thing 2: Threshold Concepts


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.


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.  Townsend, Hofer, Hanick, and Brunetti (2016), state, “Threshold concepts… are core ideas and processes in a discipline that students need to grasp in order to progress in their learning, but that are often unspoken or unrecognized by expert practitioners” (p.24).  The work of these authors was used as the basis of the Framework’s conceptual understandings.  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?
  • What other ideas do you have for developing a document to guide instruction besides these two options?
  • 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 curriculum maps and/or 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?  Is simply repackaging the Standards a bad thing?
  • What excites you about threshold concepts?  What makes you wary of threshold concepts?

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. (2015). Threshold concepts in women’s and gender studies: Ways of seeing, thinking, and knowing. 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. 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.


  2. 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!



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s