Spring 2013

In This Issue:

I. Introduction, in which Peter Felten, Assistant Provost, Director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, and Associate Professor of History at Elon University, and second Fellow of The Andrew W. Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr College, defines and then raises questions about the “threshold concepts” framework (Meyer & Land, 2005) that is a foundation for this special issue.

II. Topographies of Knowing in 299B: Junior Seminar, in which Laura McGrane, Associate Professor, Department of English, Haverford College, shares the insights she gained through an exploration of threshold concepts in the second of a two-semester Junior Seminar course required of every English major at Haverford College. She presents three thresholds — (1) READERSHIP as active construction; (2) CRITICISM as iterative process; and (3) WRITING as innovative praxis — that she, her student consultant, and the students in her seminar crossed and recrossed, or, as one student, put it: “We climb, we plateau, we slip, we plateau, we climb again.”

III. Why the Process of Learning Matters: Expanding My Definition of Threshold Concepts, in which Hannah Bahn, Haverford College, 2014, uses her own changed understanding of threshold concepts as an example of the importance of the process — as opposed only to the product — of learning. She outlines her initial understanding of threshold concepts, how her partnership with Laura McGrane, Associate Professor of English at Haverford College, changed her thinking about this term and learning more generally, and what she recommends faculty might do to facilitate the kind of deeper learning which she (re)learned to embrace through this partnership work.

IV. Opening Up Opportunities for Engagement in Intermediate Microeconomics, in which David R. Ross, Associate Professor Economics, Bryn Mawr College, describes how he tried to retool his intermediate microeconomics course to move beyond helping students achieve a high level of mastery of three sets of analytical tools (constrained optimization, equilibrium analysis, and comparative statics) toward the process of creating economists. He describes his assumptions, approaches, and assessments, providing both useful strategies and questions for those interested in helping students cross key thresholds in economics in particular and in learning more generally.

V. Creating Opportunities for Learning Beyond the Classroom, in which Roselyn Appenteng, Bryn Mawr College, 2013, reflects on her several years as a student consultant through The Andrew W. Mellon Teaching and Learning Institute and how her experience has supported a rethinking of education she has experienced both in her native country of Ghana and in classrooms at Bryn Mawr College. In particular, she discusses the insights she gained through partnering with David Ross, Associate Professor of Economics at Bryn Mawr College, in a course in which he flipped the classroom and inspired both Roselyn and himself to think not only about how but also where learning happens.

VI. Thresholds in Physics Learning, in which Elizabeth McCormack, Professor of Physics at Bryn Mawr College, and Chandrea Peng, Bryn Mawr College 2015, offer their perspectives on a physics course in which McCormack used the lens of threshold concepts to deepen her understanding of the challenges students face in courses that bridge introductory-level subject matter and advanced material. In the context of this course, Peng worked as a student consultant. McCormack uses the phrase “neighborhoods of thresholds” to capture the notion that learners may cross them efficiently and quickly or may hang out near them before finally crossing them and to highlight the solo and community aspects of learning. Peng offers her insights into the processes of hanging out near and crossing thresholds.

VII. Experimental Design as a Threshold Concept in a Developmental Psychology Course, in which Louisa Egan Brad, Visiting Assistant Professor, Psychology Department, Bryn Mawr College, describes the threshold concepts she explored with her student consultant, Rebecca Payne-Passmore, in an intermediate-level lecture course on Developmental Psychology. Although she expected to use the notion of threshold concepts to support student explorations of major debates in the field, she found that the major threshold with which her students struggled was acquiring a working understanding and facility with experimental design. She describes how she redesigned a portion of her course to allow her students to experience and analyze experimental design.

VIII. Assessments, Assignments, and Awareness, in which Rebecca Payne-Passmore, Bryn Mawr College, 2014, offers her reflections on how her understanding of and engagement with threshold concepts shifted over the course of the semester during which she worked with Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College, Louisa Egan Brad. She focuses in particular on how awareness of one’s own knowledge facilitates the crossing of thresholds, and discusses forms of assessment that prompt such awareness.

IX. Being Comfortable with Uncertainty, in which Sarah Jenness, Bryn Mawr College, 2013, argues for being comfortable with uncertainty as a threshold concept — both for her in her role as a student consultant and for students more generally. Jenness casts a critical gaze on the way in which formal education works against comfort with uncertainty and suggests that students need spaces and relationships that let them sit with uncertainty and learn from it rather than rush from it to the “right” answers.

X. Crossing the Threshold to Deeper Developmental Biology, in which Gregory K. Davis, Assistant Professor, Biology Department, Bryn Mawr College, reflects on why some students in his developmental biology courses are able to learn how organisms develop but are unable to think critically, like developmental biologists. He frames this capacity as a methodological threshold, and he offers his version of a mnemonic called “Find It, Lose It, Move It” to capture and invite students to engage in a step-wise methodology that, if moved through repeatedly, can result in students’ crossing this methodological threshold.

XI. Academic and Personal Thresholds Overlap, in which Alia Luz, Bryn Mawr College, 2013, describes the work she did with students enrolled in a history course to help them identify and work through threshold concepts by writing their own quizzes. She offers insight into the different perspectives students bring to this work and the insights they gain through it.

XII. Facilitating Threshold Moments in Innovative 360˚ Course Clusters, in which Carola Hein, Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities, Bryn Mawr College, with Sophia Abbot, Bryn Mawr College, 2015, explore the question: In the context of new and challenging forms of teaching, such as courses that are part of the innovative 360˚ Course Cluster Program at Bryn Mawr College, how can we, as teachers and learners, create an environment that is conducive for threshold learning? Hein and Abbot discuss particular thresholds within the courses and strategies for supporting students engaging those.

XIII. Critical Thinking: Beyond a “Passive Landscape,” in which Amanda Kennedy, Bryn Mawr College, 2013, describes how working with her faculty partner to explore threshold concepts promoted her to rethink her understanding of critical thinking, which she reframes as a threshold concept for herself as well as for the students in the courses that provided the context of her work with her faculty partner, a professor of archeology.

XIV. Pushing the Barrier in Language Learning, in which Shuning Yan, Bryn Mawr College, 2013, writes about threshold concepts as gate-keeping, door-opening and bridge-building concepts in and between disciplines. She came to this understanding of threshold concepts through her partnership with a Spanish professor at Haverford College in the context of her Intensive Intermediate Spanish class. Yan describes how she and her faculty partner explored this idea in relation to incorporating grammar with the reading, and in relation to boosting students’ confidence in the language. She also weaves her own experiences as a Spanish learner into her reflections.

XV. Threshold Conceptual Systems in a Course on Culture and Development, in which Robert H. Wozniak, Professor of Psychology, Bryn Mawr College, argues that when key concepts in psychology are taken not individually, but as part of larger theoretical systems in which they are interrelated in various ways, understanding expands as students come to recognize conceptual linkages that enrich and deepen meanings of individual elements in the system. He identifies just such a system of concepts within his course, Culture and Development, and discusses the assignments he created to support students’ engagement with these threshold constellations.

XVI. Transforming Writing/Transforming Writers: Threshold Concepts in Undergraduate Academic Writing, in which J. C. Todd, M. F. A., Lecturer, Creating Writing, Bryn Mawr College, shares her discovery, through working with several colleagues and a student consultant during the Fall-2012 semester, that recursive revision that transforms an academic paper into reader-based prose presents a critical juncture for the undergraduate academic writer because it requires conceptual restructuring. In her paper she draws on her own and her consultant’s insights, the activities the two of them developed together, and the words of students enrolled in her courses to highlight three thresholds a student writer crosses in the process of developing as an academic writer and their effect on learning and teaching strategies.

XVII. “Be Like a Writer”: Analytical Writing as a Threshold Concept, in which Esther Chiang, Bryn Mawr College, 2014, offers a highly personal analysis of her own struggle with academic writing, which she presents as a threshold for herself. Chiang explores the dissonance between her language and learning process and history and how working with a middle school student, on the one hand, and participating in a college-level writing workshop, on the other, threw this threshold into particularly stark relief for her.

XVIII. Naming Threshold Concepts as a Threshold for Student-Faculty Partnerships, in which Samyuktha Natarajan, Bryn Mawr College, 2015, explores how she came to realize that exploring the notion of threshold concepts proved a threshold concept for her and her faculty partner during the Spring-2013 semester during which they worked together in Natarajan’s faculty partner’s geology course. Her essay raises questions about the role of naming threshold concepts that surface across the essays in this special issue.

XIX. Expanding the Definition of ‘Threshold Concept,’ in which Esteniolla Maitre, Bryn Mawr College 2015, argues for complicating and expanding the definition of ‘threshold concept’ to take into more extensive consideration the ways that a student’s background — her identity and experiences — shape her perception of, engagement with, and crossing of any threshold. Maitre offers examples from the education course in which she worked as a student consultant that highlight how these dimensions of a student interact with academic learning, and she provides specific suggestions for expanding the definition of ‘threshold concept’.

XX. Understanding Privilege, in which Sophia Abbot, Bryn Mawr College, 2015, describes her experience of coming to the realization, within in a 360° Program course cluster at Bryn Mawr College, that privilege is a threshold concept for her. Abbot describes how the deeply personal can intersect with the academic when a threshold concept has to do with identity.



Thresholds in Physics Learning
Elizabeth McCormack