Do interventions using threshold concepts assist learning in Biology?

Louise H. Lutze-Mann, Anne M. Galea


The current interest in threshold concepts in the disciplines (Meyer & Land 2003, 2005) may provide a powerful heuristic for academics to help students to pass through conceptual gateways associated with previously inaccessible and possibly troublesome ways of thinking. Meyer and Land used three critical descriptors to identify threshold concepts, namely being transformative, irreversible and integrative experiences which are typified by cognitive and ontological shifts often accompanied by an extension of the student's use of language. Ross et al (2009), as part of an ALTC funded research project on Threshold Concepts in Biology, have developed a framework of discipline and threshold concepts which identifies a web of threshold concepts in biology, some of which are equivalent to epistemes.

Interventions were then designed, to test the threshold properties of one of these concepts, which we predicted would assist students to make the link between the submicroscopic and the macroscopic cellular world and their connections at various spatial scales. All students in an introductory molecular and cellular biology course, offered in their first year at university, were surveyed at the commencement of the course about their conceptual understanding of scale. Half this cohort was then given two different interventions relating to scale and the remainder were provided with material similar in format, but which only reinforced relevant curricular content. Students were then surveyed following these interventions to determine the effectiveness of the intervention.

Our results demonstrate the effectiveness of such an intervention in assessing whether once students cross one threshold, in a context such as cells and protein synthesis, they can subsequently transfer this way of thinking to aid in crossing thresholds in other contexts and other similarly difficult concepts in biology.

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