Jan HF Meyer

  • Assessing troublesome knowledge

    Jan HF Meyer (University of Durham) 
    Ray Land (University of Strathclyde)

    Research seminar

    Themes: assessment as learning, the student experience and learning

    Wednesday 3 September 2008, 09.00-10.00 in Penthouse Boardroom

    This paper considers the implications for assessment of the analytical framework of ‘threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge’ (Meyer and Land 2006). This framework points to the variation in progressive stages of a student's journey towards, through and beyond particular conceptual gateways. Such journeys involve passage through 'liminal' states of transformed understanding (Meyer and Land 2005).

    We have seen that knowledge can be troublesome for a variety of reasons.  It might be alien, inert, tacit, conceptually difficult, counter-intuitive, characterised by an inaccessible ‘underlying game’, or characterised by supercomplexity.  If, as we maintain, the troublesome transformations occasioned by threshold concepts are important, and require a rather different way of looking at the curriculum, then it follows that such transformations will require a more nuanced and generative model of assessment. This will help us identify variation in progress and understanding. at preliminal, liminal, postliminal and subliminal stages of conceptual and epistemological fluency (Meyer, Land and Davies 2007). The liminal state is the point at which many students 'get stuck' and modes of assessment which can identify sources of conceptual difficulty, at the point and time at which they are experienced, would seem to offer helpful forms of support to the learner. The paper argues, from analysis of empirical data gathered from UK-funded projects implementing the thresholds framework, that such reconsidered assessment practice offers important dimensions to identify at which points, and in what ways, individual students might experience conceptual difficulty and experience barriers to their understanding.

    Two issues concern us.  The first is how we construct a meaningful assessment process for students for whom, in many instances, what is to be assessed lies outside their prior knowledge and experience, or beyond their ontological horizon. The threshold concept has not fully ‘come into view’. The second is how might we get away from traditional assessment regimes in which a student can produce the ‘right’ answer while retaining fundamental misconceptions. Used as a set of analytical lenses, it will be argued that these new modes of variation present an insightful conceptual basis for developing new and creative methods of assessment and alternative ways of rendering learning (and conceptual difficulty) visible. This in turn can inform course (re)design in a generative and sustainable fashion.