts, for example).


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?