This I Overheard … Threshold Concepts Getting Laughed Out of the Room

As readers may by now be very well aware, here are Rule Number One we’re all about the evidence when it comes to instruction. This being the case, I’m quite weary of “threshold concepts” as anything other than a moderately useful way to think about the deeper structure of what we’re doing. My skepticism about them is, largely, that they are not scientifically supported. Since they are the basis of much of the new ACRL IL Standards, however, I initially figured they must be based in the science of learning (for why else would we base our professional standards on them?!) and, after not being able to find any scientific literature on them, I once emailed a famous cognitive scientist of learning whose work I’ve read much of asking him if he could point me toward some of the literature. He wrote back saying “What’s a threshold concept?” i.e., you can’t define a threshold concept in any scientifically measurable way, and that’s why there’s no educational psychology literature on them.

Which brings me to the following (unscientific) anecdote. I’m on one of my universities major academic committees. This morning that committee met. Recently a faculty member for that committee attended a workshop on information literacy since we’re assessing it on this committee. He reported back that IL is a lot about threshold concepts. When he reported back to this group of faculty what a threshold concept is they literally thought it was the most insane thing they’d ever heard. One remarked, and I quote, “That [i.e., the idea that there is a concept that causes a permanent cognitive revolution within a student] is literally fantastical.” Like, it’s up there with tooth fairies and Santa Claus and leprechauns from the hood.

These are the kinds of things I think of, FWIW, when I think about librarian perceptions; how faculty perceive us; and why it might be important to understand the actual science of learning.

*Addendum: I haven’t read too much criticism of threshold concepts in IL, but when I was quickly Googling some stuff earlier, I came across Lane Wilkinson’s super, super smart post on all of this. It’s a great overview of some of the problems related to threshold concepts, and also more evidence that philosophy, and philosophical librarians, matter.



Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

10 responses to “This I Overheard … Threshold Concepts Getting Laughed Out of the Room

  1. Thanks for sharing my scribbles; I like your take on TCs. Perhaps we can team up to call further shenanigans when the new draft comes out? Sort of like an information literacy Voltron.
    Also, the link behind “they are not scientific” is behind your proxy. What’s the article?

  2. Kevin Michael Klipfel


    Thanks for your note. I’m happy to join forces at any time should you not find such an endeavor too striking a blow to your professional credibility.

    The piece I linked to is Rowbottom’s “Demystifying Threshold Concepts” (J Phil of Education, V. 41, Issue 2, pp. 263-270, May 2007), which I know you’re already well aware of. Your discussion of this is all quite sophisticated. My opinion is less nuanced and more global: I have a very hard time understanding why we, as a profession, would want to base our instructional practices in something that does not have the weight of the science or psychology of learning behind it, when, frankly, so much does. But perhaps that should not be too surprising, since the things that make sense to me in this world tend to be vastly outnumbered by the things that do not.


    • No worries, I don’t really have that much professional credibility to begin with. 🙂

      And I share the same concerns. Threshold concepts are in fashion at the moment but hardly anyone is looking at them critically. When Rowbottom’s critique is brought up it’s always in the context of, “some have criticized TCs, but we still think they’re a good idea.” Just once I’d like to see someone actually respond to the arguments against TCs rather than ignoring them.

  3. The bibliography for the Standards cites many sources about threshold concepts. You can dispute their value, but its disingenuous to claim that they do not exist or have never been seriously discussed.

    • I think the argument is that threshold concepts have not been seriously discussed as a matter of cognitive or educational psychology; there have been no studies (or at least none I know of) that empirically validate threshold concept theory. Granted, when this is pointed out, TC proponents usually respond with something like “it doesn’t have to be empirically validated to be meaningful.” But, this just pushes the question back: what is it about threshold concept theory that makes it immune to empirical study? Why are empirical considerations of the theory inappropriate?

      It may also be worth pointing out that, by the admission of the task force, the Framework does not even follow the research produced by the original Delphi Study on IL threshold concepts. The task force only chose the Delphi recommendations they agreed with, invented new concepts, and completely reworked the putative threshold concepts.

  4. Kevin Michael Klipfel


    Thanks for your comment. I’m not too sure where to start responding, since there’s a lot here, so here’s a quick reply with some general thoughts of mine. Since I don’t say much substantive in the post, I thought it might be helpful to just briefly lay out my take on the issue.

    Librarians as a profession teach students that we should believe things based on the evidence for believing them. That is what we do. That is why we teach students about reliable sources: so they can construct reliable beliefs about the world. We teach critical thinking.

    You might say, in that sense, we’re empiricists: when figuring out what to believe about the world, we want the force of the scientific evidence on our side. Because of this, I’m not too interested in abstract ideas with no scientific basis. Threshold concepts are abstract ideas with no scientific basis. Therefore, I’m not very interested in threshold concepts other than as something, for better or worse, that have become part of a larger conversation within the particular area of the profession I work in.

    Trying to look at things positively, they may be a potentially useful way to think about teaching to the deep structure of material (as I say in my post). But my main … confusion, let’s call it, is why we’d be so into threshold concepts when there’s not a lot of scientific literature on them whereas so many things about pedagogy and student learning are steeped in a long history of empirical data. Honestly, I think that’s such a banal claim – that our teaching practices should be based on the empirical data about what helps students learn – I’m surprised anyone would even disagree with it. But many – NOT ALL – librarians seem reluctant to engage with, or largely unaware of, the robust literature on teaching and learning and student motivation. It is what it is, but I think it’s not a good idea for the profession, given how central teaching is to being a reference and instruction librarian, and how much value universities (such as my own) place on demonstrating value in terms of improving student learning.

    You mention the bibliography of the standards. Could you point to the papers that outlining the empirical evidence that teaching to threshold concepts improves student learning? Perhaps I am missing something, but, given the way I approach information literacy instruction, that is what would interest me.

    And thanks for your nice post back in September about my Ethos Review article about librarianship; much appreciated!



  5. Pingback: the pinakes: Inspecting the Frame: The Draft Information Literacy Framework, Pt. 1

  6. Pingback: What I Think of This Whole Annoying IL Framework/Threshold Concepts Debate | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  7. Pingback: In the Library with the Lead Pipe » Beyond the Threshold: Conformity, Resistance, and the ACRL Information Literacy Framework for Higher Education

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