Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer – Research Highlights (Part 2)

Last month, we featured a few highlights from the Center for Engaged Learning’s research seminar on Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer. Multi-institutional research by seminar participants suggests that:

  • In first-year writing courses, content matters;
  • Students need reiterative opportunities for reflection throughout their education;
  • When considering students’ ability to transfer or adapt writing strategies, personal identities matter; and
  • Across the university, expectations for student writing often are misaligned.

The first three findings offer hope that it is possible to teach in support of transfer, reaffirming an underlying assumption in university curricula that students can transfer what they learn in one course to future university, workplace, and community contexts. The fourth finding reminds faculty and administrators not to take that underlying assumption for granted; as last month’s preview hinted, writing transfer is not guaranteed for every student at every critical transition point.


Threshold Concepts: Student and Faculty Perspectives

by Peter Felten

This post is adapted from the introduction to a special issue of “Teaching and Learning Together In Higher Education (Issue 9, Spring 2013).

Meyer and Land developed the “threshold concepts” framework to help faculty focus their teaching on essential aspects of disciplinary knowledge (Meyer & Land, 2005). Threshold concepts act, by definition, like doorways; crossing a particular threshold enables significant new disciplinary learning, often learning that was impossible before. Mastering a threshold concept not only allows the learner to grasp important disciplinary material, but it also reshapes how the learner sees other aspects of the world. When a student understands the concept of opportunity cost in economics, for instance, she not only can apply her understanding to more advanced work in economics, but she thinks differently about how she spends her time when she is not studying economics.

While threshold concepts are transformative, Meyer and Land explain, they are not easy to learn because they involve “troublesome knowledge” (Perkins, 2006). Knowledge can be troublesome for a variety of reasons, but in all cases the crossing of a threshold involves a shift in epistemological understanding, provoking “learners to move on from their prevailing way of conceptualizing a particular phenomenon to new ways of seeing” (Land, 2011, p. 176). In addition, troublesome knowledge has an affective component that calls into question assumptions about or practices linked to identity: “Grasping a threshold concept is never just a cognitive shift; it might also involve a repositioning of self in relation to the subject” (Land et al., 2005, p.58). Precisely because of this difficulty, once crossed, thresholds are unlikely to be reversed; they cannot be unlearned.

Taken together, the special issue’s essays not only provide valuable insights into teaching and learning in the disciplines, but also raise three challenging questions about threshold concepts:

  1. Are threshold concepts inherently disciplinary?
  2. What tend to be the most troublesome aspects of threshold concepts?
  3. Is the metaphor of “threshold” appropriate to describe these concepts?

High Quality High-Impact Practices

In 2008 George Kuh synthesized research on engagement and persistence in college to conclude that certain experiences are particularly beneficial for students. Kuh’s original list identified ten high-impact practices: first-year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing-intensive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning/community-based learning, internships, and capstone courses and projects.

These practices are not perfect, of course. Research on first-year seminars, for example, demonstrates that the quality of the experience is linked to its impact. Higher quality experiences lead to deeper outcomes. For example, according to research by Linda DeAngelo (in press 2013), discussing course material outside of class with peers is a significant indicator of positive outcomes for first year students, more than either being in a first year-seminar or living in a learning community.

As Ashley Finley from AAC&U comments in a Center for Engaged Learning interview, a crucial challenge with high-impact practices “is not that they exist on campus, but that they are done well.”

What makes for a high quality high-impact practice?


Why engaged learning?

By now it is cliché to point out the “disruptions” facing and the “revolutions” occurring in higher education today. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are drawing hundreds of thousands of students, and nearly as many headlines, as a radical force for change. The financial model for many colleges and universities also is teetering on a cliff edge as mounting student debt and an institutional addiction to tuition increases erode what had seemed to be solid ground not so long ago.

And then there’s the problem of student learning. As Academically Adrift revealed, and many suspected, not all of our students are learning nearly so much as we had promised or hoped. Some now claim that it’s time to toss out the course credit hour. Or, as Randy Bass argues, perhaps we have entered a post-course era, a time when the formal curriculum is no longer “the primary place where the most significant learning takes place” in an undergraduate’s education. And then there’s the drumbeat for gamification, transforming college by applying the lessons of successful game design.

In the face of all of this, why should a new Center, or a faculty member, or an institution, focus on something as last century as engaged learning?


Welcome to the Center for Engaged Learning!

Welcome to the web site for the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University! The new Center will bring together international leaders in higher education to develop and to synthesize rigorous research on central questions about student learning, filling an important gap in higher education.

Researchers have identified what the “high-impact” educational practices are – study abroad, undergraduate research, internships, service-learning, writing-intensive courses, living-learning communities, and so on. However, while we know what these practices are, we could know much more about three essential issues: (1) how to do these practices well, (2) how to scale these practices to many students, and (3), how students integrate their learning across multiple high impact experiences.

We know, for example, that undergraduate research has powerful outcomes, but it’s very labor intensive – usually one faculty member mentoring one student over an extended period of time. If we understood more about how students learn and develop during an undergraduate research experience, and if we better understood effective faculty mentoring practices, then we could design scaled research experiences that simultaneously would be more effective while reaching far more students – at Elon and elsewhere.

The Center for Engaged Learning also will allow us to tackle a third important issue – studying how students integrate their learning across multiple high impact practices. Most colleges and universities treat student experiences as distinct – with separate offices and sets of evidence-based practices for study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, and so forth. At universities where students study abroad and then later complete an internship, or participate in service-learning and then conduct undergraduate research, how can we best help our students integrate across these experiences so that they reinforce each other? The Center will lead precisely that kind of research so that we can support students in integrating across their many engaged experiences.

By collaborating with local, national, and international leaders in high-impact practices, the Center will focus energy and creativity on these important questions. By conducting multi-institutional research and programs on what precisely makes certain experiences “high impact,” how to scale-up those experiences for all students, and how to help students integrate their learning, the Center will not only advance engaged learning in higher education, but it also will support the deepest learning for students.

We invite you join the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University in this work to transform engaged learning.

Peter Felten, Executive Director

Jessie L. Moore, Interim Associate Director