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Reflection on “Teaching the Art of Academic Dialogue: A Discussion on Threshold Concepts”

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by Sara Samuel

One of the things I struggle with the most when I am invited to give an instruction session is what to focus on during the limited time I have with the students. I assume (correctly or not) that this may be the only time that a student will have contact with a librarian, the students have never been educated on anything related to information literacy, and that this is my only change to convey the importance of understanding how to retrieve and evaluate information. Obviously these assumptions could easily be incorrect, however they are why I appreciated watching the recording of ACRL IS Midwinter 2014 Virtual Current Issues Discussion Forum: “Teaching the Art of Academic Dialogue: A Discussion on Threshold Concepts” presented by Kate Langan.

I hadn’t heard of threshold concepts before, and following my viewing of the recording, I was prompted to see if I could find more information about the concepts. I ended up finding a paper that Kate mentioned in her presentation, and the following part of the paper’s introduction especially resonated with me (as the authors predicted!):

Ursula Lucas and Rosina Mladenovic observe that students in mandatory accounting courses that employed threshold concepts were better able to see the “why” of this discipline, and “see well beyond their initial preconceptions and take on a new world view.” This is especially resonant for information literacy instructors who, like accounting professors, frequently teach students who see no clear need for information literacy instruction and are not likely to progress beyond these preconceptions if the focus is solely on the tools and procedures of information use.

Townsend, L. & Brunetti, K. & Hofer, A. R.(2011). Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy. portal: Libraries and the Academy 11(3), 853-869. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved February 5, 2014, from Project MUSE database.

That’s it! Every time I give an instruction session, I end up teaching “which tools” and “where to click” when what I really want to teach students is the WHYs of information literacy. I understand that there is a time and place for teaching the tools, but teaching the whys of information literacy to our students is equally, if not more, important. I think the concepts discussed in this webinar have provided a way for me to reconsider how I teach something and consider when I can integrate information literacy.

Before I move on, it would probably help if I defined “threshold concepts.” According to Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer, threshold concepts are the core ideas and processes that define the ways of thinking and practicing for a discipline. They are transformational, unforgettable, irreversible, liminal, troublesome, integrative, and bounded by discipline. Kate gave the examples that Helen Keller couldn’t learn anything until she understood the concept of language, and astronomy couldn’t continue to move forward until it was understood that the earth revolved around the sun.

In her presentation, Kate brings up several ideas that will help me reconsider how I’m teaching students:

  • We are attached to the idea that students need to perform or produce something (artifacts) to prove that they learned something, but it’s possible a student may have transformed their thinking which won’t always show through an assessment like that.
  • One possible measurement of learning is to determine how comfortable students are with taking risks – putting themselves out there and taking a chance at doing something that might fail. We need to provide the space and opportunities for students to take risks, which should be infused with a sense of play so students are more willing to take those risks. Kate says “Play celebrates process and isn’t bound by success or failure. In higher education we tend to think more about success & failure and it’s limiting.”
  • In high school, many students are asked to find and repeat answers, but at the university level they are asked to produce knowledge and give voice to that knowledge (either to critically assess accepted knowledge or to produce new knowledge). This is a foreign and new process to most students and we need to understand that.
  • Academic dialogue empowers readers to find their own solutions. We should encourage and teach students to challenge writers as they are reading. Participating in academic dialog also helps students figure out who they are and find their voice by discussing with peers, asserting their opinion and defending it, writing a blog post for the public to read. Kate states “As teachers, we need to provide a safe environment free of bias where students can explore truths, try out their voice, and be supportive/redirect them when/if they fail.”

So what does all of this mean for us here at UM Library? I think it means a few things:

  1. Let’s re-think how we frame our instruction and the vocabulary we use – both in the classroom and during one-on-one consultations. I like the terms that Kate used:
    • Getting unstuck: We need to assure students that it’s likely they will get stuck at some point and give them options for getting unstuck – contact a librarian, visit the library, or use our Ask a Librarian service. This seems more empowering than simply saying “If you need help, come to the library!” How does a student know they need help? By saying that they should come to the library when they are stuck, it gives students a way to identify when they actually need help.
    • Finding a voice: Rather than tell students to figure out a thesis statement for their paper, ask them: What’s your truth? What do you want your reader to find out? Simply framing the idea of a thesis statement in a way that students can understand and relate to can help them develop a stronger voice.
    • Being faithful to/honoring your truth: This is especially relevant for library instruction and the idea of evaluating sources. We need students to want to make sure their ideas are supported by good information, and students themselves have a desire to be trusted. Will a reader trust you if you’re using bad resources? Students can ask themselves: Can you trust this information? If you cite bad information, are you responsible for perpetuating ignorance?
  2. Should we re-think our current method of assessment? Are we interested in determining if students can use the new database they just learned about, or do we want to know if students have grasped the importance of information literacy? There are times when all we want students to know is how to use a particular database, but I think that every time we interact with students, we should try to incorporate the idea that information literacy is important and it will serve you through your entire life.
  3. How do we support students with taking risks? Are we incorporating a sense of play into our instruction sessions or into our library space? The library should be a place that is risk-free and full of opportunities for students to explore the process of learning something, without the end result of either success or failure. Can we create more opportunities outside the classroom for students to experience learning something or are we already doing so?

I know I still have a long way to go, especially since I do not have formal training in instruction, but I appreciate having these ideas to consider when I’m planning for my next instruction session.

Do you have any ideas on how we can assess students on their understanding of information literacy? Do you have any ideas on how the library can provide more opportunities for safe risk taking? I appreciate your comments and thoughts!


Written by Instructor College

February 26, 2014 at 4:37 pm

Active Learning Panel

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Instructor College hosted an Active Learning Panel on May 24, 2013. Thirty librarians attended and heard from five colleagues, each of whom demonstrated an active learning exercise used in instruction.

Steve Lonn presented VoiceThread. VoiceThread is an online presentation tool that is unique because of the multiple options for audience members to add public comments. Students can type text comments, record audio and/or video comments, and also draw on slides to annotate them.

For some classes Steve teaches, he preloads slides into a VoiceThread presentation. Some of the slides prompt students to reflect about their own practice. In the end, the presentation is one part Steve’s original content and many parts student contribution.

During Steve’s presentation, we were encouraged to one-click register with VoiceThread, then experiment with commenting on a sample VoiceThread. We then discussed some ways librarians might use VoiceThread, perhaps during instruction, or maybe as a pre- or post-instruction activity.

Our second presenter was Mark MacEachern, who talked about Clinical Case instruction for medical students. Health Science instruction mimics the real-life environment, where clinicians will be faced with medical questions and will need to use the library resources to find answers.

In these clinical cases, the Librarian instructors present students with questions based on real medical cases. The Librarians then suggest resources that the students will find useful. Students then search for information that they can use to diagnose the health problem and suggest a treatment.

Librarians co-teach with medical school faculty, who comment on the results reported by the students. Librarians then highlight the strengths of the various resources.

Following Mark’s presentation, Catherine Morse presented on an exercise that she uses in a UC 370 class. Catherine begins this exercise by talking about how difficult data are to find. She also talks about users of data need to understand the data, and how research methods influence the data that come from studies.

To illustrate, Catherine gives her students an exercise where they find census data from their hometowns. By looking at how the data are reported through the years, Catherine is able to open a discussion of how census forms have evolved over time, and how the changes to how questions have changed how data on populations are reported.

Amanda Peters followed Catherine’s presentation with a demonstration of a Database Searching exercise use with undergraduate students. This exercise gives groups of students assigned databases and questions to search in them.

After students have had time to work with the databases, they report out to the larger group on what they’ve found: The types of articles indexed, whether full textis available in the database, and what options for citing are available. As students report out, Amanda comments on their search strategies and on strengths and weaknesses of the different databases.

With this exercise, Amanda finds that students immediately apply the skills that they learn in the early part of the instruction session, and they also learn from their peers.

Susan Turkel gave the final presentation. Susan presented a quality exercise that she uses in Psychology instruction. Students work together in pairs to answer the question, “How do you figure out which search results are good?” – or which are the higher quality search results that instructors will want to see cited in papers.

As students report out to the larger group, Susan discusses their results with them and fills in the blanks. In a final part of the exercise, Susan passes out lists of references for students to review. She asks them to make notes about the pros and cons of the various references and whether students would use these references for their papers or not.

A heartfelt Thank You to all presenters! Materials can be accessed at MBox:

Written by Instructor College

June 13, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Instructor College End-of-Semester Instruction Event

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Image Courtesy of MLibrary at

Image Courtesy of MLibrary at

On December 17, 2012, the Instructor College hosted a program in which University of Michigan library instructors could reflect on the past semester. The Instructor College Steering Committee (ICSC) also reported on the activities that it coordinated over the last semester. Fifteen library instructors attended.

Fall 2012 Instructor College Steering Report

The ICSC conducted a survey of its members to determine its priorities over the 2012/2013 academic year. The committee will be working on a program similar to a reading group, a method for library instructors to formally discover ideas about a specific topic over time. The ICSC also hosted a new instructor luncheon with 3 new librarians to discuss the purpose of the Instructor College and how these new instructors could get help with teaching. A committee member met separately with another new librarian about these same topics. Finally, the ICSC could not report on the future of the Michigan Instruction Exchange but have been working to continue this program.

Fall 2012 Reflection Activities

Getting To Know You …

The event included a formal mixing activity.  Library instructors were given an index card with one of the following questions on it.

  • What are some of the ways you’ve worked with faculty this semester to integrate the library into their courses?
  • What do you see as the biggest instructional need of your target audience this semester?
  • How do you see library instruction changing in the next two years?
  • What is your favorite instruction “trick” (strategy, exercise, example, etc.), and why?
  • How do you develop rapport with students?
  • How do you start your instruction session in a way that acknowledges the students’ prior knowledge but also shows them that they need to learn more?

Librarians then found partners and asked each other the questions on their cards. After they finished answering the questions, they exchanged cards to get a new question and then found a new partner. After the activity, the whole group discussed some of the ideas that came out of this process. These thoughts included

  • Making connections with students prior to the session is important for a successful class.
  • Any “flipping” idea, including requiring one-on-one sessions with the librarian or the assignment of an instruction video prior to class, is more successful if the student can receive course credit.
  • Some librarians thought that the physical classroom setting did not always have an impact. Others had strong preferences for specific spaces and equipment. Most of all, flexibility from the librarians, students and faculty members were key in this area.
Fall 2012 Plus/Wish Activity

In the third part of the program, attendees chose small groups and then wrote down what worked well in their instruction and what they wished they would have done throughout the semester. They shared these reflections with the small group and then with the entire group. Some of their thoughts included

  • Sometimes there is miscommunication about the types of students that you will be teaching. You have to get over that as soon as possible and adapt your lesson quickly.
  • Many library instructors wished they could do more pre-assessment.
  • The complexity of information literacy makes one shot teaching difficult to complete comprehensively. Everything is so contextual it is hard to convey this complexity because each information need is different.
  • An instructor used Poll Everywhere successfully this semester.

Written by Instructor College

December 21, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Introducing the 2012/2013 Instructor College Steering Committee

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We would like to introduce to you the members of the 2012/2013 Instructor College Steering Committee

 Paul Grochowski

Paul Grochowski

I’m pleased to serve with the Instructor College Steering Committee. In my seven years of library instruction, I’ve found Instructor College events and initiatives like Lesson Study to be great opportunities to learn from and share with my colleagues. I hope to add to this year’s programming from my perspective of library instruction in the College of Engineering.

Ellen Wilson

Ellen Mueller

As a recent newcomer to the library, engaging in the many ways librarians reach out to our community is something I hope to learn from. An integral part of successful instruction is the resources our librarians source to broaden their skills and further strengthen their professional growth. Along with my colleagues in the Instructor College, I look forward to developing programs and creating resources to promote their instructional abilities.

Angie Oehrli

Angie Oehrli, Chair

As a former high school and middle school social studies/English teacher, I am really interested in the instructional efforts here at UM. I think it’s really important that we educate students to be information-literate citizens. I look forward to working with librarians during the coming year in the Instructor College.


Diana Perpich

I am honored to be a member of the Instructor College Steering Committee. I look forward to working with a group of colleagues that is as curious and passionate about best practices in the art of instruction as they are about the sciences of collection management, key-word searching, circulation services, etc.. Some of my favorite classroom moments are the ones when instructor becomes student and I learn something — usually from a student– about whatever I’m teaching or, better yet, about myself.

I also very much enjoy the epiphany moments when lightning strikes and the power of possibilities lights up someone’s face.

Whitney Townsend

Whitney Townsend

I am excited to return to the Instructor College Steering Committee this year. In my position as a liaison services librarian at the Taubman Health Sciences Library I share primary instruction responsibilities in medical education as well as teaching sessions for my assigned departments in the Health System. I am looking forward to sharing my experience and excitement for teaching with this year’s Instructor College!


Jungwon Yang

In July 2012, I joined University of Michigan Library as International Government Information and Public Policy Librarian. I am interested in developing instruction resources and strategies which will help library instructors to effectively interact with various types of students and researchers. I believe that working on the Instructor College Steering Committee will be a great chance to learn about library instruction.

We look forward to crafting meaningful programs and services to support instructors in the UM Libraries. Please feel free to share your ideas here on the blog or contact us.

Written by Instructor College

September 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm