On the threshold of Information Literacy: using Threshold Concepts in IL

6014699888_4674de39b7_mSometimes I find myself getting way too excited about teaching information literacy. You can probably tell when I’m excited, because I’ll start to talk really fast. And get animated. I’m excited about a good search result. I’m such a librarian.

But I try and check myself when I get like this. Because let’s be honest, not many students are excited about finding stuff like librarians are. In essence, we mostly don’t meet mini-librarians in the making during our sessions.

And, often when I start getting excited about information literacy, that’s sometimes at the point when I can visibly notice my students slipping away. Maybe not their attention; but definitely their comprehension. Because we’ve reached the stage where they’re having difficulty grasping a concept. And I quickly remember that I’m not here to give students an MLIS degree in 60 minutes. I firmly believe that. I am not training mini-librarians.

And yet, maybe we’ve got something to learn from this mind-frame. In a basic way. The concepts or ideas that are like second nature to us librarians, but really tricky for others to grasp; what if we focused on these? What if we spent our efforts unlocking those troublesome, often abstract, concepts of research; would that make IL more contextualized and comprehendible?

Jan Meyer and Ray Land refers to these points as threshold concepts; ‘conceptual gateways’ that might lead to inaccessible knowledge, but once mastered: ‘a new way of understanding, interpreting, or viewing something may thus emerge – a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view’ (Meyer and Land, 2005, p. 373).

A recent article on Threshold Concepts in Information Literacy seeks to identify some threshold concepts for information literacy by collecting data from information literacy instructors. A number of concepts were devised, including: ‘research solves problems’ and ‘good searches use database structures’. The concept threshold below is especially relevant to us at the moment as we teach our first years about annotated bibliographies:

What makes a book a book and a newspaper article a newspaper article has nothing to do with how one accesses it… but with the process that went into creating it. Understanding this principle helps students navigate the information they find online and evaluate it according to the process underlying its creation (Hofer, Townsend and Brunetti, 2012, p. 403).

Hofer, Townsend and Brunetti do a great job of devising concept thresholds for information literacy, and because I often think that threshold concepts are unique to individuals, I’m sure there are more concepts that may emerge, based on our students’ experiences. And what’s the best way to identify these threshold concepts? From students themselves. By observing those moments when you’re losing your students. While observing your students in the midst of their research activities. Both in-class, and perhaps at the reference desk. And if we can focus on these troublesome, threshold concepts, and find ways to teach them, so that students’ perceptions are changed, aren’t we unlocking some of the doors to information literacy?

Just another way I think IL teaching is about teaching process, not product.


Meyer, J. and Land. R. (2005) ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning’, Higher Education, 49, pp. 373-388.

Hofer, A., Townsend, L and Brunetti, K. (2012) ‘Troublesome concepts and information literacy: investigating threshold concepts for IL instruction’, portal: Libraries and the Academy, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 387-405.

Photo Credit: renedepaula via Compfight cc


3 thoughts on “On the threshold of Information Literacy: using Threshold Concepts in IL

  1. I do agree about the student involvement, involving both teachers and learners is supposed to be a good idea.

    I think one of the problems is that whilst in (say) physics, or even to some extent economics, there are some “building blocks” of knowledge and theory that you really do have to master before you can get a good grasp of the subject and progress – unlike those there isn’t the same consensus about what the knowledge base and theory ARE for information literacy.

    One of the issues I have with the Hofer et al paper is that it really reflects the conceptions of IL (and how you teach it) held by the people who did the survey. I would say that it is not what I would call “information literacy”, since it seems to be a subset of information literacy focused on mastering particular skills and understanding concerned with searching for and evaluating particular types of information, in a specific (academic) context. So, proceeding to consider how one might scaffold learning of the identified threshold concepts, they seem (compared to ones identified in more established disciplines) a bit fuzzy and atheoretical.

    To take one (perhaps unfairly) “Research solves problems” – firstly the term “research” is ambiguous (I would take this to mean primary research, but it seems to mean here, more, the process of “finding and using information”?) and I would contest the idea that (whichever definition you use) research always “solves problems” – it may actually aim to *surface* problems, or illuminate (etc.) The threshold concept implied by the description seems to be “people don’t just tell you to find information for the sake of it” which seems more of a homily than a concept, and also up for challenge because the actual topic set for searching might (in the case of poorer teaching) not really have much point beyond getting the students to produce x thousand words that can then be marked.

    A factor that may be being ducked is that the idea of threshold concepts is tied to learning a subject, or more specifically, thinking and practising in a discipline. For someone like me, who asserts that information literacy is a subject (but a more complex one than implied by the threshold concepts of Hofer et al) this is not such a problem, but for those who see IL as essentially embedded in some other subject (which is often portrayed as an ideal way of teaching IL) then I think the threshold concepts will only become fully meaningful and focused if you identify them within the context of the subject they are being taught in.

    Anyway, those are some late-night thoughts about threshold concepts 😉

    1. Excellent points Sheila. Especially your point on the academic context (and I hold my hands up and say this is how I think about threshold concepts in information literacy – because that’s the context I’ve found myself in for a number of years now). What are those IL threshold concepts like for clinicians, for patients, for job-seekers, for lawyers, etc?

      One of the aspects of threshold concepts that I sometimes question is the idea that a threshold concept is a vital step to comprehending and understanding a discipline. I think I don’t fully subscribe to that. For me, a concept threshold is a sticky point. A particular thing, that if we could grasp it, and assimilate it in some way, it will contextualise the broader subject matter, and ‘facilitate’ understanding in a more navigated way. Almost like the road ahead of you is a little less blocked because you now have found some negotiable way of tackling the obstacles in the road, AND you can see the path ahead of you just a little clearer. And I agree – let’s say the concept of supply and demand is a threshold concept in economics. Well, without understanding supply and demand, you’ll struggle to grasp many wider economic theories and ideas. Fine. I can see that. But you’re right, there aren’t really (m)any threshold concepts in information literacy that would completely shut down the many skills, mind-frames and actions of “an information literate” person.

      And this is why I think I say threshold concepts are person-specific. What’s a sticky point in a particular discipline (whether it be information literacy, economics, physics, or anything else) for me, is possibly going to be a very different sticky point for any else. When I’m teaching, I try and be mindful of when a student appears to be at a sticky point. And how I can help the student with that, so that they can comprehend in a better way. And I sometimes feel like a lot of the times, this is at a particular junction that really is all about context.

      What I would say with regards Hofer et al, I know they continue to develop their work on threshold concepts in IL. I’m looking forward to reading this work, to see how the idea of threshold concepts in IL advances.

      Person-specific, and contextual. That’s what threshold concepts mean to me the most.

      Maybe we’re just talking good old fashioned teachable moments.

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