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 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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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.


  4. 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.


  5. 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


  6. 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.


  7. 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,


  8. 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.


  9. 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.


  10. 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.


  11. 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

  12. 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.

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  13. 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!


  14. 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.


  15. 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.


  16. 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.


  17. 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.


  18. 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.


  19. 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.


  20. 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.


  21. 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.


  22. 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

  23. 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,


  24. 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.


  25. 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.


  26. 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,


  27. 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.


  28. 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.


  29. 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!


  30. 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.


  31. 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!


  32. 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.


  33. 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.


  34. 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.


  35. 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?


  36. 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!


  37. 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

  38. 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.


  39. 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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