Reflection on “Teaching the Art of Academic Dialogue: A Discussion on Threshold Concepts”

I try. I fail. I learn. Unless I am taking a test.

by Sara Samuel

One of the things I struggle with the most when I am invited to give an instruction session is what to focus on during the limited time I have with the students. I assume (correctly or not) that this may be the only time that a student will have contact with a librarian, the students have never been educated on anything related to information literacy, and that this is my only change to convey the importance of understanding how to retrieve and evaluate information. Obviously these assumptions could easily be incorrect, however they are why I appreciated watching the recording of ACRL IS Midwinter 2014 Virtual Current Issues Discussion Forum: “Teaching the Art of Academic Dialogue: A Discussion on Threshold Concepts” presented by Kate Langan.

I hadn’t heard of threshold concepts before, and following my viewing of the recording, I was prompted to see if I could find more information about the concepts. I ended up finding a paper that Kate mentioned in her presentation, and the following part of the paper’s introduction especially resonated with me (as the authors predicted!):

Ursula Lucas and Rosina Mladenovic observe that students in mandatory accounting courses that employed threshold concepts were better able to see the "why" of this discipline, and "see well beyond their initial preconceptions and take on a new world view." This is especially resonant for information literacy instructors who, like accounting professors, frequently teach students who see no clear need for information literacy instruction and are not likely to progress beyond these preconceptions if the focus is solely on the tools and procedures of information use.

Townsend, L. & Brunetti, K. & Hofer, A. R.(2011). Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy 11(3), 853-869. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved February 5, 2014, from Project MUSE database.

That’s it! Every time I give an instruction session, I end up teaching “which tools” and “where to click” when what I really want to teach students is the WHYs of information literacy. I understand that there is a time and place for teaching the tools, but teaching the whys of information literacy to our students is equally, if not more, important. I think the concepts discussed in this webinar have provided a way for me to reconsider how I teach something and consider when I can integrate information literacy. Before I move on, it would probably help if I defined “threshold concepts.” According to Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer, threshold concepts are the core ideas and processes that define the ways of thinking and practicing for a discipline. They are transformational, unforgettable, irreversible, liminal, troublesome, integrative, and bounded by discipline. Kate gave the examples that Helen Keller couldn’t learn anything until she understood the concept of language, and astronomy couldn’t continue to move forward until it was understood that the earth revolved around the sun. In her presentation, Kate brings up several ideas that will help me reconsider how I’m teaching students:

  • We are attached to the idea that students need to perform or produce something (artifacts) to prove that they learned something, but it’s possible a student may have transformed their thinking which won’t always show through an assessment like that.
  • One possible measurement of learning is to determine how comfortable students are with taking risks - putting themselves out there and taking a chance at doing something that might fail. We need to provide the space and opportunities for students to take risks, which should be infused with a sense of play so students are more willing to take those risks. Kate says “Play celebrates process and isn’t bound by success or failure. In higher education we tend to think more about success & failure and it’s limiting.”
  • In high school, many students are asked to find and repeat answers, but at the university level they are asked to produce knowledge and give voice to that knowledge (either to critically assess accepted knowledge or to produce new knowledge). This is a foreign and new process to most students and we need to understand that.
  • Academic dialogue empowers readers to find their own solutions. We should encourage and teach students to challenge writers as they are reading. Participating in academic dialog also helps students figure out who they are and find their voice by discussing with peers, asserting their opinion and defending it, writing a blog post for the public to read. Kate states “As teachers, we need to provide a safe environment free of bias where students can explore truths, try out their voice, and be supportive/redirect them when/if they fail.”

So what does all of this mean for us here at UM Library? I think it means a few things:

  1. Let’s re-think how we frame our instruction and the vocabulary we use - both in the classroom and during one-on-one consultations. I like the terms that Kate used:
    • Getting unstuck: We need to assure students that it’s likely they will get stuck at some point and give them options for getting unstuck - contact a librarian, visit the library, or use our Ask a Librarian service. This seems more empowering than simply saying “If you need help, come to the library!” How does a student know they need help? By saying that they should come to the library when they are stuck, it gives students a way to identify when they actually need help.
    • Finding a voice: Rather than tell students to figure out a thesis statement for their paper, ask them: What’s your truth? What do you want your reader to find out? Simply framing the idea of a thesis statement in a way that students can understand and relate to can help them develop a stronger voice.
    • Being faithful to/honoring your truth: This is especially relevant for library instruction and the idea of evaluating sources. We need students to want to make sure their ideas are supported by good information, and students themselves have a desire to be trusted. Will a reader trust you if you’re using bad resources? Students can ask themselves: Can you trust this information? If you cite bad information, are you responsible for perpetuating ignorance?
  2. Should we re-think our current method of assessment? Are we interested in determining if students can use the new database they just learned about, or do we want to know if students have grasped the importance of information literacy? There are times when all we want students to know is how to use a particular database, but I think that every time we interact with students, we should try to incorporate the idea that information literacy is important and it will serve you through your entire life.
  3. How do we support students with taking risks? Are we incorporating a sense of play into our instruction sessions or into our library space? The library should be a place that is risk-free and full of opportunities for students to explore the process of learning something, without the end result of either success or failure. Can we create more opportunities outside the classroom for students to experience learning something or are we already doing so?

I know I still have a long way to go, especially since I do not have formal training in instruction, but I appreciate having these ideas to consider when I’m planning for my next instruction session.

Do you have any ideas on how we can assess students on their understanding of information literacy?
Do you have any ideas on how the library can provide more opportunities for safe risk taking?
I appreciate your comments and thoughts!