Bottlenecks and Thresholds

Introducing a new group of students to your subject area or to your discipline is challenging business. There are tricky concepts that they have to master to move on; there are places where students regularly get stuck. More challenging still, the very fact that you’re an expert in the field may make it hard for you to identify the most significant hurdles.

Bottlenecks

Where do people get stuck in your classes? What are the concepts or skills that consistently seem to stymie students? You’re probably already noticing these bottleneck moments because they represent such a big challenge to learning. Maybe you even remember hitting this point when you were a student and having to work extra hard to learn what you needed to learn. You’re at an advantage if you do remember that experience, because it’ll help you build support into the course structure—helpful activities, demonstrations, conversations, and so on—to give your students what you needed when you were in their positions.

If you don’t remember getting stuck there yourself, that might just be because memory is uncooperative, or it might be because the bottleneck at hand didn’t cause you difficulties back when you encountered it. At moments like this—challenging moments in a course—it’s helpful to remember that your students are not necessarily just younger versions of yourself (i.e., with the same aptitudes and interests, and headed down the same career path). In fact, probably most of your students differ from you in significant ways. That means that, in teaching, you may discover bottlenecks in your material that you never noticed before, and you may have to provide support that you didn’t need.

The first step, as we learn from the Decoding the Disciplines initiative, pioneered by Indiana University pedagogical scholars David Pace and Joan Middendorf, is to identify the bottlenecks. This means getting specific and concrete about the places where students get stuck. As the Decoding the Disciplines site notes, “Students cannot interpret texts” is less helpful as a starting point than “Students forever want to go directly to interpreting a text without first getting a good grasp of a text’s content. They need to observe before they interpret, but they are constantly skipping a thoughtful observation stage. Skipping this stage leads to poor interpretations.”

What exactly are your students struggling to understand or do?

Once you’ve identified the issues, the next step is to set up your course in such a way as to get students through the bottlenecks successfully. As Pace and Middendorf note, there are two kinds of bottlenecks: cognitive (where the issue is one of comprehension or thinking) and emotional (where the issue involves negative emotional reactions and resistance to the material), and you’ll need to approach them differently.

  • If you’re facing a cognitive bottleneck, you’ll need to break the larger task down into all its various mental components, making them explicit and clear. For example, if the bottleneck is in a statistics class where students keep getting bad results because they’re using the wrong statistical tests, you might need to give them a set of questions to run through in order to choose a test (e.g., How many groups are there in this experiment? Are we interested in seeing differences or similarities?) and then you need to show them how to perform the chosen analysis correctly, step by step. Modeling by you is often very helpful, and students will also need opportunities to practice.
  • If the situation involves an emotional bottleneck—perhaps students find the material uncomfortable or unpleasant in some way—you’ll need to focus your efforts on motivation, helping students see (or even getting them to articulate) why this material and your approach to it might be important. You could also give them space to air their concerns, and you may even be moved to reconsider the way you’re handling that aspect of the class; students in distress have trouble learning.

Threshold Concepts

Sometimes, these bottlenecks represent “threshold concepts,” a term coined by Jan Meyer and Ray Land to describe ideas that are fundamental to progressing beyond elementary thinking in a discipline. As Meyer, Land, and Caroline Baillie write, “there are certain concepts, or certain learning experiences, which resemble passing through a portal, from which a new perspective opens up, allowing things formerly not perceived to come into view. This permits a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something, without which the learner cannot progress, and results in a reformulation of the learners’ frame of meaning.“

In your course there may be some challenging ideas or skills which students must master in order to succeed in the course but which aren’t gateways to a new way of thinking particular to your discipline; in other cases, students need to master more centrally important things, without which they couldn’t hope to communicate in the discipline. These threshold concepts can be troublesome, too.

Again, the first step is to identify the threshold concept, and this is another place where your expertise may be more hindrance than help. Many of us, no matter how much trouble we had with the threshold concepts when we first encountered them, have by now absorbed these concepts so completely that we rarely think of them. They have become assumptions, and of course assumptions tend to be invisible to the person who holds them. Doing this kind of identification may therefore require you to engage in the challenging exercise of putting yourself in the mindset of a beginner—and, again, not necessarily the kind of beginner you were (with your aptitudes and interests) when you were just getting started.

Some examples of disciplinary threshold concepts: the social construction of gender (Women’s and Gender Studies), Newton’s first law of motion (Physics), the rank scale concept (Languages/Linguistics), and the fact that an artistic creation is always in some relationship to artistic tradition (Fine Arts).

Ask yourself: What are the crucial habits of mind for someone in your field? How do historians (or biologists, economists, comparative literature scholars, sculptors, etc.) think? What are the essential tools they use? What ideas are widely understood and held in your discipline?

Once you’ve made these identifications, you proceed the same way you would with any bottlenecks: break them down into component parts that students have to master, and set the course up to help students gain that mastery, including opportunities to practice and some modeling on your part.

Additional Resources

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.