Prospectus for Survey Research on Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process

This prospectus was completed 2016-11-30 for the course, IDS 7501: Issues & Research in Education, building upon my 2016-10-20 annotated bibliography and 2016-11-07 instrument search, as part of my coursework in the Education Ph.D. program at University of Central Florida.

This brief literature review and research proposal synthesizes the research on threshold concepts as applied to doctoral students, pioneered by Drs. Erik Mayer and Ray Land. Please feel free to cite this review. Feedback is welcome, via blog comments, my contact form, or Twitter.

PDF version | Microsoft Word 2016 version

Prospectus for Survey Research on Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida


This initial research prospectus first reviews the existing, primarily qualitative research on threshold concepts and doctoral students. Threshold concepts are skills that may be difficult to acquire, but their acquisition is transformative—much like learning to ride a bicycle. Frequently, threshold concepts such as designing a research study, writing a research report, and conducting a literature review are not explicitly taught to doctoral students. In fact, academics may not even consciously consider them, or may be dismissive toward students who have not yet acquired them. In this prospectus, the existing literature is used to guide the design of questionnaire-based research that quantitatively and qualitatively assesses threshold concepts in a broad sample of doctoral students at the University of Central Florida. Ultimately, this will contribute to our understanding of threshold concepts, the doctoral process, and the interaction between the two; guide further research including the development of a validated quantitative threshold concepts instrument; and perhaps suggest practices and workshops that may be implemented to reduce periods of uncertainty (liminality) among doctoral students, improve well-being, encourage productivity, and prevent attrition.

Keywords: threshold concepts, conceptual thresholds, doctoral studies, scholarly research, higher education, PhD students, liminality, troublesome knowledge, higher-order thinking skills, cognitive strategies, doctoral attrition, ontology, epistemology, beliefs

Prospectus for Survey Research on Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process

Threshold concepts (or, learning thresholds) are skills or ideas that may be troublesome to acquire, but doing so is often transformative—much like learning to ride a bicycle (Meyer & Land, 2005). The threshold concept framework (TCF) emerged in 2003 from Meyer and Land’s work on the U.K. national research project, Enhancing Teaching–Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses, and was refined by their research on economists, which revealed that understanding certain concepts, such as opportunity cost, is pivotal to progressing in the field (Flanagan, 2016). Acquiring a threshold concept can be counter-intuitive and messy, causing both cognitive and affective stress not unlike a rite of passage (Rhem, 2013), with a liminal space in between that can be long and uncertain (Meyer & Land, 2006), particularly because instruction may address it only tacitly, peers and overseers may not know or recall what not “getting” a threshold concept feels like, and the endpoint of liminality is only clear in hindsight.

In particular, Ph.D. students are supposed to be our next generation of academics. They are expected to have acquired extensive technical and soft skills even at the outset of their programs, particularly for programs requiring a Master’s degree. Unfortunately, many have not acquired skills which appear to be threshold concepts, such as advanced writing and research skills (e.g., Kiley, 2015; Johnson, 2015). Further, there may be other threshold concepts for doctoral students that the limited body of primarily qualitative research has not revealed. Little quantitative research has been employed, and no quantitative instrument has been validated for the threshold concepts field in general, even after 13 years of research and hundreds of academic journal articles. Moreover, in the context of doctoral students, the beliefs of people who have achieved or not achieved threshold concepts has not been systematically compared. This proposed exploratory study will form a portion of the groundwork toward these ends.

Literature Review

Continue reading Prospectus for Survey Research on Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process

Dealing with “Haters”

Short essay I wrote today in reply to an acquaintance who was being unfairly criticized regarding life choices by a former friend:

I have run into many people who have said things like this about how I’m narcissistic, judgmental, rude, won’t accomplish anything, will always be disliked, etc. Typically they are people who don’t actually know me (like with your ex-friend in these messages) and are really just projecting their beliefs about me based on cherry-picking things I’ve done, Facebook posts, etc.

The most satisfying approach is to demolish these people by pointing out points where they’ve gone wrong or made bad decisions. Usually they are really easy to find, like with your friend… I don’t think ignoring it is the solution… If someone is saying these things to you, it isn’t their first time. This is how they treat people in general, most likely. They deserve a lot of pushback. It seems more common than not that people like this are pretty successful and get by just fine in life, unfortunately, so I don’t subscribe to the belief that “karma will get them” either.

Statement on Trump’s Victory and the Hypocrisy of Clinton Supporters; Follow-Up Comments

*** Edited on 2016-11-10 at 19:15 GMT to add paragraph breaks and follow-up comments I wrote to commentators on Facebook. ***

I have people literally cutting contact with me and women telling me I “voted to take all their rights away” and I don’t understand why it’s so much better to support a candidate who was proud to cause a child molester to become acquitted on a technicality, who supported drone strikes killing hundreds of innocent civilians, who perpetuated policies that systematically lead to the impoverishment of millions of people supporters claim she protects as well as hundreds of thousands of children who died via starvation (Iraq sanctions under the second term of her husband’s “two for the price of one” presidency), who attacked victims of her husband’s sexual assaults, and whose enemies mysteriously end up committing suicide.

Nevertheless I do not unfriend nor ostracize Clinton supporters. I did not trouble myself to make statements in favor of Trump during his campaign because I do not care to be subject to flame wars and ad hominem attacks from the massive populist support the democratic party enjoys among my peers (young people and the highly educated), but it is baffling that adherents to a movement using such inclusive phrases as “stronger together” and “love trumps hate” could be so vitriolic after suffering a narrow, technical defeat.

Supporters of Trump are not necessarily supports of G. W. Bush or recent Republican nominees; the Republican party is simply the only feasible vector for anti-establishment candidates (e.g., Ron Paul). Therefore, one can support Trump yet repudiate the warmongering and elitism of past Republicans, but the converse, while quite feasible for Sanders supporters, is untenable for Clinton supporters.

Below are comments I (Richard Thripp) wrote to commentators on Facebook on 2016-11-10. I am not including the commentators’ original comments because I do not have permission and also because what is being addressed is usually self-evident.

This is a well-reasoned essay about Snopes that argues it does not have the authority supporters claim nor is its value based on expertise, but that its search for objectivity (or its supporters’ search) is noble and fragile.

As for the Clinton body count Snopes article it’s full of logical fallacies. For example, appeal to lack of evidence and the either/or fallacy.

A quote from the Snopes article:

If the NTSB doesn’t find evidence of tampering or explosives, then that’s not what downed the plane, and we’re left with pilot error and mechanical failure as our choices.

This sentence and many others are replete with reasoning errors. “If evidence of something was not found, it didn’t happen” isn’t necessarily true; for example, evidence may have existed but been obliterated in the crash. There are certainly more choices than human error or mechanical failure.

Many other portions portray the argument in “us versus them” terms with “them” being “the conspiracy buffs” and their discredited and illogical claims. One recurring argument is it doesn’t make sense that people like Monica Lewinsky were not killed. This is a misleading argument as well.

Here is another quote from the Snopes article:

At the same time as Willey was killing himself, his wife was allegedly being groped by Bill Clinton. She said she’d gone to the Chief Executive looking for a job to help her family out of its financial crisis and found herself fending off his advances. Clinton admitted to the meeting but denied her version of what took place. Kathleen Willey testified in Paula Jones’ sexual harrassment suit against Clinton, but she never claimed that Clinton had her husband killed.

We don’t see any mention of power differentials between Kathleen Willey and Bill Clinton here.

We know the Obama administration has already been killing the families of alleged terrorists. In drone strikes, often there is not an opportunity to target only a terrorist, but others in the proximity must be killed to (e.g., as dramatized in “Drone Queen,” the first episode of Season 4 of Homeland). Of course, Trump may have inferred specifically targeting terrorists’ families, but backed off later.

There was a comma between my statement on drone strikes and on policies that lead to starvation and impoverishment. There are more recent destabilizing policies and sanctions that led to these outcomes under Secretary Clinton, but I was citing the Iraq sanctions controversy under Secretary Albright, appointed by President Clinton, relating to Albright’s statements on 60 Minutes, and I alluded to his claims in his campaign that his wife would share presidential duties with him.

As to the convicted child molester who Public Defender Clinton represented, there is of course more to the story (e.g., Snopes, Slate). PD Clinton wanted to be removed from the case; she used victim-blaming tactics because they are effective on juries and because expert witnesses recommended it; the prosecution’s mishandling of evidence was their fault; etc. She was “just doing her job” much like defendants in the Nuremberg trials. In Kohlberg’s stages model of moral development, this argument is at the conventional level, in my opinion. Of course this was 40 years ago and we all make choices we don’t like, but there is always another option to doing one’s “duty” when it happens to be unethical.

I addressed the Clinton “body count” and Snopes article in separate comments. Yes, I would contend the doubts about people in the Clintons’ orbit who have reportedly died of suicide are still not “case closed,” particularly due to power differentials.

Many of Trump’s views on foreign policy have a history; e.g., his 1987 editorial.

Trump “University” shouldn’t have been calling itself a university, but misleading business practices happen among progressive corporations too. For extra credit for a psychology class, I subscribed to the New York Times as an undergraduate. When unsubscribing, representatives of the New York Times blatantly lied to me on multiple separate phone calls saying the billing would stop, and it continued, in one case, even after the newspapers stopped coming. I ended up having to ask my credit card issuer to block any future charges from the New York Times.

The “confirmation bias” you talk about is ironic because the media is an echo chamber for “liberals.” (I would not call them actual liberals since they do not represent the principles of liberalism.)

I disagree. The supporters of Trump who are against the protected groups you mentioned are not representative. Sure, they may feel empowered now, but they have always had their cliques, online echo chambers, and regions of the country where they cluster. About 60 million people voted for Clinton and about the same (233,404 fewer according to the New York Times as of this writing) voted for Trump, who won a technical victory due to electoral districting. Lumping 59.7 million voters together doesn’t help further the ideals of liberalism.

Remember, Secretary Clinton and the Democratic party platform didn’t evolve to support various LGBT rights until recently. It’s not like they were supporting gay marriage 15 years ago. Even Obama was only in favor of civil unions, not marriage, during his initial campaign. Of course these are all political statements designed to be broadly appealing to a population with a significant minority in opposition to these rights, but nevertheless, progress is still being made.

I don’t think we’ll become refugees, and I think we will bring more heavy industry and prosperity back to our country under Trump. Moving factories to other countries doesn’t stop climate change—CO2 is now above 400 ppm even in Antarctica. It goes everywhere. Factories built in America will probably be less polluting than those built elsewhere.

Thanks; I agree with a lot of what you said, [name removed].

People can say all they want about voting one way or another in a manner that takes others rights away, but gee, isn’t attacking someone for making a choice trying to take their rights away?

America has a long history of attacking people for making choices. For example, colonists would tar and feather tax collectors for their choice of collecting taxes for the British Empire. But I agree that attacking people for their choice succeeds in suppressing their voices, though some blame should be placed on those who allow their voices to be suppressed by attackers, in some cases. For example, I often do not stand up for my opinions (nor even cite contrary facts) in many cases because I don’t care to be attacked, or in some cases, because I don’t have the energy or don’t feel like engaging in a vigorous debate at the time. Further, many people haven’t yet developed strong debate, reasoning, or logical skills. Debating with them is often the same as squandering one’s time. With a growth mindset, one recognizes these skills can be developed over time—people are not of “inferior” innate potential just for lacking certain skills at this point in their lives.

I agree that being kind is important and is often the better choice. I agree also that pigeon-holing people into the categories of “bigots” or “progressives” is neither helpful nor accurate. In addition, however, I would say our time as humans is extremely limited (in the manner of Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech); it’s a shame to waste time on people who despise us based on political issues, and people who would cut contact with me (about 10 so far) were all just acquaintances I had no serious friendship with. Had they gotten to know me better, they probably would have found other reasons to dislike me.

It is outmoded in 2016 to criticize someone for linking to Wikipedia. The Wikipedia articles I linked to themselves link to ample sources in their References sections. I used sources like Snopes and Salon that are mainstream and typically considered biased by the alt-right to lend legitimacy to my arguments. Some of Trump’s statements are indefensible, but so are actions and statements of HRC and spouse.

Ending a discussion with variants of “not worth arguing with you anymore” is a sophomoric psychological device and that doesn’t work well on me, and really shouldn’t be used by highly educated people. However, I respect your viewpoints and I also feel we have reached the point of diminishing returns here.

The Search for a Threshold Concepts Instrument

Recently I’ve been learning about threshold concepts, which are portal-like concepts that may be troublesome to learn but represent an irreversible transformation once acquired. Learning to ride a bicycle is a great example. The crossing of a conceptual threshold might culminate quickly in an “ah-ha!” moment, or it might be drawn out over an extended period of liminality that is resolved gradually and perhaps not even consciously noticed.

Since deadlines are looming and I have assignments to complete, I’m searching for, ideally, a validated, quantitative (Likert-type scale) survey instrument to assess what respondents think qualifies as a threshold concept.

No such instrument seems to exist. Most research is simply qualitative, using interviews and many quotes from participants. The closest I could find to such an instrument is Manyiwa (2006), which doesn’t appear to have been validated, meaning, data collection and statistical verification has not been performed to determine whether it measures what it claims to measure.

I wrote the following email to Dr. Manyiwa seeing if he has any ideas for me. Most likely, I will just end up proposing an exploratory study (descriptive research) for the research prospectus in IDS 7501: Issues and Research in Education at University of Central Florida. I want to do the research on doctoral students at UCF. Research on doctoral students at UCF is not unheard of; for example, the coordinator for my Master’s program, Morgan McAfee, did her Master’s thesis in the same program, Applied Learning and Instruction, on attrition between Education Ed.D. and Education Ph.D. students at UCF.

Hello, Dr. Manyiwa,

I am exploring the literature on threshold concepts as applicable to research students in doctoral programs. While there are about 20 relevant articles, all of them focus on qualitative methods (interviews, open-ended questions, etc.). See my introductory concept map.

I started poking around for a quantitative measure (e.g., validated questions on a Likert-type scale), and found your article from 2006, “Threshold concepts in teaching and learning undergraduate marketing research.”

I was wondering how you came up with these questions? I’m a new Education Ph.D. student in the Instructional Technology track at University of Central Florida, and am writing a research prospectus for one of my first-semester courses. I think doing exploratory research on a variant of your questions tailored to a threshold concept relevant to doctoral students (e.g., writing a qualitative research report as identified by Humphrey & Simpson, 2012) might be useful, and I certainly find it interesting.

1. The  understanding  of  [concept]  is  very  important  for  gaining  new  insight  into the marketing research module (MKT2252)
2. I understand this concept very well
3. Previous knowledge is required to grasp this concept in the marketing research module (MKT2252)
4. The  knowledge  I  gained  prior  to  attending  this  module  prepared  me  for understanding this concept
5. On  the  face  of  it  (before  explanation  is  given),  this  concept seems  to  be counter-intuitive

I know the relevant source that advised your writing of the above questions was:

Davies, P and Mangan, J (2005), Recognising Threshold Concepts: an exploratory of different approaches. The European Association in Learning and Instruction Conference (AERLI) August 23-27 2005, Nicosia, Cyprus.

That paper does not have Likert-type questions and uses purely qualitative methods, though. It looks like threshold concepts are in need of a validated quantitative or mixed-methods questionnaire instrument.

I am familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets, where we have validated Likert-type questions such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it,” “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much,” and “You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence” (Dweck, 2000, p. 177).

I don’t see anything similar for threshold concepts, but perhaps they are too broad, or, at this point, still too emergent.

Thank you for reading and let me know if you have any input.

Richard Thripp, M.A., ACB, ALB
Education Ph.D., Instructional Technology Student
Graduate Teaching Assistant | University of Central Florida
Secretary | UCF Student Laureates of STEM Teaching & Learning
Treasurer & Imm. Past President | Port Orange Toastmasters

Give Yourself Every Possible Advantage

Giving myself every possible advantage (legal and ethical advantages only) is a personal principle that has emerged in my 20s.

In my graduate studies at UCF, I have so many advantages. I’m a native English speaker. My writing and math skills are superior. I am not burdened by children or a job. I happen to be blessed with excellent faculties and no learning challenges or disabilities. I can type as fast as you can speak. My skills in copy editing, writing prose, using APA style, and computing are exceptional. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant I have already been tasked with copy-editing grant proposals and manuscripts.

When preparing for the Education Ph.D. program over the summer, I listened to many hours of podcasts, watched numerous videos, and read hundreds of articles and blog posts about being a Ph.D. student.

I avoided transitions by going to the same institution and continuing to live with family. While this can also be a disadvantage, it cuts out a lot of work (e.g., paperwork), prevents me from having to establish new routines, and greatly reduces costs. I also don’t have to go home to visit family on the weekends, because I live with them (I am also advantaged by being an only child).

When I eat meals, I often load a video on YouTube, relevant to a problem I am facing in daily life, to watch while eating.

When driving, I listen to educational podcasts (currently Freakonomics and the Productivity Show).

Financially, I avoid high-interest debt. I buy or rent textbooks online, not from the campus bookstore. I avoid fees and seize opportunities such as promotional offers and incentives. I follow through and don’t miss deadlines, using tools such as text message alerts, Google Calendar, Google Tasks, and Gmail filters and tags.

At home, I have a fast PC with fast Internet and triple monitors, allowing me to minimize needless window switching and get more work done faster. I wouldn’t even attempt to do academic work on a dinky laptop with one monitor and the crappy built-in keyboard.

I leverage strategic procrastination to do things not too early, not too late, but at just the right time… if you do things early, often new information emerges later that nullifies part of your work. For example, professors have a habit of making assignments easier close to the deadline, in response to student inquiries or due to changes of heart. Doing work too early is counter-productive.

When I use dating apps such as Tinder and OK Cupid, I just click “like” on everyone and filter people out later, based on mutual likes. For men who are only moderately attractive, this is a great strategy that eliminates wasted time looking at profiles of women who wouldn’t even want to hear from us.

I enjoy staying up late and getting up around 11 a.m., so whenever possible I schedule classes and meetings in the afternoon. I even tell friends and associates that I am unavailable in mornings, because I know having to get up several hours earlier would diminish my productivity for the whole day.

I use tools including Evernote, G Suite, LastPass, BackBlaze, SyncBackFree, and a ScanSnap scanner to keep my digital files and workflows useful and organized.

When choosing topics for course assignments, Master’s Capstone projects, etc., I choose topics that are very interesting to me. This helps me maintain interest and motivation. I pick synergistic projects that build on my prior or concurrent works.

I organize references into EndNote X7 and am often searching this database to cite academic articles again in newer projects. I have nearly 500 references that I have read or skimmed in my EndNote database.

If I have a choice of professors, I check their ratings, biographies, syllabi if available, etc. I usually pick the professor who is “easier.” I’ll end up learning quite a bit either way, but having an easier professor is less stressful.

I went to public colleges and universities in my home state, rather than expensive and inferior private institutions.

I have a performance-approach goal orientation and am working on developing a growth mindset. My thoughts are probabilistic. I pander to rubrics. Rows of the rubric become Level 1 headings in my assignments. I read carefully. This is relevant even for professors. Grant proposals don’t get accepted if you disregard instructions. I know I can learn and improve with effort.

I use metacognitive strategies. I constantly question assumptions. What is important? Why? When experts say something “must” be done a certain way, I don’t take it at face value.

Giving yourself every possible advantage sounds unfair, but you are being unfair to yourself if you unnecessarily handicap your performance. When are you going to get serious? When are you going to take control? Your blind spots are my free lunch.

Writing on education, psychology, and philosophy