Teaching, Learning & Assessment

Reading Apprenticeship, Transfer & Threshold Concepts

The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment and Communication Across the Disciplines, with support from the Cooperative Learning Center, provides professional development on using Reading Apprenticeship and threshold concepts to help student transfer the ULO 1 Intellectual Skills across multiple courses and contexts. This pedagogical framework builds on the results of institution-level assessments of the intellectual skills from 2014 - 2017 that produced the ULO 1 Assignment Guides and Rubrics.

The basic components of CSUMB's Teaching for Transfer pedagogy framework is describe below.

*critical thinking, information literacy, quantitative reasoning, written communication, and oral communication

Background information and resources

What is reading apprenticeship?

Reading Apprenticeship instructional routines and approaches are based on a framework that describes the classroom in terms of four interacting dimensions: Social, Personal, Cognitive, and Knowledge-Building. Those routines have been used extensively in community colleges and increasingly in four-year universities. The Reading Apprenticeship framework draws on the strengths students and faculty bring to build confidence and power to their work with texts, concepts, and each other. With a focus on apprenticing students into the problem-solving strategies of disciplines, Reading Apprenticeship helps students master core concepts and helps instructors explicitly support academic literacy in their discipline. Learn more about Reading Apprenticeship at CSUMB.

What are threshold concepts

“A threshold concept is discipline-specific, focuses on understanding of the subject and … has the ability to transform learners’ views of the content” (Zepke, p. 98). It’s not the same as a core concept, although that’s a useful place to first put the idea. “A core concept is a conceptual ‘building block’ that progresses understanding of the subject; it has to be understood, but it does not necessarily lead to a qualitative different view of the subject matter.” Threshold concepts have five characteristics, according to Meyer and Land. They are:

  • Transformative – The change that results from understanding the threshold concept is significant. Meyer and Land use the adjective “powerful” to describe it. It can change how learners think about the discipline, about themselves, or about the world.
  • Bounded – Thresholds border with other thresholds, and those boundaries and frontiers come to define disciplinary areas and academic territories.
  • Integrative – “Once understood, it enables students to knit dissimilar elements of a subject together” (Zepke, p. 100). Students suddenly get the large picture. They see how details or a set of ideas fit together. Suddenly a whole variety of things make sense.
  • Irreversible –These are not changes likely to be unlearned or forgotten. Meyer and Land use Adam and Eve as an example. The knowledge they acquired caused them to be expelled from the Garden of Eden. As they passed through the threshold from innocence, the landscape before them was totally transformed. Once the threshold concept is understood, that new knowledge makes it all but impossible to go back to former ways of thinking.
  • Troublesome – Here Meyer and Land defer to the work of Perkins, who previously explored the idea of troublesome knowledge. Threshold concepts, Meyer and Land claim, are troublesome in the sense that they are difficult for students to understand. Perkins defines troublesome knowledge “as that which appears counter-intuitive, alien (emanating from another culture or discourse), or incoherent” (quoted in Meyer and Land, pp. 5-6). They are not easily or automatically understood when first encountered.

Are threshold concepts different from learning outcomes? Yes. Outcomes describe where we want to students to arrive. They are end points; they are assessment-focused. Threshold concepts describe a process and experience with which students need to actively engage to achieve the outcomes. They are a means to an end; they are pedagogically-focused. If learning outcomes are the destination, threshold concepts provide frameworks for helping them get there. Estrem (2015) puts it this way:

"...as useful as outcomes are, they can't account for the messy, hard, uneven work of learning. They can provide useful snapshots of end points, of what students are able to do at different curricular moments... Threshold concepts articulate the messiness of student learning in a way outcomes alone won't. They help faculty, students, and, potentially, external stakeholders focus on the "long tunnels" of learning difficult and critical concepts..."

What is teaching for transfer?

According to Perkins and Salomon (2012), “a broader pattern of transfer is the direct application of an explanatory concept to new instances well removed from the initial learning.” They go on to propose three bridges that learners use to apply concepts and skills learned in one context in a new domain. They name those bridges, 'detect, elect, and connect.' Learners 'detect' that concepts or skills they have developed in the past pertain to the current situation, 'elect' to draw on those concepts or skills, and figure out how to 'connect' that past learning to the current context."

What does a "teaching for transfer" course that uses Reading Apprenticeship and threshold concepts look like?

Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak developed a “teaching for transfer” version of first-year composition that focuses on a few key threshold concepts of writing studies: “Writing is a social and rhetorical activity,” “writing speaks to situations through recognizable forms,” and “writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies.” At CSUMB, a group of oral and written communication scholars adapted the Yancey, Robertson, and Tackzak framework to develop CSUMB's stretch curriculum, embedding Reading Apprenticeship into the course. That means that as students study rhetorical concepts, they engage in a constant process of metacognition, considering and sharing the strategies they use to solve comprehension and composing problems and building individual theories of communication that they can use as grounding for their learning in future classes. As a final assignment in the class, students develop a “transfer presentation,” in which they teach their colleagues how concepts and strategies they practiced in class have served them and can serve their colleagues in other classes.

Sources cited and background reading

  • Basgier, C. (2016). Engaging the Skeptics: Threshold Concepts, Metadisciplinary Writing, and the Aspirations of General Education. The WAC Journal, 27, 17.
  • Cross Thresholds Together. (2013). Special edition of Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education. 1(9). A collect of short essays by faculty and students on teaching with threshold concepts.
  • Estrem, H. (2015). Threshold concepts and student learning outcomes. Boise State University Scholar Works. (available at: http://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1269&context=english_facpubs)
  • Flanagan, Mick. 2014. Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and Professional Development: A Short Introduction and Bibliography. London: University College London. https://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html
  • Fletcher, J. (2015). "Promoting Transfer of Learning," In Fletcher, J., Najarro, A., & Yelland, H. (Eds.). Fostering Habits of Mind in Today's Students: A New Approach to Developmental Education. Stylus.
  • Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines. (available at: www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/docs/ETLreport4.pdf)
  • Moore, J. (2012). Designing for transfer: A threshold concept. The Journal of Faculty Development, 26(3), 19-24.
  • Perkins, David N., and Gavriel Salomon. "Knowledge to go: A motivational and dispositional view of transfer." Educational Psychologist 47, no. 3 (2012): 248-258.
  • Schoenbach, Ruth, Cynthia Greenleaf, and Lynn Murphy. Reading for understanding: How reading apprenticeship improves disciplinary learning in secondary and college classrooms. John Wiley & Sons, 2012. (CSUMB Library e-book)
  • TInberg, H. (2017). Teaching for Transfer: A Passport for Writing in New Contexts. Peer Review. Winter 2017, 19(1). (available at:https://www.aacu.org/peerreview/2017/Winter/Tinberg)
  • Weimer, M. "Threshold Concepts: Portals to New Ways of Thinking." Faculty Focus, Nov. 7, 2014
  • Zepke, N. (2013). Threshold concepts and student engagement: Revisiting pedagogical content knowledge. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14 (2), 97-107.