6. Threshold Concepts and Student Learning Outcomes
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6 T h r e s h o l d C o nc e p t s a n d S t u d e n t L e a r n i n g Ou t c o m e s DOI: 10.7330/9780874219906.c006 Heidi Estrem One of the premises of this edited collection is that descriptions of writing matter, and matter deeply. Writing—for reasons articulated throughout this collection—is particularly vulnerable to uneven or problematic portrayals. In higher education, it has become common practice to characterize student learning about writing via identified learning outcomes that students are to meet by the end of a course or program; more recently, entire undergraduate degree experiences are described through an outcomes framework. For example, postsecondary educational reform efforts like the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education, America’s Promise (LEAP) Initiative structure the undergraduate degree experience around identified “essential learning outcomes,” one of which is “written and oral communication ” (“LEAP” 2013). Outcomes offer a way to articulate more clearly what shared values for learning might be and how courses support those values; further, they provide an entry point for meaningful assessment. As Jeremy Penn explains, educational outcomes, when employed within a university context and through extensive faculty and student engagement, can “exhibit learning and achievements that are unique to each of our institutions” and “[facilitate] a dialogue about what we expect students to learn in our institutions” (Penn 2011, 12). Working to describe what students should learn as undergraduates is, of course, a worthy goal. The challenge is to ensure writing development is depicted in meaningful ways. Generalized, outcomes-based depictions of student learning about writing hold two immediate challenges: (1) they locate evidence of learning at the end of key experiences—certainly one valuable place to begin understanding learning, but not the only place; and (2) they 90   Part 2 : Using Threshold Concepts often depict writing as only a skill (albeit an “intellectual” or at least “practical” one) (AAC&U 2013). While outcomes-based depictions hold a certain kind of currency and explanatory power in educational reform efforts and will likely continue to do so, a threshold concepts approach provides a differently meaningful framework for intervening in commonplace understandings about writing. Threshold concepts offer a mechanism for faculty to articulate the content of their courses, identify student learning throughout the course experience, and create shared values for writing in a way that a focus on end products—on outcomes—cannot. This chapter thus explores the implications of using a thresholdconcepts approach to articulate shared understandings of student learning about writing. It does so in the interest of speaking back to an outcomes-based framework for undergraduate education. I first briefly examine some of the challenges that outcomes-based depictions of student learning raise, particularly when they are used to describe writing development. Then, to ground an exploration of how threshold concepts for writing might offer different possibilities for depicting undergraduate student learning, I examine a particular location where shared, university-wide student learning outcomes for writing have been newly ascribed to particular courses through a restructuring of undergraduate education at Boise State University. Specifically, I draw on interviews with faculty who teach what are called communication in the disciplines courses here, courses housed in departments, taught by departmental faculty, and also now linked to a new, university-wide Writing Undergraduate Learning Outcome. The interview data contribute to the broader case that threshold concepts might provide a generative lens through which to both understand student learning about writing and to begin developing a shared knowledge base of learning about writing that spans disciplines and contexts, thus enriching outcomes-based depictions of student learning. Mapping Stud ent Learn ing Vi a Outc omes: New Possibili ti es, N e w Ch all e ng es Before describing the potential a threshold concepts approach offers (particularly for writing instruction), it is worth briefly considering the powerful frame outcomes-based education has become within higher education. In addition to being employed for campus-wide, undergraduate-degree reform efforts, outcomes-based frameworks are increasingly encouraged, if not required, by disciplinary accreditation Threshold Concepts & Student Learning Outcomes   91 bodies and other external stakeholders, who see outcomes as a way to understand and assess student learning across courses. Reformbased initiatives like AAC&U’s LEAP project use outcomes to create “a guiding vision and national benchmarks for college student learning ” (AAC&U 2013), for instance. Regional accreditation bodies like the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU) require each...

Subject Headings

  • English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching.
  • Creative writing -- Study and teaching.
  • Academic writing -- Study and teaching.
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