What’s the Matter with Threshold Concepts?

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Lori Townsend, Learning Services Coordinator at the University of New Mexico; Silvia Lu, Reference and Social Media Librarian and Assistant Professor, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY; Amy R. Hofer, Coordinator, Statewide Open Education Library Services, Linn-Benton Community College; and Korey Brunetti, Librarian at City College of San Francisco.

Recent conversations about ACRL’s draft Framework have raised questions about both the theoretical value of threshold concepts and their usefulness as applied to information literacy instruction. This post responds to some of the arguments against threshold concepts and clarifies why the authors believe that the model can be a productive way to approach information literacy instruction.

Threshold concepts aren’t based on current research about learning
Au contraire: threshold concepts are grounded in research on teaching and learning. The theory initially developed from qualitative research undertaken by education faculty as a part of the Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses project in the UK. The references for Meyer and Land’s initial series of papers on threshold concepts represent a well-rounded list of important thinkers in education.

That said, we understand why some might see threshold concepts as “old wine in new bottles” (as Glynnis Cousin puts it) (1). If you have a background in educational theory, threshold concepts may seem like a repackaging of other theories. Threshold concepts might even be understood as a shortcut through the theory thicket for those who don’t possess an advanced degree in education.

It’s also helpful to note that the threshold concept model works well when used alongside other pedagogical approaches. To provide just one excellent example, Lundstrom, Fagerheim, and Benson (2) used threshold concepts in combination with Decoding the Disciplines and backward design as a frame to revise learning outcomes for information literacy in composition courses.

Everything is a threshold concept
Another common objection has to do with the fuzziness of Meyer and Land’s definitional criteria (transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, troublesome) and the hedging language Meyer and Land use to articulate the criteria (probably, possibly, potentially). We see the use of these qualifiers as Meyer and Land’s way of saying: just because a proposed threshold concept doesn’t meet X criterion, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a threshold concept. Along these lines, Wiggins and McTighe’s work is highly respected as a now-standard approach to curriculum design, but if you look at the chapter on “big ideas” in their classic work Understanding by Design, you’ll see similarly fuzzy, but still useful, language.

However, regarding these fuzzy definitional criteria, some have asked “How can probable characteristics be defining characteristics?” (3) Let’s look at a furry example: dogs. Do dogs bark? Do all barks sound the same? Are there dogs that don’t bark? Yet somehow, we can still identify dogs as dogs for practical purposes. Likewise, instructors can still identify threshold concepts because we possess professional and disciplinary expertise.

Arguing for the existence of threshold concepts that meet none of the definitional criteria is a rhetorical device, not a practical concern. Librarians are just not going to waste precious instructional time on nonsensical learning objectives that aren’t real teaching content.

Threshold concepts are unproven
Threshold concepts are an emerging theory. However, many disciplines have used them to effectively re-think curricula, including Computer Science and Economics. We maintain that much of the value of threshold concepts lies in encouraging instructors to re-engage with and re-examine teaching content. They are a wonderful catalyst to spark discussion among colleagues and encourage deep and creative thinking about instruction.

Nevertheless, some librarians are bothered by an approach that isn’t supported by a certain kind of evidence. There are many possible pedagogical approaches out there and we don’t have a stake in people adopting threshold concepts if the model doesn’t work for them. At the same time we can also ask, how much of what librarians do effectively in the classroom is supported by positivist proof?

To take one example, we don’t need a double-blind study to know that the Cephalonian method works in our classes. We know it works because students who came in slouching and checking their email are paying attention, sitting up straight, and asking their own questions. This is a form of evidence. Other kinds of evidence are forthcoming for threshold concepts (for example, we are slowly writing up the results of a Delphi study on threshold concepts for information literacy), but that does not mean we cannot use them now to improve our teaching.

Threshold concepts don’t address skill development
We want our students to demonstrate new skills and abilities based on our instruction. Which is to say, we want them to learn. Threshold concepts help us think about where students may encounter stumbling blocks in understanding difficult or transformative concepts that underlie skill development. Wiggins and McTighe’s big ideas share a similar aim:

What we are claiming, based on both common sense and the research in cognition, is that no skill can be integrated into a powerful repertoire unless the learner understands the big ideas related to using the skill wisely. (4)

We find it nearly impossible to teach a skill-based learning objective effectively if we don’t have a firm grasp on why it’s important because of its connection to an overarching concept. Students can smell busywork a mile away. And transferrable skills are the ones anchored in conceptual understanding.

Threshold concepts ignore the diversity of human experience
Threshold concepts have been characterized as monolithic dictates that impose one linear path to one correct understanding. In fact, threshold concepts leave room for variability for instructors as well as for learners

In applying the anthropological concept of liminality to learning, Meyer and Land imagine and explore a liminal space that learners pass through in the process of crossing a threshold. They write about how individuals will move through this liminal space in different ways, spend more or less time there, and experience affective dimensions of learning there. (5) As Silvia’s diagram below shows, some people encounter a learning threshold and walk right across; others will take a few steps forward and a few steps back before crossing; others will sit down in one spot for weeks when the threshold comes into view.

Learners do not start a course in the same place, nor do they learn at the same pace.

On the other hand, to suggest that student experiences are so fundamentally different that there are no common points of confusion is anathema to the possibility of curricular design. Moreover, what then would be the point of teaching and learning in communities? We can focus our teaching efforts by pinpointing the places where students are most likely to get stuck, without ignoring their differences.

Threshold concepts are hegemonic
Threshold concepts are not tools of oppression. Or at least, they may be so, but only to the extent that an individual practitioner using threshold concepts is oppressive.

Threshold concepts expose the tacit knowledge that we expect our students to absorb along with our stated learning objectives. This approach forces us to consider the implications of asking students to look through our disciplinary lens. For example, if a student wants to search the catalog using the keyword “drag queens,” you can imagine how well the Library of Congress subject headings reflect the current thinking on respectful ways to talk about this topic. Ignoring such an issue would implicitly validate the problematic subject terms. It is paramount to acknowledge the language problem and explain that the subject terms reflect the point of view of a certain group of people. We run into trouble when we don’t acknowledge our particular lens and act as if it’s the natural way to see the world.

Our disciplinary lens has scratches, deformed areas, and blind spots — all rich fodder for teaching and exploration — and yet it still offers something of value to our students. Admitting that we are asking to students to risk their identity and take a leap of faith with us as teachers is only being honest.

Threshold concepts require us to agree on all the things
Do we all agree on what constitutes our disciplinary content? Does every discipline share a unified body of knowledge? Threshold concepts don’t claim so. However, we all make choices when teaching. If you consider your content with the threshold concepts criteria in mind, it helps identify some things that might prove problematic for students and stall their learning, yet that are needed in order to move forward in their understanding.

Individual subject experts will have differing perspectives on their disciplines and will thus choose to teach different content, but there are transformative, irreversible, troublesome, and integrative moments along many strands of knowledge. Your curriculum doesn’t have to be identical to mine for both of them to include threshold concepts that challenge our students and enlarge their perspectives.

In conclusion
We see the Framework draft as a part of an ongoing conversation and an attempt to nudge our profession in a positive direction toward conceptual teaching. Threshold concepts gave the Task Force one starting place to think about big ideas in information literacy. As we all know, many librarians already take a challenging, big picture approach to content and have been teaching that way for years without threshold concepts or the new Framework.

Nobody asserts that the frames are The Only Frames forever and ever. So please, engage with them. Think of new ones. Rewrite them to fit your context and your students. Think hard about what you teach and how you teach it. We have interesting, transformative, transferrable content to teach and it is grounded in our own disciplinary area — threshold concepts or no.

And finally, 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. “…(A)ll models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be not to be useful.” (6) We’re less interested in breaking down the model and examining its component parts exhaustively than in trying it out and seeing if it’s useful. And then maybe tweaking it. For us, despite its flaws, the threshold concepts model continues to be useful. Your mileage may vary.



  1. Cousin, G. (2008). Threshold concepts: Old wine in new bottles or a new form of transactional curriculum inquiry? In R. Land, J. Meyer, & J. Smith, (Eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
  2. Lundstrom, K., Fagerheim, B.A., & Benson, E. (2014). Librarians and instructors developing student learning outcomes: Using frameworks to lead the process. Reference Services Review, 42(3).
  3. O’Donnell, R. M. (2009). Threshold concepts and their relevance to economics. ATEC 2009: 14th Annual Australasian Teaching Economics Conference, p. 192. Brisbane, Queensland: School of Economics and Finance, Queensland University of Technology.
  4. Wilkinson, L. (2014, June 19). The problem with threshold concepts [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/the-problem-with-threshold-concepts/.
  5. Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  6. Meyer, J.H.F., and Land, R. (2008) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (5): Dynamics of assessment. 2nd International Conference on Threshold Concepts, Threshold Concepts: From Theory to Practice, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
  7. Box, G. E. P., & Draper, N. R. (1987). Empirical model-building and response surfaces. New York: Wiley, p. 74.

“Sunrise, Sunset”: A Reflection on Assessment and the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Donna Witek, Associate Professor and Public Services Librarian at the University of Scranton.


Photo by Moyan Brenn on Flickr

When I first learned about assessment at the very beginning of my professional work as a librarian, there was one aspect of the process that made complete sense to me. I was instructed that an assessment plan is just that–a plan–and that it is not only OK but expected for the plan to change at some point, either during or after it’s been put into action.

Now, the specifics on how these changes happen, what are best practices in altering an assessment plan, and the relationship between the integrity of the assessment data gathered and any changes made, are all complex questions. I am in my seventh year working as an instruction librarian in an academic library, and I consider myself at best an engaged learner-practitioner when it comes to assessment–I am by no means an expert, and I offer this as a disclaimer as I share some thoughts on assessment and the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education [pdf].

In the years since I was first trained in basic assessment practices, I still find the recursive, cyclical nature of assessment to be the aspect of the process that legitimizes the rest. Learning is a messy process, and as instructors we understand that there are multiple ways to reach the same goal–or learning outcome–and that different learners learn differently. It could mean our approach to teaching (i.e., our pedagogy) needs to be adapted–sometimes on the fly!–to meet the needs of the students in front of us. Or, maybe the way I articulated one of the learning outcomes for an instruction session turns out to be way too ambitious for the scope of the instruction, and ten minutes in I realize I need to change the formulation of the outcome in my mind in order for my teaching and the students’ learning to harmonize.

What I love about the principle that an assessment plan is meant to be changed (at some point) is that it means the above scenarios are not failures, but part of an authentic teaching and learning process. This is empowering for teachers and students alike.

Now, it is my understanding that all assessment plans change eventually. In the case of an assessment plan that from the outset is harmonized perfectly to the learning context to which it is applied, it isn’t changed until the end of the assessment cycle, but it still changes and develops in response to the information (call it data if you’d like) gathered throughout the process.

At the end of this week and after almost two years of development and review by the profession, the Framework will be considered for adoption by the ACRL Board of Directors during ALA Midwinter. The Framework is not conceived as an assessment document, as it “is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation, rather than on a set of standards or learning outcomes or any prescriptive enumeration of skills” (Framework [pdf], p.2).

This begs the questions: What is the relationship between the Framework and assessment? And how does this in turn relate to the revision task force’s recommendation that the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education be sunsetted in July 2016 (Board of Directors Action Form [pdf], p.3)?

Before I share some ideas in response to these questions, Megan Oakleaf offers to the profession “A Roadmap for Assessing Student Learning Using the New Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” [pdf] (JAL 40.5 2014). I highly recommend reading Oakleaf’s roadmap, as my own ideas touch on many of the same points found in her “Ok, So Now What?” section, though I want to fold into the discussion the relationship between this process and the proposed sunsetting of the Standards.

Here I offer just one of many possible paths toward incorporating the Framework into your local information literacy instructional practice. It is a theoretical model, because it has to be at this point: the Framework is not yet adopted. As will hopefully be made clear, not enough time has passed for this model to have been fully implemented, though some libraries have begun the process. (1)

The first step I would recommend, based on evidence from libraries that have taken this approach and found it fruitful and impactful on both student learning and programmatic practices, is to read the Framework, both individually and as a group with colleagues in your instruction program, and through reflection and discussion identify intersections between the Framework and the information literacy instruction work you are already doing. (2) Rather than feel pressured to overhaul an entire instruction program overnight, instead use the Framework as a new way to understand and build upon the things you’re already doing on both the individual and programmatic levels.

If your current practices are heavily situated within the Standards, I think this exercise will surprise by unearthing the connections that do in fact exist between the Standards and the Framework, even as the latter represents a significant shift in our collective approach to teaching and learning. (3)

The next step would be to review your learning outcomes for individual instruction sessions in light of the Framework, to be inspired by the connections, and to be challenged by the gaps–and to rewrite these outcomes based on both your engagement with the Framework and your recent assessment of your own students’ learning using these outcomes. The cycle of assessment for learning outcomes tied to individual instruction is short–these outcomes can and should be reviewed and revised in the period of reflection that immediately follows each instruction session.

In many ways, this makes individual instruction the most immediately fertile context in which to use the Framework to be inspired and to transform your instructional practice, keeping in mind the complex concepts that anchor the frames require learners to engage them in multiple learning contexts throughout the curriculum in order to be fully grasped. Still, even a one-shot can incorporate learning outcomes that will help learners progress toward understanding of these concepts in a manner appropriate to the learner’s current level of training in a discipline or disciplines.

But what of your programmatic information literacy learning outcomes? What about the places where information literacy has been integrated into curricular programs within or across the disciplines? And what about those (fortunate!) institutional contexts in which information literacy is integrated explicitly into the learning outcomes for the institution as a whole?

The beauty of assessment, as I suggest above, is that it is cyclical. Just as all ACRL guidelines and standards undergo cyclical review, so too do our local assessment and curriculum plans–or at least, they should. As each assessment plan comes up for review, librarians who have been engaging the Framework in their individual instructional practice can share “upwards” their experiences and the impact on student learning they observed through that engagement, and so fold the concepts underpinning the Framework into each broader level of assessment.

In this way, the Framework’s influence will cascade upwards within a local institutional context according to a timeline that is determined by the review cycles of that institution. While the revision task force’s recommendation to the ACRL Board is for the Standards to be sunsetted a year and a half after the Framework’s recommended adoption, I would argue that it is in the spirit of the Framework for local timelines to necessarily trump ACRL’s: as long as librarians are engaging the Framework, both individually (in instruction) and collaboratively (as local assessment plans and curricular documents come up for review), and doing so in light of the information literacy instruction work your library has been doing since (or even prior to) the adoption of the Standards fifteen years ago, (4) then the worry associated with sunsetting the Standards on the national level will be eclipsed by the particular, robust influence the Framework is having on your own campus, with your own students.

And anyway, we do our best work when we’re focusing on the students in front of us. So, let’s get to work.



(1) Nicole Pagowsky shares the first steps of a similar process underway at the University of Arizona.

(2) The first example of this I’ve encountered is at Trinity College; librarians leading in different areas of Trinity’s information literacy instruction program presented at the 2014 Connecticut Information Literacy Conference their success with this initial approach to implementing the Framework (video and prezi).

(3) Amanda Hovious has created a helpful series of Alignment Charts for ACRL Standards and Proposed Framework, which represent one practitioner’s approach to connecting these two documents. I would argue that there are as many potential charts/models for connecting the Standards to the Framework as there are practitioners interpreting the meaning and content of each. It is for this reason I believe it was prudent for the revision task force to abstain from developing a model for alignment themselves, as such a model would run the danger of being wrongly interpreted as “canonical” because of its association with the task force that developed the Framework. That being said, Hovious’ charts are informed by her training as an instructional designer, and coupled with her notes for interpretation at the beginning of the document, represent a valuable perspective on how these two approaches to information literacy instruction relate. Another example that is equally compelling, in this case because the alignment is anchored to locally developed core competencies, is offered by Emily Krug, King University. It is compelling because it models (literally) the notion that information literacy is locally situated, by using King University’s core competencies as the concrete bridge between Standards and Framework.

(4) Barbara Fister offers an historical perspective in which she recalls the anticipated reception of the Standards when they were first adopted in 2000, and the remarkably similar conversations we are having now in relation to the Framework.

Students Taking Back the Conversation: The 2015 LIS Symposium on Education

I wouldn’t normally use this space to discuss or promote upcoming professional development opportunities. However, as an LIS graduate student contributing to a national platform like ACRLog, I feel compelled to share LIS students’ current concerns and activities, especially if they affect the rest of the professional body.

LIS students have been discussing placement, pay inequality, a lack of diversity in the profession, and gaps in LIS school curriculum and pre-professional opportunities through informal means for at least the last decade. These conversations have taken place in white papers, blog posts, and even in ALA or ACRL newsletters. They range from new librarians calling for more transparent program and placement statistics to recent graduates expressing their bleak job search and why they regret going to library school to minority librarians expressing the difficulties they face during the transition to their first professional position. They are, unfortunately, often cries of outrage or despair from one practitioner’s personal experience within the field, sometimes corroborated with statistics or other sources that prove that the individual’s issue is part of a larger trend within librarianship. A quick Google search brings up titles like these:

(If you’re trying to better understand the issues recent graduates are facing, looking at the comments is very enlightening.)

Regardless of format or venue, all of these discussions are relevant and fundamental to any change taking place. Nevertheless, we often see these conversations become stagnant and fruitless. LIS colleagues might chime in with a few comments but that is usually the extent of the impact. Or worse, a commenter will suggest that complaints about LIS education and placement are unwarranted and that new graduates need to be more autonomous and creative, completely disregarding the structural issues at play and shutting down any change the conversation could have influenced.

To make matters more complicated, the LIS practitioners that care about these issues often have little or no voice in our profession because of their status. The minority LIS student or recent graduate that feels uncomfortable and undervalued in their position often has no means of revolutionizing the issue. The unemployed (or underemployed) LIS graduate can’t necessarily rely on their alma mater or even ALA for support and most of the time their only option for voicing their frustrations is to warn current LIS students about the challenges the job market presents. Even current LIS students have little to no voice in curriculum or administrative decisions (for a great example of this at Illinois, see one of my colleague’s recent posts through Hack Library School). As a result, it’s relatively easy to find LIS blog posts that are primarily a vehicle for voicing frustrations, often because there is no other avenue for tangible action.

Thus, it has become clear to many that a more formalized, holistic movement needs to happen in order to see any real change. Moreover, it is apparent that this change should be student-led and collaborative. Students and recent graduates are, of course, stakeholders for all of these issues and should have some authority on how they should be resolved. Borrowing from (and reframing) one of the basic tenants of second wave feminism, we have to believe that the personal is political. Library students’ experience doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The personal experience of being unemployed, undervalued, and underpaid, in addition to having a lack of access to pre-professional opportunities or coursework on an important topic or in an instructional mode that meshes with your learning style is part of a trend. Our experiences are often more than our own personal endeavors. They also help us realize when institutional change needs to happen and they help inform what exactly needs to be revolutionized.

For these reasons, a group of LIS students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has created the 2015 Symposium on LIS Education. The symposium is completely free to registrants and will take place on April 10 & 11 at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Champaign, Illinois. The event will have a virtual component for those that would like to participate but are unable to make it to GSLIS.

The symposium has similar goals to the innovative #critlib unconference to be held in Portland in March. We believe that experience informs real solutions and the theory and praxis needed to create them. We’d like to call on students to lead the change in LIS education and educational policy. Additionally, we hope that the symposium will provide a safe space to address these controversial issues in a collaborative and productive way.

Potential topics for proposals could include, but are not limited to:

  • Diversity
  • Advising and mentoring
  • Gaps in LIS curriculum: critical theory, technical competencies
  • Administrative transparency
  • Information ethics
  • Reflections on online education
  • Pre-professional experience and opportunities
  • Costs and funding
  • Required courses
  • Career placement
  • Dual degrees and specializations

If you are a current LIS student, recent graduate, or scholar of LIS education or diversity in LIS, we would be ecstatic to have you participate. One of the main objectives of the symposium is to simply have a centralized space to look at LIS education more critically. But it is also worth noting that a larger goal of the symposium is to facilitate the creation of a deliverable. While it isn’t clear what form the deliverable will take, we know it will be important to have a summative document or declaration from participants that informs LIS schools and ALA of what was discussed and how students are addressing these issues. We hope that this will only be the first conversation/ step in this imperative discussion for the future of librarianship.

*The ideas here are my own and do not formally represent the Symposium on LIS Education’s Planning Committee. Conversely, I can’t take credit for thinking of this innovative event. I’d like to thank Madison Sullivan for asking me to help bring her idea to life and for rounding up a group of dedicated and passionate LIS students to work with on the planning committee.

Scholarship as Conversation: The Response to the Framework for Information Literacy

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jacob Berg, Director of Library Services at Trinity Washington University.

The Association of College and Research Library’s (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education (pdf) has gone through three drafts, and was sent to the ACRL Board of Directors for approval earlier this month.

It was possible to do an excellent job of teaching information literacy (IL) under the old Standards, and that remains the case. It was also possible to do a lousy job. Nothing has changed. The same is true of the Framework; some campuses will thrive under it, while others will not. In all these instances, neither the Standards nor the Framework was or is sufficient or necessary to successfully teach information literacy.

And yet the discourse around the third and final draft should make many academic librarians pause. Conversations in blog posts, listservs, and social media reveal straw men, ad hominem attacks, and a lack of understanding of educational psychology and pedagogy, among other issues. Observing these discussions, we should reflect on how we interact with each other to create knowledge regimes and epistemic communities (1). Here I will focus on blog posts.


In the last few months, we’ve seen an Open Letter from some New Jersey academic librarians, since signed by others, ask the ACRL to not sunset the Standards, as well as a fierce rebuttal from two academic librarians in New York City, among other works.

The former accuses the ACRL Framework Task Force of being “tone deaf to the politics of Higher Ed.” It also lacks any evidence of information literacy “success,” however defined.

  • What did information literacy look like in New Jersey academic libraries prior to implementing the Standards, and how have the Standards helped?
  • Who did these Standards work for? Librarians? Professors? Administrators? How, and why, or why not?
  • What would change in New Jersey under the Framework?

The answers to these questions go unmentioned.

In addition, the Open Letter mentions the political stakes for a shift from Standards to a Framework, but fails to show what those stakes are. I would very much like to hear more about this. (For what it’s worth, at my place of work I will spend my meager political capital elsewhere, as the administration prefers the American Association of Universities and Colleges IL rubric, and I believe there are many roads to information literate Damascus.)

Maybe the Framework is “tone deaf to the politics of higher education.” But maybe the politics of higher education are tone deaf to what educators, librarians included, are trying to accomplish in classrooms and on campuses. No doubt that politics is powerful, more powerful than academic library and information science (LIS) professionals, but given what I see of said politics, I’d much rather be against it than with it, and some push back is healthy.

Meanwhile, Ian Beilin and Nancy Foasberg mount a powerful defense of the Framework in a rebuttal to the Open Letter:

The Standards understand information as a commodity external to the student; something that can be obtained and subsequently “used.[i]” When we look at information in this way, we are thinking of information literate students as consumers who must choose among many options, like shoppers selecting goods from among those placed before them in the market. The Framework instead aims at a more social understanding of information and information literacy. Most notably, it uses the explicit metaphor of a conversation, but it is also interested in the ways that authority is constructed and the ways that information artifacts are produced. Research is thus framed as an interaction among people rather than a choice among artifacts.

Yet their article maligns standards everywhere with the specter of Common Core, a case of guilt by association (though to be fair, the Open Letter mentions Common Core first). To Beilin and Foasberg, the move to return to the standards is “a conservative, backward-looking disposition,” never mind that one reason Common Core is so reviled in some circles is how radical it is.

Writ large, their defenses of localized learning and the role of theory in library and information science inadvertently expose Threshold Concepts (TCs), mentioned only once in their article, for what they are: a loose collection of pedagogically unsound and empirically untested practices. To wit:

  • If localization is a worthy goal of the Framework why do Threshold Concepts come from a Delphi study as opposed to individual institutions?
  • To what extent are these Threshold Concepts like, and unlike, Standards?
  • Theories gain acceptance when tested. What are the tests for Threshold Concepts? Where are they? (2)

It is interesting that an article so focused on theory should ignore the theoretical issues that make up the bedrock of the Framework.


Responses garnered from the most recent feedback form (pdf) that accompanied the third draft in November showed that, of the 206 surveys received,

  • 91% were satisfied with the opportunities to provide feedback to the Task Force on drafts of the Framework
  • 67.4% support the new Framework
  • 63% were satisfied with the proposed definition of information literacy
  • A majority of respondents were satisfied with the new frames (satisfaction ranged from 71% for Information Creation as a Process to 83% for Scholarship as Conversation).

I do not know if 206 responses is a good number or not, but one jarring realization to emerge from this process is that while many academic librarians are faculty and/or instructors on their campuses, we lack a grounding in educational psychology and pedagogy. (3) How else would we have come to either embrace or tolerate Threshold Concepts?

“What do you wish your students were able to do?” “What kind of work do you think they could create?” “What do they come to this school being able to do?” “What does a graduate of X college look like?”

Those are questions one library director asks faculty at her place of work. They are good questions, but neither Standards nor a Framework makes those questions possible. If the current discussion has enabled or validated one to ask them at a place of work, that is excellent, but as I see it, those questions were always there for the asking. There is nothing in LIS education that prevents this discursive formation under the Standards, or before their adoption in 1999.


The upcoming ACRL meeting at the American Library Association Midwinter meeting in Chicago will have a spirited discussion on the Framework, featuring the Board of Directors and a question and answer session. Because scholarship is indeed a conversation, at least part of the time, it is my hope that the discussions provoked by the above links, including those in the footnotes, shed some light on how librarians and information professionals interact to create knowledge and knowledge practices in the profession. I think we can do better. I will not be able to attend Midwinter, and I hope it’s free of some of the discourse we’ve seen leading up to this point.

Meanwhile, absent a set of Standards, or a Framework, strong work in information literacy will continue to take place.



(1) “Knowledge regimes are sets of actors, organizations, and institutions that produce and disseminate policy ideas that affect how policy-making and production regimes are organized and operate in the first place.” John L. Campbell and Ove K. Pederson, “Knowledge Regimes and Comparative Political Economy,” 2007 (pdf).

On epistemic communities, see Wikipedia.

(2) The Women and Gender Studies Section of ACRL will be the first to test this Framework.

Again, I point to Darrell Patrick Rowbottom’s “Demystifying Threshold Concepts,” Journal of Philosophy of Education (2007), in which he argues that one can test for abilities, but not concepts; that it is empirically difficult, if not impossible to show multiple conceptual routes to the same ability; and that thresholds differ from person to person, among others.

See also, Lane Wilkinson’s “The Problem With Threshold Concepts,” Sense and Reference, (2014), and Patrick K. Morgan’s “Pausing at the Threshold,” portal: Libraries and the Academy (2015).

A similar critique can be applied to Task Force committee member Troy Swanson’s defense of the Framework; instead of shoehorning Standards into lesson plans and learning outcomes, we can now do the same with Threshold Concepts.

(3) Again, see Dani Brecher and Kevin Michael Klipfel’s “Education Training for Instruction Librarians: A Shared Perspective,” (2014) and Kimberly Davies-Hoffman, et al.’s “Keeping Pace with Information Literacy Instruction in the Real World,” (2013), both in Communications in Information Literacy.

For a good example of how educational psychology can effect academic librarianship, see Jessica Olin’s “Not Mutants nor Ninjas nor Turtles, but Teenagers,” Letters to a Young Librarian, (2015).

The Making of an Instructional Design Librarian

I’m now in my sixth month and second semester as a tenure-track Instructional Design Librarian, which is a new position at my library. In December I completed my second master’s in Educational Technology (specializing in instructional design) so now I can call myself an instructional designer with confidence. I’m a new academic librarian AND a new instructional designer, and my job is to wear both of those hats, often at the same time.*

I spent a lot of fall semester figuring out exactly how an Instructional Design Librarian should fit in at my institution. Figuring out my role(s) and mastering the intricacies of the tenure-track handbook has been an enormous, time-consuming challenge. (Spoiler: I’m far from having it all figured out).

Instructional Design Librarians, Please Stand Up

As far as I can tell, there aren’t a whole lot of people like me – at least, title and primary responsibility-wise. There are oodles of instruction librarians, lots of emerging technology librarians, many online/distance education librarians – and multitudes of librarians that have taken on instructional design/educational technology as an additional duty or interest. I discovered this last group in the wonderful Blended Librarian Online Learning Community, which offers fantastic webinars. A term coined by Steven J. Bell, the “Blended Librarian”

first combines the traditional aspects of librarianship with the technology skills of an information technologist, someone skilled with software and hardware. Many librarians already demonstrate sound technology skills of this type. To this mix, the Blended Librarian adds the instructional or educational technologist’s skills for curriculum design, and the application of technology for student-centered learning (2003).

My position and skills certainly fall under this definition. I think that a large percentage of academic librarians have at least some of these skills. Sometimes I say I have the librarian job of the future (at least for academia) and I think that more and more librarian jobs will require these skills going forward.

Taking Stock

When I started this job, I realized my new library desperately needed new and innovative ways to reach more students. Only 23** librarians (including me) serve 38,000 students and 2,000 faculty. Our YouTube page hadn’t been updated with fresh content in years, and there were no communal, reusable learning objects*** to speak of. After settling in last fall (truly settling in will take years in this position), I started my work by doing lots of brainstorming. It was clear from the start my time is limited. Since I am wearing “two hats,” I have to carefully manage my time to fully attend to my librarian duties (liaison subjects, instruction, reference hours, tenure-track work) while striving to make enough time for instructional design. I talked about keeping a work diary in my last post, but I use the same online notebook to sketch out loads of ideas. Holy cow, do I have a lot of ideas: badges, learning object repository, an information literacy curriculum customized for our campus, interactive tutorials, design workshops for librarians, instructional videos, assessment plans… I’ve also been instructed to work on improving my library’s existing online resources, namely, LibGuides.

Last semester, I strove to meet everyone that works in our very large library building and to meet the instructional designers on campus. Our campus has an Academic Technology Center (ATC, which falls under IT), the Faculty Development Center (FDC), a resource called Online Academic Strategies and Instructional Support (OASIS), as well as the University Extended Education (UEE) department. Each of these has one or more instructional designers, and confusingly these centers tend to overlap in their offerings. I spent a lot of time tracking down needed software – Camtasia for the videos, Adobe Captivate for interactive tutorials. My office computer died once and had to be replaced. I had to figure out which librarians I had to talk to about getting YouTube access and my own corner of the website for tutorials (still working on my own corner of the site, but I want to have a mini-repository of learning objects like that from University of Arizona libraries).

Jumping In

In my ACRLog posts so far, overwhelm is a prominent theme for me. So I started small. My library is currently suffering through a stacks closure due to an earthquake last spring, so I created a brief video on how to page materials. By consulting with librarians, I came up with a shortlist of other basic videos and developed two more on searching for library materials. I also took a course on Universal Design for Learning, while concurrently taking a course on writing a journal article in twelve weeks, both through our Faculty Development Center. Per my assignment sheet, and my personal interest, I’ve also been working hard collaborating with another librarian to revamp our assessment model (using the draft ACRL IL framework) for the information literacy component of our campus’ First Year Experience (FYE) program.

Partly due to the stacks closure, and partly due to coming re-organization and major renovation, I moved to a new office the day before winter break. I’m now consolidated in the same hallway as all of the other instructional designers on campus – from ATC, FDC, OASIS, and UEE (holy alphabet soup!). I’ve already learned a lot from them and am excited about the possibilities for collaboration and promoting the library and its resources. Under a grant last week, we were all able to attend two days of training on Quality Matters and our university system’s version, Quality Online Learning and Teaching. I was inspired to think about ways to develop and offer rubrics to allow librarians to self-evaluate learning objects.

Now on to Spring Semester

I continue to work hard on the assessment redesign for our piece of the FYE program (my colleague and I are presenting a poster at SCIL Works, and we submitted a poster proposal for ACRL, look for us if we get accepted! [Edit: Accepted for virtual con]). We’re also working on a grant proposal for release time to assess the pilot once it’s completed. I’m meeting with librarians to talk about developing videos/tutorials for their subject areas. I’m working on developing resources to help students and faculty use library resources like eBooks and streaming video. I’m working with members of our library’s Open Access Team to create presentations on utilizing open educational resources. I want to work with librarians to improve their instruction and their instructional materials, and I’m planning to employ social justice themes in information literacy instruction. I’m also following the critical librarianship community, as I’m from a blue-collar background and sometimes feel out of place in academia.

I get asked a lot what I do as an Instructional Design Librarian. I am certain that my answer will change as I embark on new projects and as I explore new possibilities, but I have come up with a short-ish answer. My new elevator-length job description/mission statement is that I endeavor to design and develop reusable learning objects that can be embedded into online learning environments, and to inculcate effective instructional use of educational technology among campus faculty.

Yep, that’s a mouthful.

Bell, S. J. (2003). A Passion for Academic Librarianship: Find It, Keep It, Sustain It–A Reflective Inquiryportal: Libraries and the Academy3(4), 633-642.

*I want a button that says “ASK ME about cognitive load!” Because IMHO many, if not most, librarians excel at inflicting cognitive overload in their instructional materials.
**Give or take a few positions in flux.
***At my in-person interview for this position, I was required to teach my audience how to create a reusable learning object (in 20 minutes or less, yikes!). I taught them to make an educational slideshow using myBrainShark and assessed their learning with Poll Everywhere.