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Thursday, July 4 • 2:15pm - 2:55pm
Specialization: An alternative language of description for threshold concepts

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Many academics are having conversations about improving pedagogy by focusing on transformative classroom engagements. One of these conversations involves unpacking difficult concepts in subjects that are traditionally known to be challenging to students entering professional practice programmes. The focus of this study is a ‘threshold concept’ in Radiation Physics, a specialised subject in the Bachelor of Science in Radiation Therapy programme. The research questions guiding this study were:

1. What are key threshold concepts in undergraduate Radiation Physics?
2. What are the challenges experienced by first year students in learning such concepts in Radiation Physics?

Threshold concepts are often described as ‘sticking points’ in a curriculum that students find difficult to master, but that are key for progressing within a discipline or field. All difficult concepts are often labelled as threshold concepts, however, these concepts cannot be identified based on subjective methods alone. Lecturers as subject experts and based on their experience play an important role when selecting and identifying threshold concepts. However, as Meyer and Land (2005) explain, it is not easy for lecturers to distinguish key concepts from threshold concepts – making even the identification of threshold concepts a threshold in itself! Wilson et al (2010) confirm that it is difficult to identify what in a particular concept makes it troublesome for learners. Rowbottom (2007) critiques and contests the threshold concept framework by claiming that thresholds are unidentifiable. A more recent argument by Chalasani (2010) is that “threshold concepts cannot be identified, but that concepts contained in people’s minds have thresholds”. In this study, we argue that Legitimation Code Theory’s (LCT) Specialization dimension (Maton 2014) is able to address these difficulties. The specialization plane has two continua on which threshold concepts, and the ‘troublesome’ nature of their acquisition, can be shown. The study proposes a translation device that offers a theorised description of the relative complexity of the threshold concept, as well as the different stages of its acquisition.

Cousin’s (2009) ‘transactional curriculum inquiry’ was used as a methodological approach that provides opportunities for students and subject experts to engage in extended dialogues to uncover why particular concepts might be troublesome, as well as how mastery of these concepts might be achieved. Transactional curriculum inquiry is an approach that involves a range of stakeholders in the identification of threshold concepts. The interdisciplinary (or transdisciplinary) discussions and reflections between students, academic and clinical staff offer ‘a more holistic representation of the complexity of knowledge, skills and practice within a curriculum’ (Barradell and Peseta 2016).

The research data comprised curriculum documents, as well interviews with first year students, the academic staff, and clinical educators teaching on the programme. Discourse and thematic analysis were used to identify potential threshold concepts in the first year curriculum. The focus of this paper is on one of the identified concepts, the isocentre.

Both student and staff participants confirmed that this concept was troublesome to teach and difficult to learn. The paper’s contribution to knowledge is that the intersection of multiple key concepts in disciplines such as Mathematics, Physics and Radiation Physics, dramatically strengthen the epistemic relations to create a threshold concept. The findings of this study have implications for university teachers in professional practice programmes with regard to identifying, and teaching threshold concepts in existing curricula, as well as extending knowledge of threshold concepts with LCT.

Thursday July 4, 2019 2:15pm - 2:55pm SAST
Room B46

Attendees (6)