Beyond Coverage: Using Threshold Concepts and Decoding the Disciplines to Focus on the Most Essential Learning

Higgs, Bettie, Diaz, Arlene, Middendorf, Joan, Shopkow, Leah and Pace, David (2013) Beyond Coverage: Using Threshold Concepts and Decoding the Disciplines to Focus on the Most Essential Learning. In: 10th annual Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) Conference. Critical Transitions in Teaching and Learning, October 2 – 5, 2013, North Carolina, United States.


The list of things we must teach increases daily in almost every discipline, and the burden of replicating what we ourselves were taught often restricts our choices. In the midst of an avalanche of content it is easy to lose sight of student learning, and to assume that if we covered it, they learned it. Scholarly teachers today are, of course, awash in a flood of techniques and approaches to classroom instruction, but these may only add to the confusion, if they do not provide clear criteria for knowing what is most important to focus on. What is needed is a basis for making strategic decisions about what should be given the most attention when teaching in a particular discipline. Two complementary approaches to teaching and learning -- Threshold Concepts and Decoding the Disciplines -- can help instructors concentrate the resources at their disposal on helping students master those concepts and skills that are most essential to successful learning in a field. The idea of Threshold Concepts proposes that there are certain central concepts in each discipline which must be mastered, if significant learning is to continue. Unlike other elements of a course, grasping these can produce learning that is transformative, irreversible, and integrative, but the very nature of these concepts often makes them troublesome for students. Focusing on these crucial elements in the discipline can bring order to courses and greatly increase student learning. [Meyer and Land (2006); Perkins (2006); Meyer, Land, and Smith (2008); Meyer, Land, and Baille (2010)] Decoding the Disciplines begins with ‘troublesomeness’ and specific bottlenecks to learning that emerge within particular courses and then seeks to define the basic operations that students must master to succeed in that discipline. It then leads the instructor through a series of steps that models these operations, gives students an opportunity to practice them, and assesses student success in mastering these abilities. Like Threshold Concepts, this paradigm keeps instructors focused on the most essential learning in a field and has been shown to greatly increase student learning. [ (2004b); (2008); (2013); (2013)] In this session the presenters will discuss the integration of these paradigms for increasing student learning and provide examples of how they can be used to help instructors make strategic choices in designing and teaching a course. Videos of faculty working with these concepts and of students emerging from Decoded courses will be shared. Participants will have an opportunity to use each of these approaches to foreground the most essential elements in a course and to develop a strategic plan for using backward design to refocus the learning on the most important issues.

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