Threshold concepts – notes from the reading group

Suzi read Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts by James Rhem (2013)

This relatively short article is part general discussion but mostly practical advice. The points I found most interesting were:

  • “Learning thresholds” might have been a better name, according to Ray Land.
  • There’s been success using threshold concepts as a way to get academics talking about their subject from an education point of view. They are something that people “get” and often enjoy engaging with, though they might struggle to agree on a definitive list of concepts for their subject.
  • To get through the liminal space takes “recursive, deep learning” (which I take to mean an immersive experience). This can be difficult to achieve.
  • We need to help students become more resilient and more optimistic, to help them make it through (there was little idea of how to do this though).
  • Trying to simplify the concepts for students may be counter-productive as it may encourage mimicry.

It made me reflect on conversations I’ve had about students mathematical ability when they arrive at university: they might make it through a-level but not really understand or be able to apply the concepts. This seems very similar to the contrast between mimicry and crossing the threshold.

Mike read Demistifying thereshold concepts by Darrell Rowbottom is a critique of the concept from a philosophy professor (2007)

Threshold concepts, as an idea, appeal to me, but I have found them to be a slippery/troublesome concept in themselves. It was interesting to read this critique which critiqued Meyer’s and Land’s ideas, and those who state they have found examples of them in particular subject areas. The paper took issue with:

  • the interpretation of a concept and the application of the theory, which Rowbottom states is closer to ability
  • explores whether these things are bounded in the way the term threshold implies. Thresholds will be relative (different for different people)
  • the woolly language used eg they are ‘significant’ in terms of the transformation that occurs
  • suggests they are not definable and not measurable. You cannot empirically isolate them or test for them (the latter is part of a wider issue for education for me).

Whilst much of this is valid, and as Suzi mentioned, Land would  use a different name if starting from scratch, I still think the idea has some use. I suggest most theories of education are difficult to isolate or prove, and  thinking about the most troublesome and transformative concepts can still help design curricula and focus teaching and learning.

Gem read  What’s the matter with Threshold Concepts? by Lori Townsend, Amy Hofer and Korey Brunetti is a guest post on the ARClog Blog (Blogging by and for academic and research librarians, posted Jan 2015).   This short piece was a response to some of the arguments against Threshold Concepts. The authors attempted a reasonable rebuttal of seven main arguments against Threshold concepts (listed below for interest) and they made some good counter-arguments, some with respect to information literacy instruction (discipline-specific).

Arguments against Threshold Concepts

  1. Threshold concepts are aren’t based on current research about teaching
  2. Everything is a threshold concept
  3. Threshold concepts are unproven
  4. Threshold concepts don’t address skill development
  5. Threshold concepts ignore the diversity of human experience
  6. Threshold concepts are hegemonic
  7. Threshold concepts require us to agree on all the things

The authors (I felt) successfully argued that there was theoretical value to using these concepts and helped me appreciate the usefulness of this theory as a pedagogic model (this was discussed further with the reading group). Jargon and woolly language is a real barrier to comprehension and being able to critically appraise different educational theories (for me at least coming from a science background). I have struggled with some theoretical approaches to pedagogy but the Threshold concept model, or at least my understanding of it, is one approach that I see useful and comprehensible from the point of view of both teacher and leaner having related experiences of both to this model.

Their conclusion “it’s useful to think of threshold concepts as a model for looking at the content we teach in the context of how learning works” was very thought provoking.

For me I relate traversing the liminal space as acquiring a new, albeit difficult skill (ability, idea) and then the consolidation of this new acquisition. The application of this new skill occurs only once I have passed through the Threshold and am on the other side (thus able to apply this new knowledge successfully to a task).

Roger readThreshold concepts: implications for game design”. This paper describes a project to develop an educational game covering threshold concepts in information literacy.  The authors give an account of the lessons learnt through the process of designing and testing the game.  They conclude that their original idea of a single player game did not reflect the team-based nature of research, the individual competitive game structure did not match the collaborative educational approach they were trying to model, and opportunities were needed for expert input in the game process. They suggest strategies for future improvements including using more open game structures, incorporating debriefing and offering social as well as individual learning contexts.

Other suggested reading

TEL Rubric for Online Course Spaces

Icons for TEL Rubric categories.

TELED have published a Rubric for online course spaces. This tool provides clear guidance for creating new online courses or reviewing existing courses.  The rubric is suitable for use with any units and programmes which have online spaces, including for blended learning which includes face-to-face components.

It gives clear criteria covering best practice and effective course design. It also covers how to enhance and engage, with simple and achievable advice. We will continue to develop it, adding links to examples and further information.

Tips and examples for large online courses

Lessons learnt at Bristol and elsewhere. Also available as a printable handout: tips and examples for large online courses (pdf).

Developing an idea

Start with the learners. Who are they? What is their motivation (intrinsic and/or extrinsic)? How does the course fit into their lives? What is their journey through the course?

Make sure your team has a shared understanding of what you and others involved are trying to achieve by providing the course. What would success look like? Would it look different to different people?

Look at what other people have done. It can be tempting to fall into familiar patterns of course design. Enrol on some MOOCs to look around. Engage if you can. We’ve selected some examples to get you started (see second page, “Ideas for large online courses” in the pdf).

Planning your course

Keep thinking from the learner’s’ point-of­-view. What is their journey through the course? What are they doing at each stage?

Learners often feel a personal connection with the lead educators. Who will be the face of your course? Will it be one member of staff or a team? Do you need to plan for people leaving the university?

Don’t assume you have to use video for everything. Use video where it really does add something. Learners might well prefer text over a very straight-forward lecture ­style presentation (even a short one).

Video doesn’t necessarily need high production values. Low-­cost DIY approaches to creating video, such as filming on a phone, can be very effective, so long as you have good audio quality.

Learners need support and encouragement to engage. How will students who are less confident (socially, academically, technologically) be supported? Prompt the kinds of activity you want to see, rather than assuming they will happen. Provide clear aims and instructions. Incorporate orienting activities naturalistically within the course. So you might make sure they are encouraged to post, reply, and follow during the first week.

Set clear expectations from the start. As a student, how will I know if my engagement with the course has been a success? What should I hope to achieve? Don’t over-promise ­ it’s ok if the course isn’t life-changing for everyone.

Ideas for large online courses

Pedagogies that scale, alternative approaches, opportunities


Large courses can provide a fantastic opportunity to hear from a wide range of learners, not just the course team. Allow students to contribute their ideas, and make mistakes safely. You could create videos where the course team reflect on this week’s comments, and augment your course materials based on learner feedback.

Finishing with presentations or a competition

An event, such as presenting projects to fellow students or even competing for a prize can be very motivating. Law Without Walls gets students to propose solutions to real-world problems, which are then presented to a panel of judges including venture capitalists.

Assess for learning

Assessment can be a good way to encourage active engaged learning. You might: ask students to reflect at the start of an activity, provide comparison statistics so students can see how their understanding fits within the wider cohort, allow peer review and feedback, or set quizzes for self-assessment.

Face-to-face study groups

Meeting with fellow students can be a great motivator. Learning Circles helps people set up regular public meetings to work through MOOCs with a small group of peers. Other people have used sites like Meetup.

Fast-track vs group working

Some students prefer to fast-track through the material, working as individuals. Others appreciate a longer more collaborative route. And some may want to “lurk”, reading but not engaging in more collaborative activities.

Contributing to something real

Students might contribute to a citizen science project or to a collaborative online space such as Wikipedia. If you plan to do this, make sure you look for advice for educators for the site first, such as Wikipedia for Educators

Digital and physical artefacts

Capturing data and making complex things on a small scale is becoming cheaper and easier. From image/video/audio capture on mobile phones to cheap sensors like PocketLab to Arduino and Raspberry Pi to clubs like Bristol Hackspace and events like Bristol Mini Maker Faire.

Short intense courses

Making a course very short is one way to manage commitment and keep momentum. How to change the world is a two-week challenge for UCL engineers. 700 students from different engineering disciplines are given global challenges to work on.

Students as teachers

Teaching online and coordinating distributed teams are useful skills. Harvard Law School’s CopyrightX hires current students as teaching fellows, each working with a group of 25 students.

Bring in outside expertise

Students can gain a lot from connections with professionals outside of academia. #phonar is an internationally successful photography class (initially made available free online without the knowledge of its host university). One of its strengths is the active involvement of professional photographers.

Try before you buy

Some courses allow students to engage on a lighter level before committing. Innovating in Healthcare from Harvard ran as a MOOC but a couple of weeks in, students had the opportunity to form project teams and apply to be on a more intensive track.

Eyes on the prize

Could you offer something for exceptional contributions to the course? Students from Harvard’s Innovating in Healthcare created video pitches for their business ideas. These were voted on by fellow students, with the winners receiving video consultations on their ideas with the lead academic.

Introduction to digital storytelling – notes from talk at BBC Digital Bristol Week

In contrast to yesterday’s talk, this talk from Colin Savage (BBC) seemed more like a formula for producing digital stories. Central to this were four questions:

  1. What question does it answer?
  2. What character will drive the story?
  3. What structure/platform might fit your story?
  4. What are the emotional touchpoints of the story?

There were some really interesting examples mentioned:

CS talked about all stories needing to answer a question, and touched briefly on reincorporation (“show the gun in act 1, fire it in act 3”). Both seem to relate to the curiosity gap mentioned yesterday.

Digital Bristol: Mobile Movies – get smarter with your smartphone

The lovely Joseph Giddon with a rule of thirds grid overlayed via FILMic Plus.

A rule of thirds grid applied via FILMic Plus on Android.

Digital Bristol: Mobile Movies – get smarter with your smartphone

Yesterday I attended the Mobile Movies workshop at BBC Broadcasting House. This event was part of the Digital Bristol Week events held around the city this week.

The workshop came as two sessions. The first covered techniques for filming using mobile phones. The second looked at specific apps used by BBC Journalists. The focus was particularly on Mobile Journalism (mojo). Yet there was lot to take away for those creating video content for education.

Part one: Learn how to shoot on your phone like a professional, with Deirdre Mulcahy.

This session gave some solid gold tips on filming with mobile devices. Deirdre covered the pros and many cons (read limitations) of mobile filming. Some great advice here around composition/framing of shots as well as overcoming limitation. The session introduced a smattering of media theory (rule of thirds, authentic voice, distortion bubbles etc). There was also fantastic practical advice for setting up and filming an interview.

Deirdre also made a convincing argument for using a selfie stick to film interviews with. No really. I’m almost convinced.

I appreciated the practical advice/activities undertaken. Getting a chance to have some hands on time helped get to grips with the theme of the session.

Part two: Apps and accessories to take your device further, with Marc Settle.

Marc presented a whirwind of app recommendations. Despite the dreaded iOS focus disclaimer, he brought enough to keep Android users interested. Marc mentioned extra bits of kit that can improve footage. Selfie-sticks, monopods and portable lighting all came up at breakneck speed.

I lost count of the number of apps highlighted but the crux of the talk centered on apps suitable for Mojo. How to take your device beyond basic filming to creating a more polished product. The phone in your pocket has the oomph (technical term) to create polished video content.  Apps can help add text, sound and even branding should you need it – “So the D@#/y M@/l can’t steal your content” 

My main take away from Marc’s session is to find apps that ‘play nicely’ with your preferred workflow. But you also need a back up app that does a similar job – make sure you have a plan b.


Cutting a long story short – notes from a talk as part of BBC Digital Bristol Week

This was a panel discussion with Rowan Kerek Robertson (Taylor Kerek) chairing, Sam Bailey (online/video for BBC Radio 1), and Stephen Follows (Catsnake, a production house specialising in short videos often for campaigning charities).

There was discussion of the using different platforms. For SB, for a content idea to be good it must be able to lead to something for all platforms: iPlayer, radio, social (Twitter, Facebook), and Youtube. SF and SB talked about the difference between video content on different platforms based on audience expectations:

  • iPlayer – generally about 30 minutes long, people sitting down to watch telly
  • Youtube – shorter, grabbier, but people are geared up to be watching something
  • Facebook – autoplay without sound, people who just want to see what’s going on

There was discussion about social sharing of content. Shares is often used as a metric, but should be used with caution. If you really want people to watch the the end, or to take action, you need to measure that. SF recommended the book Contagious which, among other things, lists the 5 emotions that cause sharing as: anger, anxiety, awe, excitement, and humour (in Radio 1 parlance – WTF, OMG, LOL). SF said that they’ve found the most successful way to get meaningful shares is to target people “who already care” via blogs. Sites like Buzzfeed might give you lots of people loading your video, but will they actually watch it?

There was interesting detail from SF on how their production process. They start with an understanding of what their clients want: “who do you want to do what?”. From this they write a brief (eg “This film will get women aged 25-30 to share X because it will make them feel like Y”). Key performance indicators need to go in the brief and need to really reflect what the client is trying to achieve. They then have an ideas session with this visible. They don’t have a maximum length for videos (their greatest hit is 8 minutes). Digital allows you to be flexible: embrace that.

Testing has 3 stages.

  1. Informal focus group (friends, friends-of-friends) – just to get the feel of the demographic, not to test out ideas.
  2. Show the video to a few people from that group.
  3. Seeding (targeted Youtube views) to around 1-2k people.

This made it sound relatively light-touch and low-cost – great for higher education.

SF believes storytelling is a key way humans have passed on knowledge, so is a fundamental driver. Knowledge sharing leads to a joy in storytelling (just as the need for food leads to appreciation of cuisine, and reproduction leads to sex being pleasurable). A storytelling technique is the “curiosity gap” – something that isn’t fulfilled until the end (but not by tricking people, more like stringing out a joke so it gets more enjoyable the longer it goes on … and you know when to stop). Koney 2012 is an example of a video that uses this technique.

Relatedly, recent research suggests that men who tell good stories are seen as more attractive.

Games and gamification – notes from the reading group

Suzi read Do points, levels and leaderboards harm intrinsic motivation?

This study attempted to shed light on when/why common gamification techniques (points, levels, leaderboards) harm intrinsic motivation, as measured by the intrinsic motivation inventory (IMI). They found that, for this image-tagging task, intrinsic motivation was not harmed and the number of tags increased with all three interventions. They conclude that these techniques could be useful for some tasks. There are limitations, which the authors acknowledge. In this situation leaderboards, etc don’t mean anything here, they don’t create stress, in other situations they might well.

Suzi watched FOTE12: Nicola Whitton ‘What is the Future of Digital Games and Learning’. This was an interesting short talk, covering interesting examples:

Whitton argues that a key idea from games that’s overlooked is play. She talks about the idea of creating a “magic circle” – a safe space to practice, have fun, and make mistakes. Her suggestions  for considering gamification include: implement some mystery, do something unexpected, be playful, and create a safe space to make mistakes.

Chris read about the Reading Game from Macquarie. This is basically exactly the same as Peerwise, and appears to be defunct – probably because Peerwise has cornered the market. So, I then talked about my recent experiences of Peerwise. We’ve just used it with our first years, with mixed results because they didn’t engage as much as I would have liked, and many people only did the minimum required for credit. However, Peerwise contains a scoring system that rewards students for various kinds of participation, and some people have reported that using this to introduce an element of competition can motivate students to participate. So next year, rather than asking students to do a certain amount of work for credit, they will be asked to achieve a certain score. Watch this space….

Mike looked at Evoke, an online multiplayer game with grand ambitions to help people ‘change the world’ by collectively addressing problems.  Element see relevant to HE and Bristol Futures in particular, whilst parts of the approach would (I suspect) alienate some potential participants.. The idea of coming up with ‘Evokations’ (grand challenges people can respond to) has been used successfully elsewhere. The use of mentors to facilitate, prizes to incentivise seem sound. Evole had a time-based (weekly) structure with people being drip fed the stages, which reminded me of the Twelve days of Twitter course. The thing that might be off-putting to some is the suggestion that people take on superhero-like persona. The point scoring part looked complicated, but may have worked to motivate some.

Roger read Lameras (2015) Essential Features of Serious Games Design in Higher Education . This paper provides some useful scaffolding for teachers thinking about using games or gamification techniques. Particularly useful were:

  • the game design planner, which provides some prompts for teachers considering using games, eg around learning outcomes, feedback, and the teacher’s role, as well as which types and characteristics of games might be most appropriate in the context, eg types of player choice and challenge, nature of any collaboration or competition, and rules
  • The mapping of learning attributes to game attributes, eg ways in which games can support information transmission, collaboration, and discussion . Key game attributes include  rules, goals, choices, tasks, challenges, competition, collaboration, and feedback, which are evidenced in game features such as missions, puzzles, scoring, progress indicators, leaderboards, branching tasks, gaining / losing lives and team activities

It is evident from reading the paper that there is a strong overlap between game design and good learning design in general, for example in the importance of feedback, challenge, choice and social learning.