thing 2: Threshold Concepts

Recommended Readings

Townsend, L., Hofer, A. R., Hanick, S. L., & Brunetti, K. (2016). Identifying threshold concepts for information literacy: A Delphi study. Communications in Information Literacy, 10(1), 23-49.

Flanagan, M. T. (2018, January 30). Features of a threshold concept. In Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training, Professional Development and School Education: A Short Introduction and a Bibliography.


Select one of the options below to complete this activity.

Option 1

The Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (the Standards) gave librarians, faculty, and students a clear definition of what makes an information literate student.  The Framework has done away with the Standards’ checklist approach to outlining information literacy and replaced it with “conceptual understandings.”  These conceptual understandings are made up of “essential concepts and questions” and threshold concepts.  While not quite as easy to understand or communicate, many have found that threshold concepts are more versatile to integrate in instruction due to their flexibility rather than the “prescriptive-ness” of the Standards.

Post a response to your reading and reflection in the Comments section below.  Here are a few optional questions to guide your thinking:

  • What side of the fence are you on when it comes to outlining priorities in information literacy education – threshold concept or checklist?
  • Do you think the threshold concepts identified by the Delphi study are the best concepts to include in the Framework?  What would you add or take away?
  • How would/does your approach differ when developing instruction sessions using the Framework’s threshold concepts vs. the Standards’ checklist?
  • How do you avoid turning the Framework into a repackaging of the Standards?

Option 2

Investigate the threshold concepts of a discipline you liaison with and/or deliver instruction sessions for.  Take note of any areas of overlap that you notice between the disciplinary and IL Framework threshold concepts, as well as any ways that IL instruction could help students “cross the threshold” in their disciplines.

Here are some options, though we suggest you take a look in the literature for yourself:


Loertscher, J., Green, D., Lewis, J.E., Lin, S., & Minderhout, V. (2014). Identification of threshold concepts for biochemistry. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 516-528. doi: 10.1187/cbe.14-04-0066


Davies, P. & Mangan, J. (2007). Threshold concepts and the integration of understanding in economics. Studies in Higher Education, 32(6), 711-726. doi: 10.1080/03075070701685148 [paywall]

Electronics Engineering

Harlow, A., Scott, J., Peter, M., & Cowie, B. (2011). ‘Getting stuck’ in analogue electronics: Threshold concepts as an explanatory model. European Journal of Engineering Education, 36(5), 435-447. doi: 10.1080/03043797.2011.606500


Wright, A.L. & Glimore, A. (2012). Threshold concepts and conceptions: Student learning in introductory management courses. Journal of Management Education, 36(5), 614-635. doi: 10.1177/1052562911429446 [paywall]


Breen, S. & O’Shea, A. (2016). Threshold concepts and undergraduate mathematics teaching. PRIMUS, 26(9), 837-847. doi: 10.1080/10511970.2016.1191573 [paywall]


Williams, P.D. (2014, April). What’s politics got to do with it? ‘Power’ as a ‘threshold’ concept for undergraduate business students. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 54(1), 8-29.

Women’s and Gender Studies

Launius, C. & Hassel, H. (2018). Threshold concepts in women’s and gender studies: Ways of seeing, thinking, and knowing (2nd ed.). Abingdon, UK: Routledge. [summary only]

Post a response to your reading and reflection in the Comments section below.  What did you read?  In what ways does your knowledge of these disciplinary threshold concepts allow you to better implement the Framework within the discipline and/or better assist students within the discipline?



  1. I decided to really focus on the ACRL standards since I am not familiar with them and to see if they still hold up today.

    Standard 3:”The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.”

    I am constantly talking to students about the importance of evaluating sources critically. I tell them the internet can be a very valuable tool if you are careful about what kinds of sites you use. Even when searching within our databases, students need to know when it is appropriate to use a popular resource and when it is appropriate to use a peer-reviewed resource. We even have students do an in-class activity about popular v. peer-reviewed sources during their first year seminar class. This standard is more important than ever with social media and “fake news.”

    Standard 5: “The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal,
    and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses
    information ethically and legally.”

    At my institution, students are not taught about the ethics around information use. It is kind of ironic since all students take healthcare ethics classes, but information ethics is not emphasized. Unfortunately the reason for this most of the time is that faculty and administration don’t make this a priority. An easy way to use information ethically is to understand the importance of correct reference citations. The library tries to explain the importance of accurate references, but we can only do so much. Faculty often overlook reference citation mistakes and don’t present it as academic dishonesty. I think this is likely a problem at many universities, making this a standard that we should still be focused on today.


  2. From a community college perspective, I feel that I straddle the fence between threshold concepts and checklist when it comes to prioritizing information literacy education. Our students are so diverse in their skills and experience that it can be difficult to prioritize threshold concepts for fear of leaving half or more of the class, who really need basic skill set instruction, behind. One way we are able to accomplish both is by prioritizing checklist based instruction with our developmental classes, and offering more threshold concept based instruction to the more advanced classes. We have begun working in this way by offering tiered instruction. Developmental classes are taught the skills necessary to find books and maybe articles. Introductory level courses are provided instruction on how to locate articles and we briefly touch on authority and why it’s better to use the library databases than Google. Then, for upper (2000) level classes, we get more into the overall research process and their role in that process.

    As the authors of the Delphi study pointed out in their discussion,”librarians need more than a 50-minute one-shot session with students” to teach threshold concepts, and that is the vast majority of the instruction that we provide. We do offer a 1-credit and 3-credit semester length courses that provide the additional time necessary to begin covering the threshold concepts on more than a superficial level, and it is in these classes that I see threshold concepts being the priority. One way to avoid turning the Framework into a repackaging of the Standards is to use them both for different purposes. We want to make sure that our students have the basic skills necessary to find, analyze, and use information sources for any information need (Standards), but we also want them to understand why it is important, how it applies to their lives beyond the academic setting, and how they are active participants in the information creation process. These are large concepts which require deep critical thinking and go way beyond a checklist of skills that students can demonstrate after a 50-minute instruction session.


  3. I’m not sure that there needs to be a fence when it comes to the Framework and the Standards. I think the Framework gives us a way to think about Information Literacy goals and outcomes as well as giving us a way to present ourselves to faculty as subject matter experts. The Standards can be used a road map to get students through the thresholds outlined in the Framework. For example, in the Standards document under Standard One, Performance Indicator Two there are several outcomes listed that could work in a one-shot session. I like to use the one, “Knows how information is formally & informally produced, organized, and disseminated,” to build a one-shot session around that is giving students one piece of the puzzle that they need to master “Information Creation as a Process”. I think the Standards help me think about the pieces that make up the big ideas in the Framework.

    My approach to designing instruction based on the Framework versus the Standards is to be much more open ended. So rather than asking students to evaluate a source based on x, y, & z. I will ask them to tell me how they evaluate a source. So they are thinking more critically about it, rather than just checking things off a list.

    Samantha Martin


  4. The medium is the message.
    –Marshall McLuhan

    At the core of both the concepts and the standards are essentially the same definition of information literacy. Both intend to develop students into individuals, who can find, analyze and synthesize information in an ethical way. However, the way the standards and concepts package the ideas behind information literacy drastically changes how librarians approach this herculean task—at least it did for me. The checkbox shape of the standards encouraged me to add as many possible facets of information literacy to each session I had with a class, simply because there were so many to cover with so little time. In order to build the most complete information literate student I felt I needed to cover every single part of the standards. It was overwhelming. Because the framework break down information literacy into fewer chunks, it seems much more possible to me to introduce at least the most important parts. It’s allowed me to slow down in the classroom and to shift more of the class time to active learning experiences with more dialogue between students and myself and students with other students and thereby empowering students to take ownership of these concepts. In so doing, I’m sure new and different concepts will develop over time. The Delphi study may have gotten the ball rolling with identifying the most important concepts, but that doesn’t mean the conversation is over…


  5. Threshold concepts provide me with guidance for all my information literacy instruction. I am encouraged that students can have transformative experiences in learning about information, though the “irreversible” part remains suspect to me, especially given that thresholds are often troublesome/ counterintuitive. The ones proposed in the Delphi study cover the same territory as ACRL’s Framework, with the exception of “Information Structures.” The closest the Framework gets is “Searching as Strategic Exploration.” While I trust my students to be brave and independent and curious enough to notice and to try manipulating database features, I can’t comfortably say “Here’s a database, experiment” and expect that they will be successful. Perhaps “Searching as Strategic Exploration” has less of an expiration date than the particular technological focus of “Information Structures,” but the fact is, my students and I exist in the present and I like that the “Information Structures” frame also lives in the present.

    IL Instruction informed by threshold concepts rather than a checklist approach inevitably involves active learning and participation by students rather than running through one-sided demos that students tune out, don’t learn, and don’t remember. It gives me a world of opportunity to be creative, and students to learn relevant, life-long lessons about information.


  6. As someone who works closely with writing instruction, particularly in the first year, I chose to explore the intersection of threshold concepts between writing composition and information literacy – an intersection already on the brain thanks to Foasberg’s discussion of how pedagogical changes within the discipline of rhetoric/composition mirror the movement from the Standards to the Framework (p.707). McCraken and Johnson (2016) discuss how information literacy threshold concepts outlined in the frameworks map to writing composition threshold concepts outlined in Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies (2015). Teaching one credit of information tied to a 3 credit freshman writing seminar, this conversation helped put language and a rationale to work I am already doing. One of the biggest overlaps that I try to capitalize on occurs in classes where students work closely with the text: They Say/I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. “They Say/I Say” and “Scholarship as Conversation” and two avenues for “getting across the threshold” of conceiving of themselves as participants or meaning-makers rather than observers or recorders. Kassner, Majewski, Koshnick (2012) also do some interesting work with threshold concepts in history and first year writing courses which tie in well with IL threshold concepts, particularly intuiting the importance of context. Explorations and interpretations of bias and authority in primary sources can help students “cross the threshold” in all three subject areas.


  7. • What side of the fence are you on when it comes to outlining priorities in information literacy education – threshold concept or checklist?

    I prefer the threshold approach because of the flexibility and because I think it encourages creativity in teaching. The checklist encourages (I think) showing a series of skills and calling it a day, so to speak. I think the threshold concept approach encourages more discussion and critical thinking. Instead of showing a skill, you’re encouraged to ask the students a question(s) they have to think about and consider for themselves.

    • Do you think the threshold concepts identified by the Delphi study are the best concepts to include in the Framework? What would you add or take away?

    I thought the inclusion of “format” was interesting. We still see professors that require students to get a “book,” or more often require “no internet sources.” Not only is this confusing to students (does that include the journal databases?!?) I think it forces us to throw out potentially useful sources. For example, what about government information? So much of this is an “internet source” today, but has lots of useful and reliable information. I think encouraging our students and their professors to think beyond format is great. I also like how this was tied in to the issue of “information commodities” – giving another way to consider access to information and how information is power.

    • How would/does your approach differ when developing instruction sessions using the Framework’s threshold concepts vs. the Standards’ checklist? How do you avoid turning the Framework into a repackaging of the Standards?

    So far I have mostly stuck to showing skills (in part because that was always what I was asked to do), but now that I have a year of IL teaching under my belt, I want to move more into active learning and learning through discussion and questions. I’d like to pose questions to students that really get them thinking critically about some of the issues raised by the framework.


  8. For political science, after reading the relevant article, I could identify the “politics is power” threshold concept as being relevant to “authority is constructed and contextual”, “information has value” and “scholarship as conversation” because in all three IL concepts, who has the “power” can determine the validity, value and impact of an information resource. As anyone can be a political actor and have power over distribution of limited resources, information being an example of a resource, students can relate the producers and distributors of information with political actors who hold and exercise power in the information landscape. These actors can be for example political or educational institutions, established political scientists, academic journals etc. Pluralism is another core concept in political science the author identified, which can be again tied to who is publishing what in the information landscape, if there is enough diversity of opinions or if all groups are represented etc


  9. The article by Townsend et al is a great read, and I’m intrigued by the intentionality of Delphi metaphor used in the context of identifying threshold concepts. Does the metaphor of “revealing the future” (p. 24) extend to the application of threshold concepts? When the panel of experts thought about threshold concepts, did they think about it as a way of foretelling the future of information literacy? I really like the way the threshold concepts were described here. I think these descriptions are simpler than the ones in the Framework, which could make them great resources to share with faculty and other stakeholders who don’t totally “get” information literacy or why the library plays a role in teaching it. The article mentioned that at one point there were nine threshold concepts. I’m really curious about what those were and why the final list was pared down to six.


  10. As I see it, the arguments in favor of the Standards seem to come from the position of assessment of learning. It’s easier to do with the Standards than without them. On the flip side, the support for the Framework surrounds the perceived empowerment it gives to the critical informationalists (new word?) among us. Personally, I don’t see anything proposed in the Framework that isn’t already being addressed in the Standards and vice versa. Even the discussion about them being opposing philosophical approaches to information literacy seems to be taking it all a bit too seriously.

    I do think that there are some threshold concepts out there where learners experience a “Eureka!” kind of moment but am not sure if those identified in the Framework fall that solidly under the threshold concept hypothesis that necessarily make them transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, troublesome concepts.

    As for how the Framework shapes my instruction, I find that it encourages a metacognitive strategy but it causes me to struggle with the practical need to have performance objectives to assess, therefore it is extremely difficulty to avoid turning it into a repackaging of the standards.


  11. As much as I like the idea of a checklist (easier to assess, easier to teach to, and I was the type of learner who liked to memorize and get grades, etc.), the idea of threshold concepts makes much more sense for information literacy. Because each concept must be understood to a higher extent and there is not always a definitive and clear answer to questions that may arise in information literacy instruction, threshold concepts work better because they cover ambiguities more than a list of points to learn would. I think I still find teaching with the Framework more difficult than teaching with a set checklist. While I don’t have much experience teaching with anything but the Framework as a guide, I think my learning objectives would be quite different from one to the other: from a list of tasks that students are expected to be able to complete (Standards) to a set of knowledge that students should be able to draw on by the end of the session (Framework).


  12. Using the Framework’s threshold concepts supports the examination of assumptions that fear I may communicate to students. I fear I have stopped the process of evaluation when peer reviewed articles were retrieved, implying that these sources were authoritative, and not to be questioned. The framework in conjunction with the threshold concepts challenges me to go further in my instruction, and encourage my students to evaluate this information for themselves, questioning the authors credibility, the context of the information, what message the information is trying to champion, and how this information fits into the larger picture. This is something that is not new and makes wonderful sense to me, but having it articulated and shared within the community of librarians puts these less concrete, but important concepts front and center.


  13. I work with a variety of social science disciplines, and my educational background is in cultural anthropology, so the concept of threshold concepts immediately fit into my way of thinking. For other librarians, though, I am beginning to see that the concept of ‘threshold concepts’ is also a threshold concept for some librarians. No wonder many librarians are experiencing discomfort or cognitive dissonance when encountering the Framework! And no wonder many of them insist on trying to distort the Framework in order to force it into their current way of thinking!

    Thresholds are what sit between one room and another, or between outdoors and indoors. Crossing over a threshold, metaphorically, means passing over a vague and confusing period of in-between (that “liminality” referenced in Flanagan and elsewhere), and then into a new space, where we engage a new a new way of understanding the same thing.

    So, what are we librarians leaving and crossing into? My first stab at answering this question is that we are leaving a world, as described by Foasberg, in which “information” is some sort of neutral commodity, something that can be bought or traded, a ‘thing’ distinct from the person thinking, speaking or writing, more like a product than an element in an ongoing project to wrangle a problem; and that “literacy” is measured as a set of individual skills to find and sort “information” into various broad categories of reliability, credibility, timeliness, etc., and to “use” it according to rules laid out in style guides. That’s a comfortable space to stay in, not just because the standards are already defined and already have measurable outcomes, but because the underlying assumptions about information as product are taken for granted (curious librarians might want to read Geertz and others on the way culturally shared ways of understanding feel like “common knowledge” and are taken for granted by us natives).

    And what are we crossing into? This may be the unpleasant part for many librarians: we are crossing into a world that understands scholarship as a social practice rather than a system that produces information.

    The troublesome aspect shows up when librarians comment that the Framework is “theoretical” while the Standards are “concrete.” This comment marks where such a librarian is standing: still on the Standards side of the threshold. In fact, the Standards only seem “concrete” (measurable?) because the assumptions from which they derive are not spelled out. The assumptions, spelled out very well in Foasberg’s 2015 article, are just as “theoretical” as the Framework, but they are invisible to librarians still in that ‘room,’ just as the air we breathe. The Framework only seems “theoretical” to librarians who have not yet crossed fully into the space, who have not yet experienced the subjective shift to see that, for example, coming to see how a scholar engages in explicit or implicit debate in her article is just as “concrete” as grasping the difference between primary and secondary sources, or any number of other elements of the Standards. The difference isn’t between “theoretical” and “concrete,” but between an unquestioned and unrecognized but very familiar body of assumptions, and an explicit but unfamiliar body of assumptions.


  14. It seems like WordPress ate my answer, so I hope this does not end up duplicated. I’ve edited it a bit, anyway, because I had to retype it.

    I chose to investigate the connections between the Framework and a discipline’s thresholds. Social work isn’t even my discipline, per say (though my field, Sociology, is related), but as a campus librarian on a service-oriented commuter campus, I end up teaching quite a few social work classes. I even have a system; I’m in their introductory class, their research methods class, and their social policy class, in hopes that I can cover all their library needs. The program here is only two years (with the other half completed at a community college), so seeing them during three of the four semesters seems right to me. I’ve never quite been able to crack into that last semester, anyway.

    I decided that since I spend so much time with them, and the CSWE has very clear directions on their competencies, I’d take a look and compare them to the IL Framework. I was already sort of doing this before with the standards, mapping their objectives to my objectives.

    One of the big trends in health and human services is “evidence based practice” and the competencies reflect that. Of the ten core competencies, #3 is “Apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgements,” and #6 is “Engage in research-informed practice and practice-informed research.”

    I feel that, one way or another, all of the identified concepts in the Framework overlap with these two goals (if not others, as well) because their discipline is so geared toward research. Furthermore, the thresholds described in the assigned reading for this “thing” point out information commodity, which is extremely important in social work; it is not only relevant to practitioners going out into the field who may no longer have access to research to inform their practice, but also relevant to their interactions with clients who may not interact with information in the same manner they do.


    • So sorry about this, Jennifer! Your original post got caught in the spam filter. Next time, you don’t need to re-type your post! I check for anything like this every week and can approve comments that didn’t post. Sorry again!


  15. I find this second thing relates to the first thing quite well in that it continues to draw attention to the Framework in comparison to the Standards. I don’t see the Framework being implemented or actualized in the same manner as the Standards. The Standards have a plug-and-play structure that allows for an instructor to make a checklist of desired behaviours. The advantage to this is that it allows an instructor to assemble desired objectives for any given instruction session. Even a thirty minute one-shot can surely get a checkmark or two from the Standards.

    The Framework is a different animal. There are no quick objectives, and the dispositions are not to be used as objectives. Why? I think the answer lies in the theoretical work the Framework is trying to do. If we accept that measuring observed behaviour, such as the ability to navigate and select appropriate materials in a database, is not sufficient to indicate an information literate person’s conceptual mastery, then we must accept that the Standards weren’t helping us do the real work of facilitating deep information literacy. The Framework takes on the challenge of trying to change people’s minds. Of trying to get people to think a little bit more like a librarian. It also encourages us to see ourselves in that role when interacting with students.

    I sunk into this position more as I read the economics instructor’s article about threshold concepts. Their evaluation of conceptual understanding among students and instructors seemed delightfully simple, and eye opening. Many students were doing well in the program and could consistently demonstrate the right behaviours on tests and in papers. But when asked to describe their thinking with respect to a few economics based scenarios, they failed to name even the most introductory concepts. How often is this happening with our information literacy sessions? Are we teaching a narrow range of behaviours, and failing to teach ways of thinking about information and its role in our life and society? There is, of course, still a place for database instruction. I can’t see a good library instruction session for first year students that doesn’t provide some hands-on experience with database interfaces. But something is missing if that is all the session is.

    The questions listed above lead me to think that we should not map the Standards to the Framework, because that represents a missed opportunity to write objectives that measure how students think. Now when we incorporate the Framework into our instruction, we can spend more time asking students what they think. We can focus on getting them to explain their thinking when they interact with information, and have them explicate their reasoning. The conversation this approach will start is the path to working the Framework into our instruction.


  16. The list of threshold concepts in the Townsend article is useful for reflection, but is too broad and abstract for the time-limited, specific teaching assignments I’m presented with. I tend to focus more on process and on the practical aspects of research, while mentioning and thinking about the theoretical background. I guess I’m more concrete-minded.


  17. After reading the Townsend/Hofer/Hanick/Brunetti article about the Delphi study on threshold concepts for information literacy, I can better grasp the intent of the Framework document. In other words, the Townsend et al. article should be required reading for those of us who have been working with the Standards for a long while and who are moving into the Framework as a new “model” for information literacy instruction.

    The Standards provided that concrete checklist that allows for easy instructional assessment. The Framework is not so quantifiable, post-instruction. However, as I reflect on both documents, I prefer the Framework because it can be spread across formats, collections, institutions, and platforms, and it will still work. In other words, it is flexible and will bend and stretch as our information world bends and stretches. Our students will benefit because we are teaching them to think through concepts and across platforms, not “to” formats and specific delivery modes.

    I find that I am applying these Frames – threshold concepts – to my own work and attempting to ascertain how I apply each one to my daily worklife and personal life. If I, as the expert, can see how the Frames are applied in my life, then I can improve my own teaching using the Frames. As I query our faculty and acquaint them with the Frames, most of them identify the Frame or Frames that are threshold concepts for them (in other words, those liminal spaces in which they feel uncomfortable). Through our collected efforts, I believe future information literacy instructions will be much improved from our very personal work with the Frames.


  18. I was a school librarian teaching high school prior to shifting to the world of academic libraries, so I lived and died by standards and a framework with threshold concepts was a whole new ballgame. Yes, standards can look like a checklist, which some interpret as meaning the learning can’t go beyond that. Personally, I never interpreted them so rigidly, so the transition to using a framework (once I learned all the new terminology!) didn’t seem so daunting. It does appear that the main difference is that the Framework explicitly puts students into a position of power where their voice can and should be heard. Librarians teaching general information literacy courses are likely to have a much more difficult time getting students to cross that threshold than librarians teaching information literacy within the context of a specific discipline.


  19. I came into Library Science as the Framework was replacing the Standards, so I’m not overly familiar with the Standards. I like the Framework a lot, but it can be overwhelming especially as a new librarian and one who hasn’t taught a lot of information literacy. It helps to have both the threshold concepts and a checklist for that reason, and as the librarian becomes more familiar and comfortable with threshold concepts, then they can incorporate more of those ideas into their teaching.

    What excites me most about the threshold concepts is that they are principles that patrons/students can use regardless of technology. Whereas I might show them how to search a database which will look different in a year or how to format a table in Word 2016, with the threshold concepts I teach how to manipulate keywords in any database to get the information they want or why they might want to format information as a table rather than as a bullet list. The concepts of how to search for information or how to convey clear meaning are useful regardless of the technology or their occupation. On the other hand, I need to understand myself not only the threshold concepts but also how to teach them, and that makes me wary. I realize that I learn by teaching, but I also need to do more reading – especially on how others teach threshold concepts – so that I can better acquaint myself to how people in other fields teach threshold concepts.


  20. Wright and Gilmore (2012) identify “management as a practice informed by theory” as a threshold conception (p. 616). Though I understand–in a surface way–their distinction between a threshold concept and a threshold conception (pp. 617-618), I would need to read more on the topic to get beyond this liminal space.

    When they discussed engagement with the management literature (p. 628), though, I saw some Framework concepts at play. Students don’t know the underlying processes behind the scholarly journal format or its related sub-formats (research articles, commentaries, etc.). They don’t know why peer reviewed journals are granted such authority in the academic context. Instructors take these structures so much for granted that they spend little time on them. The Framework concepts of Information Creation as Process and Authority is Constructed and Contextual might serve as good talking points with faculty. If we can spend more time on these sticking points, the database demos will make more sense.


  21. The threshold concept is a much more comprehensive approach to information literacy and it offers room for exploring and asking essential questions that lead to more thoughtful research. I have never really found that a checklist works well (other than the CRAP detector, which can still be iffy because sometimes one has to dig for more information about credibility, etc.) because each student’s needs are so different. I think that’s a major reason for frustration with students because sometimes instructors inadvertently make research seem easy when in fact mental flexibility is required when hitting roadblocks. It’s important for students to know that flexibility is necessary and sometimes roadblocks lead to better research. Otherwise students feel that they are doing research “wrong” and failing in their endeavors.

    The Framework offers a kind of flowchart with open answers that then lead to other paths to inquiry. Perhaps this flowchart would be another solution to the Standards vs. Framework debate.

    I feel that the Framework is a mature, contemporary version of the Standards. As access to information has changed and the roadblocks of students has also changed (from not finding/accessing information to having to become more sophisticated at evaluating information), the Framework shows the complexity of the research task by giving guidelines to instruction so the student can make informed choices.


  22. I graduated with my Master’s just as the Framework was being finalized. I didn’t work closely with the Standards for long as a professional librarian, so my experience is limited. As a result, I have spent more time with the Framework and threshold concepts and am more familiar with it.

    I really like threshold concepts as a way to describe learning. I find that it is a much truer way of describing intellectual development, especially when considering the variety of patrons I encounter.

    I understand the fear that the Framework could become a repackaging of the Standards, but I think that the flexibility of developing SLOs guided by the Framework, but unique to my patrons is very beneficial for my students. Threshold concepts are a much more organic way of describing the previous knowledge students begin college with in regard to information literacy topics. With the guidance of the Framework, I am able to write SLOs that my students can achieve to bring them on to an even footing, and this helps me begin building a scaffold for their learning. This is VERY important to me because most of my students are first-generation college students and underprepared. I see my ultimate goal as readying my students to begin the journey toward understanding and internalizing these threshold concepts whether they transfer to a larger school (so other librarians can continue building on these understandings) or if they enter the workforce, they will have a good foundation to understand information literacy and continue gathering practical skills


  23. I also read an article about the bottlenecks in learning history, although I think it was a different article than the one that’s been referred to in other comments. (Same authors, different date.) I was interested by how much earlier the history article was – it was written in 2008, as opposed to the IL article in 2016 – so researchers have been thinking about threshold concepts for a long time. It was the first time I’d heard of them, though part of this is probably my not being an academic librarian. (I’m just beginning learning about information literacy and thought the 23 Things would be a good way to get started.)

    The article I read talked about how history professors are often naturals at learning about history, and aren’t able to see what students might be missing. This tells me that in my work (I’m in a museum library), I need to be more aware that students may not know how to do research, and I can’t take it for granted that they do, and I do need to incorporate basic information literacy instruction into what I’m doing.


  24. I prefer the Framework over the Standards “checklist”. It can be challenging to take full advantage of the Framework particularly, if your institution’s IL instruction consists mostly of one shot sessions. However, I think focusing on a specific Frame to guide the conversation with students, on how research is used/created is a useful way to help them relate to the tools they are using. I wouldn’t exclude any of the concepts in the article because they are basically repackaged in the ACRL Framework document. I like “Information Creation as a Process” as a concept for instruction because it can get students thinking about how they find, select, and use information. Students do not seem to realize they actually are interacting with the information sources they select to write a paper. When writing papers, many students do not see the research process beyond following their professor’s instructions to find “x” number of articles, and “x” number of books. The exciting thing about the Framework for me, is that the librarian can use the Frames to change the narrative around research, and get students excited by the discovery process, rather than view research as drudgery (if not torture), and to get them to think about how all the pieces fit together while creating new knowledge.


    • Jackie,
      Indeed we want students to be “excited by the discovery process.” While research may still involve slog at times–esp. in required courses, the Framework shows the purpose behind the slog.

      Skills still have their place: Professors are still going to ask for x number of articles. Still, we can get into why the profs love the peer-reviewed articles.
      –All my best,


  25. I think that engaging students in conceptual understandings and threshold concepts prescribed by Framework is a far more integrative approach than the checklist prescribed by the Standards. Yes, the checklist may be simpler and easier to understand (as mentioned in the article, understanding the concept of threshold concepts is a threshold concept itself…), but it seems to me that by focusing on these threshold concepts we encourage our students to truly engage with information in ways that the simple checklist never could.


  26. One thing I like about threshold concepts is that they do engage the learner in more complex learning than simply checklists. Checklists are fun. Checklists can be important. Overall, however, I believe we want our students to leave with not only the ability to do the basic tasks on checklists but the intellectual curiosity to want to create their own individual checklists for lifelong learning whether it’s a desire to learn/improve upon a skill or find the answers to questions they write themselves. If the threshold concepts are taught appropriately, they will have the core skills that won’t go away and the ability to bring those skills to solve other problems they might face.

    What makes me weary of them is time. The authors acknowledge that they likely aren’t easy to implement in the 50 minute one-shot many of us teach. It’s unfortunate. I could lecture on the ideas of the threshold but I know students will understand it better if I can give them specific activities during which they can engage in the threshold concepts. Unfortunately, even the smallest activities can take up half the class.

    I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a way I could engage the faculty more on these concepts. The most success I have exploring these is in a class I regularly visit and whose main instructor incorporates tenets of information literacy throughout her course. They get some information for me but it’s also reinforced by their instructor when I’m not there. It’s unlike most scenarios where instructors want me to show students how to search the databases so they can finish their assignments when I’d rather teach them how to try, fail and try again to find worthwhile information in many areas.


  27. I think in general, I really like the idea of threshold concepts. My approach to instruction differs because I have an increased awareness of the place where students might be in the process of learning thresholds. When applying the standards, it was easy to check things off based on my lesson. Now, I am more focused on the learner. Although I am generally excited by threshold concepts, I am wary of them for a couple reasons. First, it seems if the instructor/librarian doesn’t have a strong background with pedagogical theories that threshold concepts (as a theory) are hard to grasp. This in turn makes it hard to apply them effectively. Second, in my limited instruction experiences I have found that not all students want to take responsibility for their learning, which seems necessary to move from one threshold to the next.


  28. From a practical standpoint, if so much time is being spent attempting to grasp what threshold concepts are and how to use them on the part of librarians and there is no guarantee that they will successfully be communicated to students, what are their use? That said, just because something is difficult does not mean it is not worthwhile – to the contrary. This is an open question for me, though.

    I would suggest the threshold concepts: information is not a science and there are no information experts.

    It is interesting how limited or even nonexistent input from students is in this context. Despite the Framework
    being described as looser than the Standards by many, the fact that both were developed from the top down is revealing.

    Comparing the Standards to the Framework, while valid, endangers losing sight of broader concerns. Does it matter if students are familiar with either document and the ideas contained within them? Ask many the meaning of information literacy and blank stares abound. More than students, can people find, process, and evaluate information effectively? There was some discussion here about high school. ACRL is obviously geared toward higher education, but if this is not the standard path or if there are even any that do not advance to this level, what is left? A case can be made for a need, even a greater need, for these ideas to be fleshed out earlier than college. A thriving society awaits.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. I’m going off the final prompt which is, “What excites you about threshold concepts? What makes you wary of threshold concepts?” as well as some of the things other people linked to–the history learning project bottlenecks and the idea of a growth mindset about learning as a threshold concept.

    While reading the Delphi study, I tried to take some time to identify what I think of as some threshold concepts or moments in my own learning. For example, I really feel that realizing my teachers were fallible was a threshold moment/concept. I remember a couple of times in elementary school finding places where teachers had marked an answer as incorrect on homework or a test that was actually correct. Luckily, my teachers were receptive when I talked to them about it, which I think simultaneously made me trust them more as people while helping me to understand that they weren’t all-knowing. My husband had a similar experience with a solar system project that he worked on in elementary school, although his teacher refused to change the answer given in her teacher’s manual, even after he brought in books from home. In his case, he learned that teachers are fallible while at the same time trusting and liking his teacher less because of her reaction. If I think about it, it was an early lesson in the threshold concept that authority is constructed and contextual.

    Similarly, right after college I was doing a lit review about creativity for an educational consulting company, and one thing that really stuck with me and took me some time to work through was a concept in a book about creativity, which is that creativity is collaborative. A lot of time we have the idea–especially in the arts, but also in tech–that there are these creative geniuses who are entirely innovative and whose creativity and innovations spring wholly formed from within them, but if you really look at it, even the most revolutionary innovations build upon all sorts of other previous work or are a matter of applying a concept or technique from one discipline to a problem in a different discipline. I’ve found this concept to be very helpful personally because it has made innovation and creativity feel more achievable, whether that takes the form of writing a book or creating an exhibit, or something else. Again, I think this relates closely to the framework, in this case to the threshold concept that scholarship is conversation.

    Basically, I think what excites me about threshold concepts is that I know they have been meaningful to me in my own life. I think the thing that makes me wary of them is that the language of the framework is a little obtuse. I think the challenge comes in finding how to present the concepts in such a way that students actually engage and struggle with them, rather than just shut down because of the language.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Working at a rural community college that operates under the net of a larger community college system we have not officially adopted the Framework yet. I began working here about 8 months ago and the teaching faculty are very much ingrained in the Standards and expect that when they request instruction. I have modified rubrics to try to include some Framework inspired metrics however, with an emphasis on students carrying their information literacy skills over into the real world as the majority of students are only here for 1-2 years (we offer several technical programs as well). If we do manage to corral them into the library we need them to take away skills that apply to their lives in a more meaningful way. Some will go on to a 4-year, most will go home and log into Facebook. They need information literacy there just as much as when writing a research paper. So I guess in a way we are repackaging the Standards? More like wrapping the Framework in a Standards covering and when they rip it off…HAHA! Its the Framework!


  31. I mentioned earlier that I used as a discussion response a guide I found online. It’s called Good Practice Guide : 1st Year History 2015 and the authors are Jennifer Clark, Adrian Jones, Pamela Allen, etc… I admit I would have liked to have used one relevant to the academic area History/Teacher Education on campus but I don’t see the level of detail and academic girding as this document. Again, if there are any US academic librarians who have noticed a history document tied into teacher ed programs I’d like to know too. I have a sense of what needs to be done in my head but not how to make it happen.


  32. I’m writing this while at work so excuse me if I have an on the fly feeling in this response. I found online a document from Australian higher ed (and yes I will provide a follow up address from where I found it) a look at what can be done to increase higher thinking skills in students who take history courses as requirements even if they are not history majors. The thinking is that too often students view history as simply an accumulation of facts that never reflect the culture, the historian’s view point ,etc…

    I began looking at the framework and then thought to myself of my recent experience teaching a group of honors students this summer at MSU who enrolled in a research in a networked environment course taught by a trio of librarians. Even this group presumably our best/brightest revealed that often with research they never assume that information of all sorts is rarely as neutral as we like to pretend.

    So I personally am interested because I primarily work during the fall and spring terms in a curriculum materials department whose users are future teachers. I want social studies teachers to acknowledge the need for students to do more than be consumers of bland facts, dates,etc…

    I’m still not sure how to make it happen. Many high school students do little research even in classes that supposedly are advanced. In the local school district we have no history fair for middle schoolers-high schoolers.

    I ask this question of the group do any of you work in a high school environment and how do you reach out to social studies teachers especially in middle school-high school where research could be a possibility. I know abstractly what needs to happen but not how to make the change in a real world sense with these future teachers. When I’m near my document I allude to I will include that in a second message.


  33. Clouder, L. (2005). Caring as a ‘threshold concept’: transforming students in higher education into health(care) professionals. Teaching in Higher Education, 10(4), 505-517.

    Aside from freshman writing, the two disciplines I work with the most are Biology and Psychology, wherein most students are planning to become doctors, nurses, or psychiatrists. So I was excited to find the article above regarding threshold concepts in healthcare professionals. Clouder suggests that caring, both as a personality attribute and a physical act, functions as a threshold concept due to the “’troublesome knowledge’ with which students are confronted on meeting patients in practice” (505). The realization, for example, that not everyone can or wants to be treated for cancer conflicts with the student’s current belief of Hippocratic responsibility, forcing a reality check of “their capacity to care for others as well as themselves” (506). This transition can be especially frustrating when confronted with health education’s preference for rationality and detachment over emotional capital in patient care.

    Clouder later concludes that the “trouble-free knowledge” students crave is ultimately “not feasible” (514), and higher education should endeavor to incorporate more experiential learning into their curriculum. Students should also have opportunities to share similar experiences with their colleagues, whether in person or via an online message board, thereby further encouraging self-reflection in addition to knowledge sharing. Such a pedagogical shift overlaps with a few of the threshold concepts proposed in the Townsend article, such as the research process and scholarly discourse. In lieu of a discussion forum, students might use scholarly literature to explore the ever-changing nature of caring and how such information supports or refutes their own experiences.

    What surprised me most about both the Clouder and Townsend articles is the abstract and, often, philosophical nature of threshold concepts. I must admit that my mode of thinking and learning is more concrete, preferring checklists and how-tos to introspection. I also often focus too much on smaller details and miss out on the bigger picture. For example, when I first learned about threshold concepts, my mind immediately when to basic, corporeal tasks, such as identifying a library and what a book is (please don’t judge me!). Fortunately, the more I learn about them, the better able I am to focus my “lens” outward on the implicit concepts that make up information seeking behavior. Much like research though, its an ongoing process.


  34. The idea of the threshold concepts is a fresh way to examine how we teach and how our students learn. As some others have mentioned, time is often a constraint over which we have little control, and it limits us to what we can reasonably cover in a class period. Those instruction librarians who are fortunate to be able to teach a course for credit are likely the ones who have a better opportunity to apply the concepts and teach within the framework. I have found that I am more able to challenge students beyond the rudimentary skills if they are in an upper level course or if I am embedded in a course. There is a sense of flexibility in the threshold concepts, less of a prescriptive approach; however, there are times when I feel more comfortable with the “checklist” as it provides more definite guidelines for what is expected.


  35. It’s difficult to say which “side” I’m on in terms of checklists versus threshold concepts. As I said in my first post, I was taught about information literacy within the context of the Framework, so I have an ingrained bias toward threshold concepts. When it comes to outlining our priorities, I suppose I would have to choose threshold concepts. Checklists seem far too narrow as a method to capture everything that we need to say and determine what it means for someone to be information literate.

    If I had to choose a different approach to developing this, I would probably change some of the language used to refer to different types of information literacy learners. I do not consider myself an “expert” in information literacy because I do not believe that expertise is possible in this field. That term feels so final, so concrete. Information and its accompanying literacies are constantly shifting and developing – though I suppose I as a professional am doing the same. Expertise is not, according to the dictionary, total and complete mastery; it is defined as “comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.” The wording still makes me uncomfortable, however. Maybe I’m being too nitpick-y.

    I don’t see the Framework as a repackaging of the Standards, and I think that careful consideration was given to avoiding a repackaging – at least from what I have seen. I see it as a document that takes the Standards and gives them more flexibility and fluidity. It also opens up information literacy to a wider audience and recognizes that for far too long societal structures have influenced information but have not been recognized as having an influence.


  36. I am new to teaching Information Literacy, so I won’t be sure which side of the fence I will be on until I actually teach a number of classes. After reading the first two essays, I am grappling with how to transform my workplace’s checklist into threshold concepts. Professors typically want us to cover certain items in the 50-minute session (checklist). However, while explaining the items on the checklist, I hope to introduce elements of the threshold concepts so that students have a better understanding of how to conduct research, evaluate sources, and understand how information is created.


  37. I am completely on board with the idea of threshold concepts and the Framework. The checklist and Standards have their place, but they can still be taught within the Framework. The Framework gives students a way to think about the concepts they are learning. In my mind I kind of relate it to learning algebra. Everyone complains about it. No one wants to learn it. Most of the time people think that they never use algebra again. But we do use algebraic thinking in our daily lives. The last thing we want to teach students is a list of steps that they will forget and never use again. I would much rather teach them a concept that they will remember and use long after they graduate.


  38. I searched online for examples of threshold concepts in different subject areas and I came across a handy guide with brief examples for various disciplines.
    The website discussed the five characteristics of threshold concepts (transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, troublesome knowledge). I think it also perfectly summed up how we can view the threshold concepts in our library instruction. They are main ideas that students need to understand after courses and/or interactions with a librarian. For example, students need to understand the value of information, and learning how to cite a journal within the body of a research paper counts towards learning that concept, but making the connection with understanding why it needs to be done is more important. The threshold concepts help students (and librarians) think about the larger world application of what we teach in the library.
    I can see where it may be difficult to teach lessons related to the threshold concepts and it also may be difficult for students to understand. We all arrive in a classroom or workspace with prior knowledge and there are limits to what we are exposed to for many reasons. If students have not been taught to think critically, or if they are used to just being told information without a focus on inquiry, it will be challenging. This is where follow-up sessions or reinforcement from the professor of the class may be helpful.
    I do feel that we have chosen the right path by teaching from the threshold concepts. Learning is not as straight to the point as we would like for it to be. The flexibility of the threshold concepts are important because they accommodate all types of learners. They also allow me to be more creative with instruction. Yes, it is a challenge, but it makes me really think about what I want the students to learn.


  39. For me, it is hard not to view the Framework through the lens of the Standards. It’s nearly impossible to unpackage the Framework in a 50-minute one-shot session – it’s difficult to incorporate more than 1 or 2 of the frames into that 50 minutes, while still teaching Boolean search terms, truncation, etc. – and since I mostly teach one-shot sessions, it’s hard not to reduce the Framework into a repackaging of the Standards. And to be fair, this article makes clear that the study was not intended to minimize the importance of teaching research skills.

    I’ve heard of threshold concepts for a long time but this article was the best explanation I’ve seen yet and now that I’ve read it would be hard to deny that the Framework itself served as a form of threshold concept for me. The Framework was transformative to my understanding of information literacy and I’m certain that the Frames have trickled into my teaching in ways that I don’t always fully perceive or notice.

    I’m still not completely sold on threshold concepts (some of the concepts seemed to be artificially stretched to meet the criteria – irreversible, for example) but they are growing on me.

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Right now I am sitting squarely on both sides of the fence, a leg dangling on each side. I like checklists in life. I enjoy a to do list. I had student push back when the checklists of Blackboard did not exist in Canvas. I also enjoy straightforward language.

    On the other side, my background is theory heavy Women and Gender Studies and I enjoy digging into the literature, reading theory and jumping into discussions related to what the material covered. I like connecting the dots.

    What excites me about the Framework and concepts is the dialogue is still happening. We are not in a static profession and working to identify what is working in IL should always be a part of the work.

    I am a community college Librarian and teach both one shot instruction courses and credited courses. So far I am working to understand how this material can be translated for the students I work with and how it will contribute to their success.

    I am working my way through different articles and blog discussions right now that focuses on how to apply the Framework to the community college classroom and library. Some of what I am exploring:

    My everyday work with students always focuses on communication and what I can do to help them succeed- whether that is with finding a resource for a paper, understanding what a citation is, un-packaging a research prompt, etc. and as I read through the Framework and Threshold Concepts in the article I am trying to connect it with the day to day activities I do. Many come overwhelmed with how long research takes and have limited time due to class load, work load, family and other demands on their time. If I am teaching a one shot instruction session, moving through the concepts is impossible. Also, the nuts and bolts of how to use a database, limiters and keywords is still a core requirement for IL and unless one knows the students they are working with have advanced research skills the basics must still be taught.

    The Delphi study concepts that were identified are a good starting place.


    • Hi Shelly, I agree with you–it sounds like our needs are similar. Sometimes it is hard to straddle between what you NEED students to understand and what they NEED in the immediate moment. I am like you–my job is to help them be successful and to show them how to also be independent going forward.


    • Shelly,
      I agree with you that checklists have a place. I see the Framework as the reasoning behind the checklist. After all we don’t usually have checklists for their own sake.

      Have you ever read Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto? In one section Gawande mentions a rock star who insists on M&Ms in his dressing room, but no brown ones (or some color excluded, at any rate). On the surface that seems like a bratty demand, but it’s actually a safety check. If he finds the brown M&Ms, he wonders what else the people at the venue have missed. One time it tipped him off to a staging problem that could have resulted in serious injuries.

      I digress, but it shows that you can have the what (the checklist) and the why (the Framework). The how is another issue:)
      –All my best,


  41. Currently we use a checklist of what we need to cover due to the nature of the requests we encounter at my MPOW. I’m hoping that with a little work we can integrate this with threshold concepts if we are intentional and keep in mind backwards design. Generally, checklists imply a walk through the grocery store. I think/hope that if we can introduce one of the frames and still explore the material it will be a baby step towards broader changes in how we design, promote, and even instruct Information Literacy and perhaps even broaden it out to digital literacy in support of other instruction happening in the classroom. I see it as two different ways to look at what we are trying to do, and with some creative thinking we can use them to complement each other. What will be challenging is the current drive for assessment and how best to show that we are meeting the learning objectives without turning that into a checklist activity with multiple guess evaluations.

    The concepts that were identified by the Delphi study are not necessarily the best, but perhaps what has emerged at this moment in time. Our colleague from Leiden University has introduced me to the Sconul 7 Pillars which I find to be just as useful and very thought provoking. It is my hope that due to the nature of the Framework there will be flexibility, as well as the ability to adapt and use other ideas in combination to best serve our students.


  42. I like the “idea” of threshold concepts, although I find the article difficult.

    I am not an academic librarian, but all librarians who help people with their information needs struggle with the “teach a man to fish” aspect of reference work. People, including students, come with an information need as they frame it. Our job is to check if their expressed need is their true need, to the extent possible, and meet it in the way that serves their best interests—either with an outright answer found, or with a point-of-need customized tutorial/experiential learning opportunity.

    How do you know what you need to know when you don’t know it?

    While preparing some information for high school teachers on how to embed research skills into their curricula, I keep finding a zillion prescriptive checklists for steps to research, steps to information literacy.
    They say things like “step 3, do the research, take notes.”

    I find very little that discusses how to decide what exactly to look for. I think I key threshold concept is being able to visualize or identify what you would learn from the perfect source materials, and then imagine what sorts of primary documents would contain that information. I got a little lost in the article, perhaps that is more elegantly worded in there.

    Of the things I’ve found, I like this article the best. I think it describes exactly how to do research in the social sciences. I wish I’d had this article in front of me my freshman year.


  43. After living with the standards and using that checklist approach, I’m relieved to work with the threshold concepts in conjunction with the standards. The standards are still a good outline of what needs to be done, that checklist, but with many of the tools we now have I find myself trying to get as many of the mechanics done ahead of time so time spent with a librarian is more useful in having those conversations about information and research. As I read over the threshold concepts I realized I weave them into the conversation I have with class sessions. When search results are examined we look at who the author is, why it is important, how to find the experts in a field. I can never end a class session, even if it is a “one shot” without emphasizing how this is not over yet but they will find “holes” when writing their research paper and will need to come back to the library resources to find information to fill those gaps.

    It’s always exciting to work with senior seminar or graduate students when they are researching and writing as scholars, giving back to the community and not just peering at it through a looking glass. Their research is not simply another assignment done on their way to a degree (well, sometimes it is) but to see they can contribute to their field in a meaningful way. That creation of new knowledge, joining the scholarly conversation, can be a heady experience for both the student and myself. This is a goal that I am steering them towards and I think it uses the standards and the framework whether I’m using a checklist or not.


    • Karen,
      I’ll have to remember your language of research as “giving back to the community,” when I work with my Senior Seminar students. My students don’t have an audience outside of the class, but the Framework nicely gets us into the idea of audience.
      –All my best,


  44. I was admittedly wary of having to learn about the framework and threshold concepts after having spent several years as a librarian creating lesson plans and activities to teach the standards. However, after realizing incorporating threshold concepts into instruction didn’t have to happen overnight, I was able to work through some of troublesome aspects myself. I did find some of these concepts troublesome (and continue to struggle depending on how philosophical I get). The nature of threshold concepts in general prevents them from being a repackaging of the standards and the checklist style (in that the threshold concepts allow for a more in-depth critical analysis), and I do believe they are more effective than a checklist, though there are certainly aspects that overlap between the two. Additionally, since threshold concepts are used in many disciplines, it provides for an easier conversation between librarians and teaching faculty when trying to convey certain goals.

    While librarians often do not have the opportunity to teach credit-bearing courses in which we are setting the plan for the course, assessing, and assigning grades, our instruction sessions and activities have to be highly impactful. Having access to a library of activities (such as helps immensely in transitioning from the standards to the framework. More of these kinds of tools (and I know more exist) are helpful in sharing strategies. To me, one of the best parts of our profession is the attitude of sharing information and best practices.


  45. Having taught using checklists for so long, it will be challenging to change my instruction based on the threshold concept, but I am slowly trying to incorporate portions into my information literacy sessions.

    And yet, once I condensed the 6 identified concepts into a chart, I could understand them better, because they were in a format with which I could more fully relate – similar to a checklist! Since each contained identical sections – transformative, irreversible, integrative, troublesome, and bounded – I could then compare each component of a concept to another.

    There’s nothing wrong with having a checklist, as long as we realize that we are not restrictively bound by that checklist, but instead should use it as a guide for our information literacy instruction.


  46. I work with a lot of first year writing courses, and I was curious about the way faculty in rhetoric and composition think about threshold concepts. In Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, I read a chapter by Doug Downs and Liane Robertson called “Threshold Concepts in First-Year Composition.” They point out that threshold concepts enable students to better transfer their knowledge and understanding from one context (e.g. this specific class) to another (e.g. a class involving writing two years from now in a particular discipline).

    I was less interested in the specific threshold concepts they identified as important than in why, and how, they adapted them to the classroom environment. Downs provides examples of his course’s student learning outcomes expressed in terms of the threshold concepts he values, and the chapter also describes a process of teaching these concepts in a way students can grasp. Essentially the authors recommend beginning with research based explanations (such as course readings), then providing analogies as well as specific examples, and finally giving students an opportunity to experiment and grapple with the concept themselves.

    This chapter has given me additional insight into how I might take some threshold concepts from the Framework and adapt them to a feasible model for the first year writing classroom. It doesn’t mean I have to scrap what we’ve been doing so far, just make modifications to better incorporate this kind of conceptual learning. I also appreciated the authors’ point that “learning in a threshold concept driven course is likely to occur either near its end or after the course is over.” It’s nice to hear that no one expects students to achieve a paradigm shift in a few weeks. At the same time, that raises all kinds of challenges in terms of assessment.


    • Hilary, this is great! I especially like your point that you don’t have to scrap everything you’re doing: threshold concepts give you a new way to understand how students learn, and can help you enhance/re-envision your approach to teaching.

      Naming What We Know is a really helpful resource for those of us working closely with the writing programs, and it’s great to see how a discipline so connected to information literacy is making use of threshold concepts. We’ll be discussing an article about Naming What We Know in Thing 15!


  47. I’m a fan of the threshold concepts, but I believe this perspective comes from two different places.

    One, for three years at my previous job I worked with a lot of first generation students with a variety of knowledge levels when it came to info lit. The check-list nature of the standards felt tedious when I often felt I needed to backtrack some. The threshold concepts work better for my brain when trying to come up with participatory, accessible lesson plans.

    Two, I’m early in my career (4 years) so I also think my love for the threshold concepts comes from the fact I never got the chance to become dependent on the standards.

    This is the first time I’ve heard of a Delphi study. I think the idea of it is quite fascinating. I believe the authors of this article in particular did a great job with acknowledging the limitations of such a study. In some ways I like the wording of their threshold concepts better than the Framework. Spelling out the transformative, irreversible, integrative, troublesome, and bounded elements of each was really helpful to me.


  48. Ever since “The Lancet’s” retraction of Wakefield’s study on autism and vaccines, I’ve been perplexed as to how to explain the notion of authority to students. Acknowledging “threshold moments” as a time for relevant questioning and discovery, and identifying authority as nuanced, situational and not always permanent lets me of the hook. For that, I thank the Frames. To extend this to the idea that “knowledge is dynamic” and “leaning is elastic” is both exciting and frightening. I will be reading the Boyd article and Dweck’s book. Thank you!


  49. I’m also fairly new to the threshold concepts theory but find that it speaks to a lot of the frustrations I’ve had with the research process and disciplinary knowledge. Particularly, how does the novice know what they don’t know? Identifying these concepts and actually teaching them is great. I appreciate this format more than the checklist. I’m always for putting things into the larger context of the discipline whenever possible rather than teaching a long list of independent skills that don’t always make sense as a process to the novice researcher.


    • I like the idea of the novice researcher. Threshold concepts help break down what experts have internalized—and perhaps are not completely willing to share. The experts might not even know what they know. The threshold concepts are the secret sauce, the decoder ring.


  50. Shopkow, Diaz, Middendorf and Pace. “The History Learning Project “Decodes” a Discipline: the Union of Teaching and Espitemology.” In The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning In and Across the Disciplines. McKinney and Huber eds. Indiana UP, 2013.
    Indiana University’s The History Learning Project, starting around 2008 explored use of “Decoding the Disciplines” in history. They interviewed History faculty to discover bottlenecks to student learning in history. Some bottlenecks are listed on this website about the project. I the chapter above, they realized that all the bottleneck arise from, “the failure of the students to understand the epistemology of the discipline and of the faculty to teach it explicitly.” Their research/teaching uses specific bottlenecks, but characterizes them generally, rather than parsing them out. They state that history doesn’t have threshold concepts. Rather their focus is on teaching, and that there is a “disciplinary unconscious, automatic moves learned tacitly by experts.” (p. 94) Students can’t see these moves, the most important of the moves are deep and critical thinking.
    After this introduction four, brief case reports apply Decoding the Disciplines to individual history courses, both upper level and first year students. Each a slightly different take on helping students think like a historian, especially able to critically evaluating texts and motivated to go deeper in their analysis, and exhibit intellectual distance from the subject. In order to “work through the bottleneck” they made significant changes to course design, use new teaching methods such as team based learning and embedded activities to encourage practice, meta-thinking. Despite their nominally different problems, “we drew on the discipline’s understanding of itself, its epistemological underpinnings to structure our classrooms, and we asked our students to play our epistemic games” which resulted in new approaches.
    Historians are good at clear-thinking and avoiding getting bogged down in specifics. I think the group’s idea to sum up the bottlenecks in general terms, but get more specific when applying them is an example from which we librarians could learn. The Standards are true, and the Framework is true (and perhaps an attempt to sum up our thinking more generally.) Now, how can we apply this thinking to solve specific problems?
    Another take from this article is that deeper thinking about information resources is also an example of those “automatic moves” that students are left to figure out on their own. IL concepts are certainly mixed into the epistemology of history and other disciplines. There is great room for improvement in our teaching but work like The History Learning Project, and similar work in our discipline are the way forward.


  51. I think that the threshold concepts provide good background and are thought-provoking. The idea of a continuum from novice to expert makes sense to me, but I wonder where upon that continuum the crossing of the threshold occurs. The idea of a threshold not being able to be unlearned is interesting; does this equate to “mastery” of a concept? After reading this article, I have a basic understanding of threshold concepts, but I feel that I am still a novice in knowing them well enough to build upon them more. I’ll need to work with them more before I can say whether I’ve moved to favoring them over a more straightforward checklist. A previous poster’s comment about pragmatism resonates with me.


  52. The threshold concepts identified in the study appear to be in line with what the ACRL Framework illustrates as information literacy concepts.

    The tension surrounding this framework, however, lies in how to assess students’ transformation of perspective, integration of concepts into a unified whole, applying the knowledge over and over in a cumulative fashion, and finding out whether or not they can speak to the information needs and challenges of their discipline better than when they started their program. It is a lot to assess in one library instruction session, but it may be possible to assess in a class or multiple classes within a discipline where the frameworks are embedded, or where there is an embedded librarian. People like the “checklist” approach because it is much simpler to use for assessment purposes, to prove that students have mastered something as a result of library instruction.

    To maximize use and value of the framework, librarians supporting programs in different disciplines need to know the language of that discipline in regard to how their discipline defines information and critical thinking skills to evaluate and use that information, then work with the faculty in those programs to come up with discipline-specific frameworks for information literacy. Each discipline also has their own threshold concepts–how do ours in the library world match or synthesize with theirs?


  53. I don’t like checklists and I don’t like thresholds! The theory of thresholds is weak, and in the Netherlands no one heard of it before. The ACRL community too had many comments at the thresholds, that’s why they were renamed into Frames.
    In the USA many librarians are USA-focused. Open your eyes to the rest of the world! We think about information literacy too and some of us had very good ideas. Read about ANCIL, the Cambridge Information Literacy method, or the Researcher Development Framework, combined with the Sconul 7 pillars. Both very interesting approaches to information literacy and much better then the ACRL Framework.


    • I like the Sconul 7 pillars. I find it easy to grasp; it matches my experience. I find myself nodding my head all through it.


    • Hi Anne, Thanks for making me aware of the SCONUL 7 Pillars. I really like the way they lay out the terms (identify, scope, gather, etc.) It is also good that it takes into account an individuals personal experience.
      Speaking as a USA librarian, I don’t think in general it is our desire to discount other outside country’s pov. You are right–we should be aware of the different ways we can teach IL and what is best for the students. That said, copyright, laws, educational systems, etc. can be different across the world, so I am likely to want to focus on how we set up information systems here to help my local students. However, I think that being aware of other IL perspectives and incorporating a more global mindset benefits us all. So thanks again!


  54. Yes I believe that it is more important that students come to realize the concepts in the Framework. In this day and age when we turn them out into the world it will do more good if they can realize that it is necessary that they question authority in almost all circumstances; look for their answers in many different places and formats which keep changing on them constantly; that they realize that the information they seek will most certainly come at a cost to them of either labor or time which means that working in a group may save them both time and money. And so on.
    But I still have students that show up without knowing how to use the online catalog to see if we own a book; that cannot tell the difference between a citation for a journal article or a book title; and think that Google is the only thing they need to use as a source. What I would want in a perfect library world is a way to test that they have those basics (that checklist) and then more on.

    Liked by 1 person

  55. While I favor the thresholds concepts, I appreciate a good checklist. I think the distinctions are valuable to discuss both within and outside of the LIS profession; but I also think that we do a disservice to ourselves and to students when we place them at opposing sides. Earlier today I read a discussion on feminist writer Sarah Ahmed’s new book and a quote pulled from it really stood out to me: “theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin.” I feel the same about IL. The thresholds are one way to look at information literacy – to learn what it is, how diverse it is, how fluid and mutable it is, and how it can be approached as both a teacher and a learning individual – but, for our day-to-day professional lives, theories can only help inform us, they can’t dictate our behaviors or processes, nor are they sufficient in the present day academic institution. The biggest takeaway I’ve gotten from threshold concepts – which I only ever learned of in learning about the Framework – is the idea that IL isn’t some finite, specific end goal; it exists on an ever-unfurling continuum.

    Pragmatism is, too, at the heart of our profession. As educators many of us engage with “standards” other than IL. Standards can help us create learning objectives/ outcomes that can help us design meaningful and significant learning experiences for students be they in a one-shot or embedded within a disciplinary context, or for non-academic library programming. I am wary of any theoretical framework that rejects pragmatism. I do not think that the framework does that, nor do I think that the LIS discussion around the framework does either. In fact, I am heartened by the sheer outpouring of resources and support in understanding and employing the framework/ threshold concepts of IL as practical pedagogy.

    Apart from threshold concepts themselves helping us “understand” IL, they’re exciting in their implication: If IL is more than a handful of standards then, by extension, we – librarians, specifically teacher librarians – are “more,” as well. Townsend, et al. argue that the framework would/does “reposition the librarian as a subject matter expert…with big ideas to teach” while acknowledging that we still have the responsibility of teaching “important procedural information” that we’ve historically been tasked with teaching. In communicating IL as threshold concepts and the framework as a whole, then our value as educators increases. Our roles expand and diversify; and the value placed on our roles within our institutions is further appreciated.


  56. OK, y’all. I just had an Oprah “aha! moment.” Here is the article I read.

    Boyd, D. (2014). The growth mindset approach: A threshold concept in course redesign. Journal on Centers for Teaching and Learning, 6, 29-44. Retrieved from

    In my liaison work with our developmental courses, I have worked with faculty who use Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset. She even recommended the book, and I added it to our collection. Boyd’s articles focuses on Dweck’s findings. Dweck proposes “growth mindset is the belief that our intelligence can grow with constructive feedback and targeted practice for improvement” (qtd. in Boyd 30).

    Boyd inspires instructors to engage in “deep learning situations” (30). I would describe lessons based on the frames like that – deep learning situations. I think that is a good thing. I tell students research can be messy for even professional researchers, so they don’t think they are the only ones who struggle. I remind students that a librarian is available to help when they get stuck in their research. I want to build their confidence as they move from being searchers (using search engines) to researchers (using discipline specific databases).

    Adopting Dweck’s growth mindset approach to information literacy, students accept that their research skills can be developed and do not have to be stagnant (Boyd 31). In theory, the students with whom I work in SLS course should be more confident searchers when I work with them later in comp I. They should be more accomplished as researchers when I work with them again in their humanities courses. And by their bachelor courses, they should be very skilled researchers. My point is research takes practice and adopting the growth mindset helps a student move from statements like, “The library doesn’t have anything on my topic!” to “I need to identify better keywords in order to improve my search results.”

    Another benefit to this activity is I can’t wait to talk to faculty who recommended Dweck’s book about this article and start planning my lesson for her course assignments in the fall!


    • I am focusing on option #1:
      *Although a checklist may be a bit “easier”, I really like the flexibility of the threshold concepts. The concepts seem to incorporate to me a more encompassing view of how information is now developed, accessed, used, etc.
      *I really like this rubric by BCC Library: . It uses the terms Capstone, Milestone, and Benchmark and helps to make the framework more accessible in that “checklist” kind of way.
      * In the Townsend article, I was intrigued by the way thresholds are considered (I haven’t worked with this concept before.) Using the key terms as a concept being transformative, irreversible, bounded, etc. made this easier for me to grasp why the ACRL framework is a nice transition from the simpler standards.
      *I think that for some time, I will continue to use both the standards in some form and the framework in tandem. At our library we do not do any kind of assessment directly with our lesson plans (although we do indirectly), so I don’t feel the need to come up with a different way. I am intrigued about incorporating more of the framework into my lessons, and will need to think about how to do this much better in a one-shot format, taking into account what others have mentioned about the limited time and need to help students grasp the information needed for the assignment.
      *I personally find the threshold concepts exciting, because I think that they do offer a wider view of information creation, use, etc. in today’s information landscape. That said, I still am not sure how to make these work within my college and my sessions.



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