Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research
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Illuminating the nature of threshold concepts and their use in engineering education

Research Team: Ann Harlow, Mira Peter, Jonathan Scott and Bronwen Cowie

Project Dates: 2010 - 2011

Partnerships: Faculty of Science & Engineering

During 2010 the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research (WMIER) undertook a small research project that looked into the teaching and learning in a first year electronic engineering course (ENEL 111) at The University of Waikato.

Electronic Engineering educators have long observed that students find the course challenging. Threshold concept theory offers one explanation of why this is so. It states that some concepts are both troublesome and transformative—these are the concepts where students tend to ‘get stuck’ but once they have mastered them their understanding of the discipline is transformed.

WMIER researchers collaborated with the electronics engineering lecturer to identify the threshold concepts in his course. Consequently the lecturer revised his teaching approach to help students learn more effectively. The researchers worked with the lecturer to monitor student experience of the revised programme. Data were collected using videos of lectures, student surveys, and lecturer and student interviews.

Findings highlighted that students found articulation of knowledge and reflection on learning the most difficult thing to do. The study has drawn attention to the places where teaching could be developed further to help learners enter into and pass through the liminal space with more confidence. At the same time the study raises issues around timing of assessments as a measure of conceptual development or the crossing of knowledge thresholds.

In 2011, there was a much larger intake of students in the second year analogue electronics course than usual, so the project has been extended, as we investigate the reasons why those students returned to study analogue electronics for a second year. We are looking to see if a teaching focus on threshold concepts made a difference to retention?

Project outputs

Harlow, A., Scott, J., Peter, M., & Cowie, B. (in press). 'Getting stuck' in analogue electronics: Threshold concepts as an explanatory model. European Journal of Engineering Education.

Scott, J., Harlow, A., Peter, M., & Cowie, B. (2010). Threshold concepts and introductory electronics. Proceedings of the 2010 Australasian Association for Engineering Education Conference, The University of Sydney, NSW, Australia.

Scott, J., Harlow, A., & Peter, M. (2010). Impact of running first year and final year electronics laboratory classes in parallel. Proceedings of the 2010 Australasian Association for Engineering Education Conference, The University of Sydney, NSW, Australia.

Scott, J., Harlow, A., Peter, M., & Cowie, B. (2010). Exploring threshold concepts in electronics engineering. Presentated at the Third Biennial Threshold Concepts Symposium: Exploring Transformative Dimensions of Threshold Concepts, The University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney, Australia.

Making headlines

Crossing the threshold
Education Review - June 2014
Article on threshold learning with Professor Jonathan Scott featuring the WMIER projects on threshold concepts.

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