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.

Notice of Intent Not to Complete Financial Literacy Course

I’m not going to complete my online, self-paced, self-graded Introduction to American Personal Financial Literacy course, which is about two-thirds complete based on the March 2016 outline. I also won’t be completing nor publishing the Udemy draft course.

Originally, I intended to complete the course as part of my Capstone projects for my Applied Learning & Instruction M.A. at University of Central Florida in the spring 2016 semester. However, in March 2016, my professor was so impressed with my draft submission that she said I didn’t need to do any additional work to graduate. I intended to complete the course later, initially by April, then June, then August, and then December 2016, but did not actually take any action after the 2016-03-23 draft.

In the Education Ph.D., Instructional Technology program at University of Central Florida, I am learning about instructional systems design (ISD), which reveals that my approach to constructing the course was neither systematic nor aligned. While the literature reflects a need for a financial literacy course grounded in ISD and research on personal financial outcomes, given that I am rather competent and self-disciplined, building such a course obviously doesn’t intrinsically motivate me, because if it did, I would have been actively working on it over the past half-year.

My explicit decision to not complete the course comes late, but does not have to be framed as a failure. In fact, if I had announced up-front to myself and others, after contributing enough to complete my Master of Arts degree, that I had no intention of going any further with the project, the project’s situation would be identical now, sans procrastination and failure to keep my word. I feel relieved I am letting go of any personal pressures to complete the course, and this will serve as a learning experience for me to, in the future, not commit to things I have lost interest in or am not actually going to do.

Brief Thoughts on the Reasoning and Debate Skills of People Who Post Rants on Facebook

It is always amusing that people post illogical rants on Facebook and expect an echo chamber in the comments section while pretending to be unbiased. On the other hand, Facebook is so full of annoying and unoriginal memes with words pasted on images that I usually visit with News Feed Eradicator (Chrome add-on) enabled. However, when I engage the illogical ranter, I always lose an alleged friend who proceeds to make ad-hominem attacks without addressing any contentious issues, and concludes by telling me to “fuck off” while simultaneously claiming to have the moral high ground. I cannot help but wonder whether this audacious level of hypocrisy is a Central Florida phenomenon.

Facebook does not offer a way to disable comments on posts. If you want a way to post contradictory and illogical rants without dissent, I would suggest a personal website or a blog with comments disabled.

Early Explorations of Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process

I am two months into my Education Ph.D., Instructional Technology track at University of Central Florida. For one of my first-semester courses, IDS 7501: Issues and Research in Education, I’ve selected Meyer and Land’s threshold concept model as a research interest, as applied to doctoral students in Ph.D., Ed.D., or other research-oriented degree programs. Below is my early draft of the purpose of this investigation, a concept map, and an annotated bibliography of the existing literature. There are thousands of articles on threshold concepts (a term introduced by Meyer and Land in 2003), but I only found 23 so far that apply to doctoral student researchers. Most existing research is qualitative; I may seek to add a quantitative contribution to the field.

Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process: A Concept Map and
Annotated Bibliography Based on an Initial Literature Review
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida
October 20, 2016


This concept map and annotated bibliography helps guide exploration of how threshold concepts apply to doctoral students and candidates, with a primary focus on research doctorates such as the Ph.D. and Ed.D. Threshold concepts are skills that may be difficult to acquire, but their acquisition is transformative—much like learning to ride a bicycle. Potential threshold concepts for the doctoral student include tasks at the create level of Krathwohl’s (2002) revised Bloom’s taxonomy, such as designing a research study, writing a research report, and conducting a literature review. Frequently, these skills 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. The purpose of this paper is to gather and draw insights from the literature to guide the design of a research study that measures threshold concepts in doctoral students. Ultimately, this will contribute to our understanding of the doctoral process, and perhaps suggest practices and policies that scaffold threshold concepts for doctoral students and candidates, thus minimizing periods of uncertainty (liminality) in the doctoral process and reducing attrition, including the “all but dissertation” (ABD) phenomenon.

Keywords: threshold concepts, conceptual threshold, doctoral studies, scholarly research, Bloom’s taxonomy, higher education, higher-order thinking skills, cognitive strategies, doctoral attrition

Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process: A Concept Map and
Annotated Bibliography Based on an Initial Literature Review

Gaining a threshold concept is a transformative and somewhat dichotomous experience. Learning to ride a bicycle is a prime example, because one cannot generally go back to not knowing, nor acquire only part of this skill. In the doctoral student’s journey, he or she is expected to cross or have already crossed many thresholds—for example, the ability to effectively organize strands of evidence and weave them into a special type of written prose distinctive to academia (Kiley, 2009). While many professors and academic departments view this skill and others as prerequisites for the doctoral journey, closer examination reveals that many doctoral students lack—and struggle to acquire—these skills (Kiley, 2015; Johnson, 2015). Threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2005), augmented by Bloom’s taxonomy, may be a viable way to explain the struggles and triumphs of the doctoral journey, and to inform the practices of professors and other academic staff, particularly regarding their attitudes and approaches to instruction, supervision, and advisement of doctoral students and candidates who may spend long periods in limbo (dubbed doctoral liminality by Keefer, 2015). Bloom’s taxonomy—specifically, including Krathwohl’s (2002) revisions—is especially relevant to the doctoral process because its pinnacle, create, is specifically related to the ultimate purpose of the research doctorate: making a significant contribution to the research base. Although threshold concepts are supported by a large corpus of research, as of 2016, only a handful of researchers have examined them in a doctoral-studies context. Therefore, while threshold concepts may ultimately have explanatory power for why some doctoral students excel while others never complete their dissertations, this literature review and the resulting research prospectus will seek only to examine and extend the modest amount of research that has been done.

Concept Map

Concept Map for Threshold Concepts for Doctoral Students

Concept Map Hierarchy

Guided by: Krathwohl’s (2002) Overview of a Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy

I. Skills and Strategies

A. Information Literacy (Hofer, Townsend, & Brunetti, 2012; Townsend, Brunetti, & Hofer; 2011)
1. Writing Ability (Humphrey & Simpson, 2012; Johnson, 2015
2. Literature Reviews (Wisker, 2015; Wisker & Robinson; 2009

B. Research Skills (e.g., Rowe & Martin, 2014)
1. Understanding a Scientific Theory (Kiley, 2015)
2. Research Design (Exner, 2014)
a. Doctorateness (Trafford & Leshem, 2009)

II. Self-Beliefs and Epistemology (Meyer & Land, 2005)

A. Growth Mindset (Boyd, 2014)

B. Personal Conceptual Frameworks (Berman & Smith, 2015)

C. Meta-Awareness (Harlow & Peter, 2014)
1. Threshold Awareness by Students (Harlow & Peter, 2014; Kiley, 2009)

III. External Influencers

A. Doctoral Supervisory Practices (Johnson, 2014)
1. Liminality and the Doctoral Transition (Keefer, 2015; Kelly, Russell, & Wallace, 2012; Adorno, Cronley, & Smith, 2015)
2. Threshold Awareness by Supervisors (Kiley & Wisker, 2009)

B. Supervisory Attrition (Wisker & Robinson, 2013)
1. Conflicts and Lack of Involvement (Ismail, Majid, & Ismail, 2013)

Annotated Bibliography

Adorno, G., Cronley, C., & Smith, K. S. (2015). A different kind of animal: Liminal experiences of social work doctoral students. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52, 632–641.

Continue reading Early Explorations of Threshold Concepts and the Doctoral Process