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How Best to Support Students to Explore Ideas in Depth – Sequencing Knowledge Development Using Threshold Concepts by Heather Pennington

12 December 2023
Support students to think

As educators, one primary goal is to nurture skills, attitudes, and knowledge in our students (Entwistle 2009). Achieving this involves equipping them with effective means to explore concepts thoroughly. Encouraging students to delve deeply into ideas requires carefully designed learning activities that are well-structured, engage students actively, and give them confidence to address complex yet transformative threshold concepts (Land et al. 2016).

Threshold concepts play a crucial role in deeply understanding a specific subject. They act as gateways into the world of a subject, reshaping how students perceive and understand information in a way that cannot be reversed (Shwartzman 2010). While ‘core’ concepts build knowledge gradually, threshold concepts introduce revolutionary ways of understanding, significantly transforming perspectives and enriching learning experiences.

When it comes to teaching strategies, integrating threshold concepts is crucial. In directed study, educators can introduce these concepts as guiding principles, providing a framework for students to explore. This structured method can involve guided discussions or interactive sessions, assisting learners in adopting threshold concepts as a perspective through which they comprehend their studies and learning material. In independent study settings, students can explore threshold concepts at their own pace. Here, educators act as facilitators, providing resources, guidance, and feedback to help students navigate these intricate ideas. Encouraging self-directed inquiry, research, and critical analysis empowers students to internalize and apply the concepts independently. Both approaches aim to help students navigate the complexities presented by threshold concepts, fosters critical thinking and deeper subject understanding.

When considering how best to support students to explore ideas in depth, we can also consider the role of sequencing. In education, sequencing surpasses mere topic arrangement; it represents a strategic skill in organizing content to best suit students’ comprehension, crucial for fostering a thorough understanding (Morrison 2013). Effective sequencing impacts on learning speed and retention, ‘the order in which material is presented can strongly influence what is learned, how fast performance increases, and sometimes even whether the material is learned at all’ (Ritter and Nerb 2007 p p.3-4). Utilising schema, an information organising method, assists connections when encountering new knowledge. Sequencing effectively utilises prior knowledge and systematically organises learning stages, ensuring complete understanding before progressing.

In directed study, educators actively engage in structuring the learning sequence. They begin by introducing foundational aspects then strategically integrate complex topics. Next, educators guide learners in establishing thematic connections, ensuring a cohesive understanding of how key ideas intertwine. This guided approach ensures a comprehensive grasp of each concept before advancing, fostering a unified understanding among learners. In independent study, individuals are encouraged to explore the interplay between key ideas but with guidance. Learners delve into self-guided exploration, starting with fundamental principles and gradually expanding into specific connections. Through mentorship and collaborative platforms, individuals refine their understanding, ensuring a nuanced comprehension of their interrelationship.

In summary, the integration of strategic sequencing and the incorporation of threshold concepts facilitates an environment where students can authentically explore ideas with depth and rigour.

Panopto 2 min or less on threshold concepts: How to apply threshold concepts in teaching practice to support learning.  

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