Crossing Thresholds and Learning in Libraries

Learning that matters is rarely going to be on the test.

May 22, 2014

So, last year I went to a stimulating conference presentation on how threshold concepts might be useful for those of us who care about this thing we so carelessly named “information literacy.” (Nobody seems to like that name, but we can’t come up with an alternative that really works, either.) I convinced my colleagues to read an article by the presenters for our journal club, and we got excited enough about it to write a proposal to the Mansergh-Stuessy Fund for College Innovation to explore it further with faculty at our college and librarians at similar liberal arts institutions.

It turned out we weren’t the only ones impressed by the idea of threshold concepts. Since we wrote the grant, the Association of College and Research Libraries has released a couple of draft documents of a new framework for information literacy intended to update standards originally adopted in 2000. It proposes using threshold concepts as a central organizing principle for the  new framework.  

Threshold concepts aren’t new. Originally proposed by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, they have been adopted by faculty in many disciplines. Essentially, they challenge us to identify places where students typically get stuck as they wrestle with a way of knowing that they find unsettling and troublesome. These concepts, when grasped, so profoundly change the way students think that they are transformative and irreversible. Meyers and Land also believe them to be integrative, yet uniquely tied to a particular discipline.

This last characteristic has become troublesome for librarians, since many of us don’t believe the transformative concepts that we want students to grasp are specific to our discipline. The experiences we are most interested in transcend disciplinary knowledge and can be applied to any number of post-graduate experiences in which being able to use information and create knowledge matters. (This is that vague “lifelong learning” thing we keep talking about. Also, we have to remember that most of our students major in something they don’t take on as a profession. Delving deep into a subject helps us learn how to think, but in many if not most cases it's not career preparation.) Like writing and critical thinking, we believe information literacy to be preparation for active engagement with the world. So while a geology threshold concept may prepare students to think like geologists, we aren’t interested in helping students think like librarians, but rather as curious people who understand how information works so that they can be curious effectively and maybe change the world while they’re at it.

I’m not yet convinced that we will be able to usefully agree as a profession on which troublesome concepts are most transformative and essential or exactly how librarians should rethink their instructional efforts to nudge students across those thresholds. Though we haven’t used the phrase  “threshold concepts” until recently, we’ve encouraged one another for decades to focus on transferable concepts rather than just the fiddly bits of using libraries, databases, and the Web to find things. Indeed, the standards we are updating were premised on that idea, that research is a complex process that doesn’t belong to librarians alone.  But it is an opportunity for us to rethink how we do this and what kind of learning really matters.

So far, thanks to our seed grant, we’ve had two meetings with faculty from across the curriculum to discuss what these troublesome concepts might be, generating a dauntingly long list of big ideas. The next step will be a workshop for these faculty to look at an assignment, a course, or their program to see where and how students will encounter these big ideas. As one participant put it, we need to build the ladders that help students climb toward those concepts, step by step.

Meanwhile, our grant allowed us to invite instruction librarians from six Minnesota liberal arts colleges to a workshop this week to discuss what threshold concepts mean for our work. It was a full and fairly exhausting day, but refreshing to sit back and think about big ideas and why what we do matters to us. I also came away with lots of nifty teaching ideas – always a plus.

I headed straight from that experience to a meeting of librarians who do instructional work at gigantic public universities. It’s a little hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of educating tens of thousands of students. How do you do that? Yet I’ve been hearing all kinds of cheering news that my fellow librarians at Gargantuan U. are able to rise to the occasion and think about how to help confused undergraduates navigate this difficult, complex world of information we live in.

With so much to learn, so many codes to crack, so much riding on being able to survive in these complex social institutions called universities (while also heading into adulthood, independence, new relationships, work, and everything else life throws at us at that stage), it’s a little much to also have to think about what our relationship is with knowledge. It’s not going to be on the test next Wednesday, after all.

But I’m willing to bet that long after what was on the test has been forgotten, some of the most profound learning and self-discovery that happens at our institution occurs as students cross those thresholds.     

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