All posts by acrlguest

Reorienting Reference

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Judith Logan, Reference Librarian at the University of Toronto.

The job title in my email signature is “Reference Librarian.”  Every time I send a message to a new faculty member, student, or other non-library person, I always worry that they won’t know what that means. There’s good evidence that my worries are well founded. Kupersmith (2012) compiled over 51 library usability studies and found that “reference” was one of the most commonly misunderstood or not understood terms.

There may have been a time when the word “reference” was both intelligible and valuable to most users, but that is not the case now. Reference remains both a physical location and a service point in most libraries, but the landscape of user-support has changed around them. Any veteran reference librarian can tell you that our users no longer need us as they once did. Our declining annual statistics corroborate this.

So what do we do? Bemoan the loss of a valued function within the library and stubbornly assert our continued relevance while doing the old work that may no longer be necessary? Some, like Verdasca (2015), are going this route, but I think we can do better.  The research skills and service values that we honed over decades are still very useful to both our users and our institutions. We just have to deploy them more effectively.

They don’t need us anymore and that’s a good thing

Usually, reference works like this:

  • A library user encounters a problem
  • The user approaches us asking for help with this problem
  • We use our reference interview skills to analyze the problem
  • We help the user fix the problem or suggest alternatives if it is unfixable
  • The user leaves happy (hopefully), so we are happy

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a reference interaction.  I’m using it only to show that the emphasis of reference work is on the user in front of us.  It is a reactive position. We wait for problems to occur and solve them as best we can, considering our sphere of influence and available resources.  Essentially, we wait for our systems to fail.

Our LibQual results tell us that our users value self-directedness. The Information Control section, which includes such value statements as “A library website enabling me to locate information on my own” and “Easy-to-use access tools that allow me to find things on my own”, always has the highest score for desired service level. And this isn’t just at my library. Check out the ARL notebooks for results from each year’s participating libraries.

Taking a reactive position in our reference work doesn’t fit with our users’ desire for self-sufficiency. They don’t want to have to rely on us to get their research done. We are and should be a last resort.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a little support, especially in the areas that need a higher level of skill.  Any public service librarian can tell you that we can save our users a great deal of time and frustration. But our support should never be necessary more often than it is desired. As Schmidt and Etches (2014) so perfectly put it “if someone has to be taught how to use something, then it’s the thing that is broken, not the user” (p. 5).

Putting ourselves out of a job

The fundamental goal of reference work should be self-destruction. We know they want to be able to do it themselves, so we should be working proactively to make the library system so easy that they don’t need us to navigate it.

Granted, the resources our user communities need are vast, complicated, and expensive. We’re not going to be able to change the landscape of academic publishing and distribution quickly or easily, but there are lots of little opportunities for improving our services and facilitating better research. We should be using our reference service points primarily as a means of discovering those opportunities.

I’ll give you an example from my library.  Our discovery tool, Summon, indexes many kinds of resources, but we market it primarily as an article discovery tool. Since its implementation in Fall 2011, the search results were filtered to articles only, but if a user performed a new search from the search results screen, the articles filter would be lost and book results would appear in the new search.  Only the very keen eyed user would notice the missing filter or the presence of an ISBN under the title.

Ironically, these book results didn’t even direct users to the catalogue.  They went to our article link resolver—which most users interpreted as a dead end since the “article” never appeared.  You can imagine the confusion and frustration we observed in our users.

For years we addressed this in information literacy classes and online learning objects like screencasts and FAQs, but these interventions were designed to fix the user’s behavior, not Summon.

We finally solved the problem by collaborating with our technical services department. They were working on a redesign of the library website, so we suggested some functionality changes along with the look-and-feel update to Summon. Now it keeps the article filters by default, even in a new search.  Users only see catalogue results if they actively remove the articles filter.  This solution has been in place for about a month now and we’re already receiving thank you messages from users about this specific functionality change.

This is just one small example of how we can use our first hand experience with users’ “pain points” to make the system easier for users to navigate on their own. The trick is communicating this experience to the right collaborators at the right time

The broader implications

What does becoming more user-centered and proactive mean for established reference librarians, units, and services?

First of all, we should be thinking about the way we connect with users.  Are we putting our efforts into services that have the most impact for them? The only way to know to is to ask them and be willing to make hard decisions in response to what we hear. We may love our reference desk, for example, but if it’s not valuable to our users, we need to be willing to let it go.

Many libraries are doing this kind of user experience research to inform service design.  At my library, for instance, our research found that our users often feel confused, lost, and frustrated trying to navigate our giant, concrete building, so we’re piloting a distributed service model where student staff members will provide preemptive support throughout the building (Bell 2013). So, rather than waiting for them to find their way to us (if they can), we’ll go to them.

Secondly, we need to be working more closely with our colleagues.  I come from a large institution where metadata activities, technology services, circulation, reference, and collections all operate quite separately.  We don’t work together and share information as closely as we could, but our big win with Summon showed that collaboration can be very fruitful.

Especially, working with user experience (UX) librarians or units can be mutually beneficial if your library is lucky enough to have them. We can identify useful avenues for UX research and contextualize findings for them while they can help us turn our anecdotal observations into hard evidence and ultimately changes that benefit the user.

If you don’t have a user experience librarian or team at your library, you can take on this role. UX isn’t hard. There are lots of resources out there to help you get started:

  • Check out Weave, a new open-access journal about UX in libraries.
  • Sign up for Influx’s newsletter.
  • Follow @UXlibs on Twitter or attend their conference if you can swing it

Finally, we should also think about what we call ourselves.  It may seem trivial, but it’s critical that our users—our raison d’être— understand who we are and what we can do for them. A new name would also help us reposition ourselves in the minds of those who may hold a narrow, outdated, or pejorative view of what reference means: dusty encyclopedias and bespectacled librarians frowning from behind a big wooden desk.

Reference in its previous incarnations has diminished in importance to our users, so it’s time to regroup and refocus. Like all library services, reference is dedicated to facilitating our institution’s research and teaching activities. Instead of accomplishing this mission reactively—by fixing problems (read: user behavior) as they present themselves—we should be accomplishing it proactively—by listening to our users’ frustrations and desires, and reconfiguring our services and resources to address them.

Works cited

Bell, S. J. (2013, August 6). Recent user experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES. [Blog post]. Designing Better Libraries. Retrieved from http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/2013/08/06/recent-user-experience-greeters-no-preemptive-support-yes/

Kupersmith, J. (2012). Library terms that users understand. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3qq499w7

Schmidt, A., & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: Applying user experience design to your library. Chicago: ALA Editions.

Verdesca, A. (2015). What’s in a word: Coming to terms with reference. The Reference Librarian, 56(1), 67–72.

Collecting Cats: Library Lessons from Neko Atsume

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kelly Blanchat, Electronic Resources Librarian at Queens College, CUNY, and Megan Brooks, Director of Research Services at Wellesley College.

This blog post is the culmination of a Twitter conversation between librarians talking about their experiences playing a phone game. The game is called Nekoatsume and it involves taking care of digital cats in a virtual backyard. Nekoatsume is entirely in Japanese, a key fact that actually started the Twitter conversation (and not the fact that the game involves cats, as might be expected).

In short: a librarian started playing a game, wrote some enticing tweets, and many more librarians joined in — and still are to this day.

While this was happening, Kelly wrote on her personal blog about the joy & ease of understanding the game despite its language barriers, and how it would be nice if students felt the same way about using databases and library resources. Library databases should be just as user-friendly as a game in a foreign language, but too often they’re not. Our students do use recreational technology, and Nekoatsume isn’t the first app in Japanese or Chinese to gain popularity in the U.S. in the last month. And it’s not that recreational technology is always user-friendly, either. Torrenting platforms, such as the Pirate Bay, are notoriously convoluted – especially in regards to persistent content – but anecdotal evidence suggests that our students are able to navigate these platforms with relative ease.1

nekotwitter1

As more and more librarians join in to play Nekoatsume, there’s a common experience that happens early on: the digital cats have disappeared — maybe they died, or ran away — and we believe that we’ve played the game wrong.

nekotwitter2

Megan even initially deleted the app out of frustration. The experience of not understanding phone cats, even when “everyone else” seemed to, left her in a position that many of our students might find themselves: lost, stupid, and unwilling to engage any further. Sadly, library resources do not contain cute digital cats to lure users back after a bad experience. Megan, on the other hand, was willing to give Nekoatsume another shot after the Twitter conversation, and she also found a walk-through for the game online.

The satisfaction from playing Nekoatsume comes from getting more & more cats, and more & more points. For library resources the outcome is often much less immediate: find resources, analyze evidence, fill a resource quota for a bibliography. The research process can also be very solitary, and having the ability to apply similar or shared experience can counteract that as well as other obstacles with online library resources. That is to say, having a related experience can help the process to feel seamless, less daunting. In the case of Nekoatsume, the language barrier subsides once the basic movements of the game are understood, whether through trial and error, consultation of the Twitter hive-mind, or reading online tutorials. Such resources are comparable to “cheat codes” in the gaming world, elements that facilitate getting to the next achievement level. In the library world, they are often referred to as “threshold concepts”. And while most online library resources do contain the same basic functionalities, such as as a button for “Search” and and a link for “Full-Text”, differences from platform to platform in placement and style contribute to a block in fulfilling that need for seamless usability.

Libraries do make a great effort to provide users with workshops, tutorials, and LibGuides to facilitate user understanding and research methods. However, such content can require a lot of explanation whether with words, pictures, live demonstrations, or a mix of all three. Sometimes it can feel like tutorials need their own tutorials! Discovery layers, such as Summon and Primo, begin to address the usability issue by providing a single destination for discovery, but with that libraries still need to address issues of demonstrating research purpose, enthusiasm, and information synthesis. With so many variables in acquiring research — design, functionality, search queries, tutorials — the outcome of research can be overshadowed by the multitude of platform interfaces, both within the library and on the open Web.

The hype for Nekoatsume may eventually subside (or not), but another app will likely take its place and we librarians will still be asking ourselves how to facilitate the next steps of scholarly research for our students. If we can find a way to foster essential research skills by relating them to similar experiences — like with social media, searching on the open Web, downloading torrents, and playing games with digital cats — perhaps the process to knowledge can feel less daunting.

…but maybe we should just embed cute cats into all things digital.

  1. This statement is not an endorsement for downloading torrents. []

A Conceptual Model for Interdisciplinary Collaboration

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura MacLeod Mulligan, M.L.S., Information Services Librarian, and Dr. Adam J. Kuban, Assistant Professor of Journalism, both at Ball State University.

Academic buzzwords such as “interdisciplinary” and “collaboration” get paid ample lip service in university administration strategic plans and current scholarship, but practically speaking it can be difficult to begin or sustain such a partnership. With strong faculty support, public services librarians can become embedded in courses, revise assignments, review student output, and assess student learning—playing a more meaningful role in the physical and virtual classroom. We wish to reveal our methods of interdisciplinary collaboration—specifically what has given it longevity and made it successful. From evidence grounded in aggregate literature and personal anecdotes, we have developed a conceptual model for effective collaboration that could apply to any interdisciplinary partnership.

Our conceptual model

Our own collaborative efforts began in January 2012 in order to revise the curriculum of an introductory journalism research course for undergraduates in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University. This ultimately led to the creation of an innovative, technology-based capstone exercise that exemplified the nexus of screencasts with library database instruction. We have also embarked on a research study that assesses the same students’ comprehension of information literacy concepts à la ACRL’s new Framework for Information Literacy. One of our current projects is a practical consideration of interdisciplinary collaboration (in particular between library professionals and faculty in the disciplines).

Scholars who collaborate rarely read literature about collaboration before they begin endeavors. Even if you wanted to brush up on best practices for successful collaboration, you would have to wade through case studies and data surrounding discipline-specific scenarios. We began this project with a conceptual model based on personal anecdotes (i.e., a “model-first” approach) simply because it is natural to begin with “what has worked for us.” Please see our full paper from the 2014 Brick & Click conference for a full literature review where we discuss trends and themes in the literature and make recommendations for further reading. As we read others’ stories and studies and noticed patterns in what led to successful collaboration, we looked for areas of support as well as additional attributes that ought to exist as elaboration to the initial model presented.

We identified and organized a non-discipline-specific conceptual model outlining the (1) workplace conditions; (2) qualities/attitudes; and (3) common goals that have enhanced our collaborative, interdisciplinary experience and could thus serve as a model for any faculty-librarian partnership. To help unpack the importance of these three facets, we sketched a visual depiction of it (see figure 1) and also shared personal anecdotes from our experiences (see table 1).

Conceptual model
Figure 1: Our conceptual model for successful interdisciplinary collaboration

Two of these elements can be controlled: (a) favorable attitudes and personality qualities toward interdisciplinary engagement and (b) common goals determined between the involved parties. The third element—(c) workplace conditions—is largely out of the collaborators’ control but still impacts the partnership. When all three facets come together, we believe successful collaboration can occur. In the event that one facet is absent or lacking, we believe that collaboration can still function but may be difficult to sustain.

Table 1. Qualifiers for a three-faceted conceptual model for successful collaboration

Workplace Conditions Qualities/Attitudes Common Goals
  • Regular communication
  • Standing meetings
  • Physical space
  • Administrative support
  • Cooperative—able to compromise
  • Equitable—respect for roles
  • Trust—perceived competence
  • Shared vulnerability—safe setting to explore, inquire & critique
  • Enthusiasm—desire to continue collaboration
  • Identify individual strengths
  • Select conference & publication venues that “count” for both, or alternate
  • Establish research “pipeline” & philosophy
  • Articulate/update timelines

Workplace conditions

Essential to our collaboration has been regular communication. Keeping a standing meeting throughout the year has given us at least an hour per week to touch base, bounce ideas off one another, strategize, delegate, and debrief ongoing tasks. Booking a conference room in the university library gave us a neutral space in which to talk, think, and work without distraction. Having a coffee machine, audio/visual equipment (including a projection screen and speakers), and a large table made us feel comfortable and well equipped for any task—whether it be critiquing student screencasts, sketching out a four-foot-by-eight-foot poster, drafting correspondence to journal editors, or working side-by-side on separate computers.

Arguably most important in this facet is apparent administrative support. We are fortunate to have current supervisors who embrace our collaborative endeavors, valuing it in subsequent reviews and evaluations. Without it, the interdisciplinary collaboration would likely end, as one or both would deem it too high-risk to continue.

Qualities/attitudes

We have found that if there are common emotional qualities, a collaborative relationship can remain collegial and productive. In our experience, the following stood out as ideal qualities: a cooperative and compromising attitude; respect for and equitable treatment of individual collaborator roles; trust in one another’s competence; ability to be vulnerable, open, honest, and willing to learn; and an enthusiasm for the projects pursued.

Collaboration among faculty and librarians sometimes results in the librarian acting in a supporting role to help execute the vision of a faculty member. In our collaboration, the roles are refreshingly equitable, leaving each person feeling like a co-leader. For example, Adam would not finalize student grades in his introductory research course without receiving feedback from Laura regarding their capstone projects (i.e., screencast database tutorials) in case there were incorrect aspects related to the library resources that she, as an information professional, could identify. This arrangement sustains the momentum and collegiality longer than a leader-follower partnership.

Common goals

While research styles and philosophies differ from discipline to discipline, we discovered that we share similar interests in information literacy, critical thinking skills, student engagement, and assessment driven by qualitative data. Projects stemming from these research interests have been undertaken more easily because of mutual pedagogical interests and shared research methods. We have been able to identify professional development activities that “count” for both of us, and we alternate the focus of activities to make for an even distribution. For example, after presenting at a journalism educators’ conference in summer 2012, we took a derivative of the material to a state library conference in fall 2012 to share our work with that audience. We’ve come to call this our “research pipeline,” and it keeps our activities equitable and interdisciplinary.

What’s missing from the model?

Once we had consulted the literature, one noteworthy qualifier emerged that deserves mention in an ongoing effort to conceive an evolving model that reflects effective interdisciplinary partnerships.

It seems oxymoronic that literature acknowledges the benefit of interdisciplinary scholarship, advocating that “it likely yields more innovative and consequential results for complex problems than traditional, individual research efforts” (Amey & Brown 30), yet institutionalized traditions within academia continue to stymie interdisciplinary efforts. Amey and Brown explain that graduate students who identify with a specific discipline spend years being socialized into that culture, being taught to maintain a particular research identity lodged within the confines of their discipline. In a qualitative study by Teodorescu & Kushner, untenured junior faculty understand the theoretical benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration but feel compelled to abstain from it until after tenure, viewing it as a high-risk activity. KerryAnn O’Meara, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, issues a call to action via an essay written for Inside HigherEd: “Let’s not assume all candidates must make their case for tenure and promotion based on one static, monolithic view of scholarship.”

Similarly, LIS programs may not adequately prepare their students for interdisciplinary endeavors. Kim Leeder notes that “librarians are not initiated into [their] fields in the same way that faculty are: by reading scholarship, identifying [their] own specific area(s) of specialization, presenting at conferences, and building a network of colleagues whose interests overlap.”

This phenomenon could fit under the Workplace Conditions (resulting from administrative attitudes out of our control) or the Attitudes facet of the model (where it impedes expression of vulnerability in an attempt to solve problems and work together toward solutions).

Conclusion

Postsecondary educators want students ready for an integrated marketplace. Programs of study require students to complete coursework outside of their chosen major(s). Experiential, immersive, and/or service learning are topics of discussion at conferences about college teaching. It seems that, as educators, we recognize the globalization of society and the overlapping nature of most occupations, and we want our students to have diverse, interdisciplinary experiences—thus it seems prudent to adopt a similar mindset for our own scholarly endeavors. We should set an example for our students, valuing efforts to “reach across the aisle” and emphasizing interdisciplinary opportunities.

We believe our conceptual model could assist others as they begin to embark on interdisciplinary initiatives. In time, facets and qualifiers will evolve, transforming the notion of what equates to successful interdisciplinary collaboration.

Teaching with Big Ideas: How a Late Addition to the ACRL Framework Might Make Us Rethink Threshold Concepts

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Eveline Houtman, Coordinator of Undergraduate Library Instruction at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

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.

From What’s the matter with threshold concepts? ACRLog Jan. 30, 2015

The notion of threshold concepts is at the heart of the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and has been since Draft 1. The notion has also been problematic to many librarians since Draft 1. (For an overview of the discussion, see Ian Beilin’s recent Lead Pipe article. For an earlier, in-depth critique, read Lane Wilkinson’s take on the topic.) I’d summarize my own position as a big yes to conceptual teaching, big reservations towards threshold concepts.

In the face of questioning and opposition, the Task Force did in fact soften the language around the threshold concepts in subsequent drafts – the original six threshold concepts became “frames” in Draft 2, for example, though each frame still contained a threshold concept. When I recently came to take stock of the final approved version of the Framework, I discovered the language was softened even further. Each frame, for example, now contains “a concept central to information literacy” (p. 2) rather than a “threshold concept.”

I also discovered this statement:

At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole. These conceptual understandings are informed by the work of Wiggins and McTighe, which focuses on essential concepts and questions in developing curricula, and on threshold concepts. (p. 2) [I’m pretty sure that should read “informed … BY threshold concepts.”]

But wait, what? Conceptual understandings are now at the heart of the Framework? And when did the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2005) become a second major influence on the Framework, along with threshold concepts? Did I miss something? (Actually, yes, because it turns out the the changes occurred in the November 2014 draft and and I just didn’t notice. I blame a combination of busyness and Framework fatigue.) Was there any discussion of this late addition? Shouldn’t there be? After all, the threshold concepts were talked nearly to death.

Wiggins and McTighe’s book, Understanding by Design, focuses on the importance of drawing on core concepts or “big ideas” in order to teach for understanding. I suspect it’s been brought into the Framework at least partly in order to bolster the argument for teaching with threshold concepts (that’s how I see its use in the ACRLog post quoted above), though possibly also to signal the usefulness of their design approach in implementing the Framework. But are Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas” actually the same as threshold concepts? Do all our big ideas really need to be threshold concepts? What do Wiggins and McTighe have to say to us now that they’ve been placed in our Framework?

To start with, here are a few things they say about big ideas:

  • “A big idea is a concept, theme, or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills” (p. 5).
  • “Individual lessons are simply too short to allow for in-depth development of big ideas, explorations of essential questions, and authentic applications” (p. 8).
  • “Teaching for understanding must successfully predict potential misunderstandings and rough spots in learning if it is to be effective. Central to the design approach we propose is that we need to design lessons and assessments that anticipate, evoke and overcome the most likely student misconceptions” (p. 10).
  • “Teaching for understanding requires the learner to rethink what appeared settled or obvious” (p. 11).

These are all things that could be/probably have been said about threshold concepts. Here’s the thing though: in 370 pages, Wiggins and McTighe never once mention threshold concepts.

So the first big takeaway is that we can engage in conceptual teaching — we can teach with big ideas, we can address students’ stuck places, we can challenge students’ assumptions — without having to invoke threshold concepts. There are many librarians who have already been arguing this, and now their argument is bolstered by a work whose importance has already been recognized in the Framework. I don’t want to suggest that we need the Framework’s “permission” to teach without threshold concepts. At the same time, it means something to have the ACRL’s main pedagogical document acknowledge, if indirectly, that threshold concepts are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of conceptual teaching.

A second big takeaway is that if we’re wondering how to implement the Framework, we could do a lot worse than consult Wiggins and McTighe. In fact their design approach is likely to be very helpful in redesigning our instruction, learning outcomes and assessment around our big ideas. There’s a lot in their book to digest, and I’m only going to point out a few things that struck me.

  • Wiggins and McTighe connect their big ideas to core tasks, which is likely to be helpful as we connect the skills we still need to teach to the ideas in the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to essential questions that get students thinking about the big ideas. Here’s a Faculty Focus article that provides more information. And here’s Nicole Pagowsky with examples of essential questions related to the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to a purpose, such as understanding or connecting to other concepts. I occasionally get the sense in discussions around implementing the Framework that the purpose is to teach the frames. “How can we teach scholarship as conversation?” for example. Shouldn’t we also be thinking past learning the concepts to what students can do with the concepts? Maybe the scholarly conversation metaphor could help students think about their own writing (as in “They say/I say”). Maybe it could help them think about disciplinary discourses, or the effect of different academic cultures, paradigms and epistemologies on the conversation, or the role of social media in the scholarly conversation, or the effect of power relationships and gatekeeping on the conversation….

spiralA third takeaway (it’s part of design but worth pulling out on its own) is the idea that students will need to revisit the big ideas, not just over the course of a class but over the course of their curriculum, each time deepening their understanding of the ideas. This is the concept of the spiral curriculum (which Wiggins and McTighe explicitly invoke) advocated by John Dewey and Jerome Bruner. So elementary students can learn about information literacy at a level appropriate to them.  They can be taught to use Creative Commons licensed images. Students will spiral back to information literacy instruction at various points in their academic life, hopefully gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts each time. So early undergraduates can begin to learn about the scholarly conversation but their understanding will inevitably be limited because they just haven’t seen very much of it yet. Graduate students, who have begun to identify as scholars, who need to map who is talking to whom for their lit reviews, who want to figure out their own niche, will have a much richer conception of the scholarly conversation.

The spiral curriculum is a very different metaphor than the threshold that’s crossed once. I think it’s the more useful metaphor. While it doesn’t address all the diversity of our learners, it does take into account students’ growing knowledge, experience and abilities over their college years.

My fourth big takeaway comes out of Wiggins and McTighe’s assertion that “answering the “why?” and “so what?” questions … is the essence of understanding by design…. Without such explicit and transparent priorities, many students find day-to-day work confusing and frustrating”(p. 15-6). This reminds me of the challenge in a great Chronicle of Higher Education article (unfortunately paywalled) that I still go back to: “I am asking instructors to see the two questions that the new epistemology emblazons across the front of every classroom — ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ — and then to adjust their teaching accordingly” (Clydesdale, 2009).

The Framework is a pedagogical document meant for librarians. Obviously (to us) it contains big and important ideas. But it’s sadly lacking in answers to the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. In much of our teaching, the answer to “so what?” has been “this will help you with your assignment.” But if we’re teaching with big ideas we need a bigger answer. Something along the lines of: “You need to be able to use information to learn, now and after you graduate. This involves ways of thinking as well as skills…. Here’s how this core concept will help you….” Okay, this needs work!

To go back to my beginning: after so many months of discussion, we all “know” that threshold concepts are at the heart of the Framework. But if we look at the final version of the Framework with fresh eyes, we can see they’ve been moved to the side, at least in part, opening new possibilities for the ways we teach with big ideas. I suggest we seize those possibilities and run with them.

Clydesdale, T. (2009). Wake up and smell the new epistemology. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55 (20).

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. 2nd expanded ed. Alexandria,, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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.

threshold
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.

 

Notes:

  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. 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/.
  4. Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  5. 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.
  6. Box, G. E. P., & Draper, N. R. (1987). Empirical model-building and response surfaces. New York: Wiley, p. 74.