Posts Tagged ‘learning’


This week I attended a webinar which focussed on silent learners. Thank you to Martina Emke for drawing this webinar to my attention. The title immediately resonated as recently I have found myself increasingly troubled by the constant noise of the online environment. This has been a growing awareness and I recognise it as a problem since I rely on the open web and my online network for the work I do as an independent education consultant and researcher. This has made me wonder to what extent open learning environments exclude those who find ‘noisy’ environments difficult.

The webinar was run as part of a Nordic Nordplus project, Silent learners – Is lurking working?,  investigating how silent or peripheral learners can be better understood even in courses where participation is the focus. It was organised by NVL Distans  (Nordic Network for Adult Education), EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU). (Source of information)

The webinar was very ably facilitated by Francisca Frenks, Alastair Creelman and Jan Willem Kemper  – more than ‘ably’ in fact. This was probably one of the best webinars I have attended (and over the years I have attended very many). It was extremely well structured and very interactive. I would like to spend a bit of time at the beginning of this post recording how it was run for future reference and as an example of good practice.  There were 72 people in the webinar – quite a big number to manage. Most participants were from Scandinavia, but some were from further afield.

These are the points that I think made it work so well.

  1. There were very good joining instructions and email reminders of the event.
  2. We were invited to log in half an hour early to check our connection. Microphones and videos were not enabled until the end of the webinar, but the opening screen invited us to interact by marking our location on the map and using the chat. Clear instructions were written on the screen and reiterated by the presenters.

The presenters were in the room with their microphones open and welcomed us both verbally and in the chat. Changing the layout of the screen by dragging and dropping boxes was either not enabled or is not a feature of Adobe Connect. If it had been I would have moved the chat to my second monitor – but it was not a problem. What I particularly liked about the whole webinar was that the presenters changed the layout of the screen according to the activities they had planned for us.

  1. After an introduction to the presenting team and the background to this webinar, interaction started almost immediately and we were asked ‘What brings you here? – a nice open, opening question. The chat box was enlarged to help us to follow it more easily.

  1. The focus of the webinar was then explained. Before the webinar we had been asked to watch Susan Cain’s well known video on introverts.
  1. We were told that when discussing silent learners in this webinar the focus would be on learners who are silent by nature rather than silent for other reasons.

  1. In particular the focus was on how silent leaners work in groups. Three questions were posed:
  • How do we recognise learners who are silent by nature?
  • What are their learning needs?
  • How can we empower the silent learner in the group context?

The focus for discussion was therefore made very clear.

  1. We were then asked the questions listed above and asked to respond to them in the chat, but before responding to each question Francisca interviewed Jan Willem, a self-professed ‘silent by nature learner’ about his experience in relation to the question.

  1. What was particularly effective was that we were asked to identify ourselves as a silent learner, a noisy learner, or something in between, by typing in a particular colour.

Finally we were asked to respond to some statements made by silent learners about their experience of group work. These had been collected from interviews conducted by Taru Kekkonen. How would we encourage the silent learners who made these statements to participate in groups? These were the statements:

‘It is simply easier to study independently at my own pace’.

‘I have no need to express myself loud among others’.

‘I hate spontaneous discussions because I don’t know what appropriate is to say’.

‘It is easier to join an online discussion, because the structure is more clear’.

All the questions and statements in the webinar promoted fast and furious typing in the chat box and although I have watched the recording it would take a while to go through it all and determine more fully how silent learners are perceived or perceive themselves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this webinar. The time flew by. Not only was it extremely well run, but also thought provoking.

The main thought I have come away with is to question whether it helps silent learners to focus on them in this way. Jan Willem felt it does, because he feels that there is not enough recognition of what silent learners can offer. For me the danger is that in doing this we may reinforce the view that somehow silent learners are a problem and that we need to solve this problem by enabling them, empowering them, to become a bit noisier. Personally, I don’t think that learners can be empowered by others. They empower themselves, although they can be supported in doing this.

In addition, I don’t believe that silent learners can be identified as a separate group, although they can, as we saw in the webinar, self-identify. Learners will be more or less silent/noisy as individuals and according to the context. Thinking of silent versus noisy is probably not helpful. There will be a spectrum of learners and perhaps diversity is best served by keeping groups as heterogeneous as possible and ensuring that multiple perspectives are always considered.

This webinar attracted a cross-section of silent and noisy learners and many in between and we were invited to identify ourselves as silent, noisy or in between learners. This showed that we were a diverse group, but the discussion focused on silent learners as a separate group. It would be interesting to go back through the chat and analyse whether silent learners are considered to be ‘a problem to be solved’ or whether they are considered to be necessary to a diverse community of learners, even though they are in the minority. Evidently only 20-25% of the population identify themselves as silent learners.

Thank you to Francisca, Alastair and Jan Willem for organizing this excellent and thought-provoking open webinar.

Update 18-03-17

For a more detailed account of the webinar see Alastair’s follow up blog post which also provides links to further information – https://silentlearnersblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/webinar-the-power-of-silent-learners-in-a-group-2/

Update 20-03-17

See also Lotte Christoff’s post – A Voice of a ‘Silent Learner’ – https://studyelearning.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/a-voice-of-a-silent-learner/  The post is written in Swedish, but translates well enough to follow the text.

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Once you start thinking in terms of metaphors for learning, you find them everywhere.

At the beginning of this year Mariana Funes, Frances Bell and I had a paper published about the use of the rhizome as a metaphor for learning. Our research findings were that this can be a problematic metaphor for learning, depending on how it is understood and interpreted.

Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

Then at the Networked Learning Conference in Lancaster last month, Caroline Haythornthwaite suggested that we need new metaphors for networked learning. She went through the many metaphors that are already used. I blogged about this at the time, but here is her presentation again from which these two images/slides below are taken.

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This week, or maybe it was last week, I noted on Twitter that Thomas Ryberg, one of the organisers of the Networked Learning Conference, used patchworking as a metaphor for learning in his PhD dissertation and Frances Bell has often written of knitting as a metaphor for learning and tweeted a link to her blog post. Donna Lanclos added to this discussion by tweeting a link to an article by Katie Collins who writes about needlecraft metaphors for academic writing. The Materiality of Research: Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive material metaphors in academic writing.

Also at the Networked Learning Conference, Sian Bayne asked us to think about learning in terms of space. Although she didn’t use the word metaphor, there were plenty of them in her keynote, smooth and striated space, fluid and fire space, code/space. I blogged about this at the time too. 

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I have recognised space as a metaphor for learning before, when I visited the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. At the time I felt we could learn a lot from how architects think about space.

This week Stephen Downes has used the metaphors of time and space to talk about how we might perceive changes in learning brought about by the internet, digital and connected learning.

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This was an interesting talk. Stephen pointed out that our education system is geared to linear, time-oriented, objectives and outcomes driven ways of thinking and learning. He suggested that space metaphors might be more appropriate for learning in a digital age, referring us to Carrie Paechter’s metaphors of space in educational theory and practice.

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The space metaphor aligns well with my own interest in emergent learning and viewing learning environments as being on a spectrum between prescribed and emergent learning.

I can also see connections to Nick Sousanis’ and Ian McGilchrist’s work.

In his book Unflattening Nick Sousanis warns against becoming stuck in the ‘flatlands’ and not being able to see the whole picture. In a recent post about this book I wrote:

The book is about the narrowness and flatness of our vision and thereby of our understanding of the world around us. It is a plea for seeing beyond the boundaries of our current frames of reference, beyond the limitations of text, beyond the borders of the ‘flatlands’. It is a plea to imagine otherwise, to find different perspectives and new ways of seeing.

Ironically this week Nick Sousanis reported that a library in France couldn’t categorise his book.

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This is another example of the dominance of linear thinking which want to fix ideas into ordered categories. Matthias Melcher has developed a think tool for overcoming this categorisation problem where an idea/object must be allocated to just one category. In his tool it is possible to assign an idea to multiple categories. He explains how it works in this video and I have described how I have used it in another blog post.

Ian McGilchrist is also concerned with the narrowness or in Sousanis’ terms ‘flatness’ of our thinking. He puts this down to attentional asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain and the dominance of the left hemisphere, which focuses attention, unlike the right hemisphere which sees the whole picture.

McGilchrist has also highlighted the importance of metaphor. In this article he is reported as arguing that

“…. metaphor is a primal facet of human thought, that it “is the only way of understanding anything.”

In August I will be attending a 4-day course  in which I am hoping to learn more about Ian McGilchrist’s views about the relationship between these different ways of thinking and the future of education. I know his next book will be about education and will have the Title – The Porcupine is a Monkey.  Like Stephen Downes, Caroline Haythornthwaite, Sian Bayne and Nick Sousanis, Ian McGilchrist writes about the need for new ways of thinking.

“My suggestion is that we need a whole new way of thinking about the nature of reality, one that understanding the way our brain works can help us achieve.” (McGilchrist, 2014, The Porcupine is a Monkey)

Thinking in terms of metaphors seems an interesting way forward.

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View towards the Mersey

View towards the Royal Liver Building and the Mersey from the 5th floor of the Redmonds Building, Liverpool John Moores University.

This week I have been privileged to hear Professor Ronald Barnett speak at Liverpool John Moores University, where he was the keynote speaker on the second day of their teaching and learning conference. The title of his talk was:

A University for Learning: considering the present and glimpsing the future.

The theme for the conference as a whole was ‘Locations for learning: where does the learning take place?’ so Ron Barnett started his keynote with the question ’What kind of spaces are we trying to open up for students – how much space?’ He told us that the university has been with us for 900 years or longer and will be with us for a very long time. Many of today’s students will be alive in the 22nd century. At the very least we should try to answer questions such as: What is student learning the 21st century? What is it to be a graduate in the 21st century? What might we hope for from our students? What might they want of themselves?

He pointed out that we live in a turbulent environment and that our students are learning in a turbulent age where the higher education mantras of knowledge, skills and employability are no longer adequate. Neither knowledge nor skills may be adequate for tomorrow and we know that there is no guarantee of employability. The world is changing and there is a world beyond work.

He told us that the only thing that is certain is uncertainty and that we don’t only have to think in terms of complexity, but of supercomplexity. In the Abstract for his book ‘Realizing the University in an Age of Supercomplexity’, this is discussed as follows:

The university is faced with supercomplexity, in which our very frames of understanding, action and self-identity are all continually challenged. In such a world, the university has explicitly to take on a dual role: firstly, of compounding supercomplexity, so making the world ever more challenging; and secondly, of enabling us to live effectively in this chaotic world. Internally, too, the university has to become a new kind of organization, adept at fulfilling this dual role. The university has to live by the uncertainty principle: it has to generate uncertainty, to help us live with uncertainty, and even to revel in our uncertainty.

It is interesting to note that this was written 15 years ago!

So in this world of ever increasing diversity, differentiation and complexity, is there anything that should bind us together? What aspects of Higher Education are universal across the globe? To answer this question he said we need to ‘reclaim’ the student as persons who can develop the capacity to benefit the world in wise ways. Higher Education should therefore be more than satisfying students as consumers or viewing them in terms of pound notes.

In this world of uncertainty and supercomplexity, Barnett suggested that learning is often ‘scary’, involving becoming more than you are, becoming other than you were. Knowledge and skills are not enough; they require engagement to become a human being of a certain kind. Individuals must continually give of themselves, must continually remake themselves. The curriculum is not as important as pedagogy, i.e. the student/teacher relationship. We need to open up pedagogical space for our students and search for spaces of possibility. We should support our students in developing the dispositions needed for a world of challenge. Dispositions of

  • A will to learn
  • A will to engage
  • A preparedness to listen
  • A preparedness to explore
  • A willingness to hold oneself open to experience
  • A determination to keep going forward

Barnett then suggested that these dispositions should bind us across institutions. These are the dispositions that would help students to develop the qualities required for a world of challenge, qualities that will enable them to become global citizens who will help to bring about a better world.

He also suggested that to do this we have to understand ourselves as human beings in relation to the world and for this we need an ‘ecological curriculum’ which promotes being in the world, sensitivity to its global/local, personal/professional, systems/persons interconnectedness, engagement in its sustainability and improvement, active empathy and caring for the world.

Ron Barnett spoke with a passion that it is not possible to convey in a blog post and it was this passion that made the keynote so effective and, judging by the tweets and the comments I overheard in the following coffee break, inspired so many in the audience.

At the end of the keynote a question raised was whether these ideas were ‘pie in the sky’. These were not the words of the questioner, but the words that Ron Barnett used in responding to the question. On reflection about the keynote, despite finding it the highlight of the conference and well worth travelling to Liverpool for, I am left with a sense that we were treated to a passionate exploration of a glimpse into the future of the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of Higher Education, but it’s the ‘how’ that remains open.

We were left with the question of how an ecological curriculum which contains spaces for critical self-reflection, spaces for engagement with self, society and the world, spaces for multidisciplinary demanding experiences, can be introduced into a 21st century Higher Education institution. How will these ideas impact on Higher Education? How will they be realised in practice?

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rhizo Screen_Shot_2013-09-17_at_8.51.41_PM

I have been uncertain about how to engage with this week’s topic Embracing Uncertainty – Week 3 of Dave Cormier’s Course on Rhizomatic Learning.

I have just listened to the Google unHangout recording and read all the posts relating to this week’s topic in Google +. I have been following the Twitter stream (#rhizo14), checking in on the Facebook group  and have tried to keep track of as many blog posts as possible (aggregated on Matthias Melcher’s blog , with comments scraped by Gordon Lockhart). I have also tried to come at this afresh and not be over-influenced by my prior experience.

It has struck me that one of the problems I have had is that the word ‘uncertainty’ means different things to different people and that in some respects we have been ‘talking past each other’.

Some are talking about uncertainty in relation to not knowing which path to follow or what is going to happen next, others in relation to teaching without having all the answers, and others in relation to the validity of knowledge and the question of what is truth?

For Dave – uncertainty means accepting that ‘not knowing is something we all share’ and lies at the heart of rhizomatic learning. Uncertainty is related to abundance of information. According to Dave, in the past ‘certainty’ was created through a scarcity of information. ‘We were supposed to get it all’. But now with so much information it is impossible for teachers to have all the answers. Teachers are now more uncertain, than in the past, about their ability to answer learners’ questions.

Uncertainty is also about not being able to predict what is going to happen in the future and therefore not being able to predict what we might learn. (This relates to my interest in emergent learning and environments that promote emergent learning.)

I can see that in some ways our pathways through life may not be as certain as they used to be, particularly in relation to employment. Nowadays, many people, if not most, will have a number of jobs during their career. There is no certainty that they will be able to stay in the same job or even in their own country throughout their working lives. And we know that in many aspects of society, change is coming at us much faster than it ever has in the past.

Jolly Roger said in the Google unHangout that ‘Uncertainty is not a big deal’ and John Glass in Google + writes ‘Uncertainty is a given, IMO. Or to put it another way, no one knows what is REALLY going on.” And Keith Hamon, thinking of the aboriginal nomads, reminded us that rhizomatic learning is not new.

So is life and/or knowledge any more uncertain now than it ever was? Is there a ‘big deal’ that we have to address in relation to uncertainty or not? Jolly Roger says not, but Dave seems to think there is, otherwise he wouldn’t have focussed a whole week of the course on this.

Life has always been unpredictable/uncertain – always will be. We never know what is round the corner or what life will throw at us. We can try to minimise the risks, but we can never be in ultimate control.

So being uncertain about where you are going is not the big deal. There are probably more paths now to choose from than in the past, but the future has never been 100% predictable.

Sharing ‘not knowing’ might be a bigger deal. Teachers of course have always known when they ‘don’t know’, but maybe the change is in sharing this with learners and encouraging learners to share their lack of knowing with each other. Of course it’s all a question of balance. Learners won’t appreciate a teacher who knows nothing.

Sarah Honeychurch asked in the UnHangout ‘Is all knowledge up for grabs?’ Has the nature of knowledge changed? I can see that this could/would create lots of uncertainty. Is this the really big deal in relation to uncertainty?

I don’t know the answers to any of the questions I have been raising, but my research suggests that its not helpful to think in terms of all or nothing, certainty or uncertainty, one path or multipath, sharing or not sharing etc. Better to think in terms of scale from less to more, i.e. less uncertainty to more uncertainty, less sharing to more sharing and so on. And then for any given context – and each context is unique – consider what balance is needed to support learning.

Like Karen Young  ‘I am not sure about the idea of embracing uncertainty’ – because for me it’s not yet clear what that means.

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FSLT13  has started this week, and today George Roberts, Marion Waite and Elizabeth Lovegrove  ran the first live session in Blackboard Collaborate (View the recorded session here) .

Officially this is the Orientation week, so this synchronous session was simply to explain how the course will run, to have a go at using BB Collaborate tools (see below) and to raise and answer questions.

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This First Steps course has a very ‘friendly’ and supportive feel to it. It is open, but not massive. Over 250 have signed up and 12 have signed up for accredited assessment. New this year is the involvement of 20 volunteer ‘expert’ participants – people who have considerable experience of teaching in HE or who participated in FSLT12 last year. Alec Couros and Lisa Lane, have called these people ‘mentors’ on their courses. Finding the word that accurately describes their role is a bit problematic, but in FSLT13 the expert participants have already been proving their worth, responding to blog and forum posts and encouraging engagement.

Whilst this is an orientation week, no time has been wasted in getting down to the nitty gritty, with George Roberts asking the question in the Week 0 Moodle Forum – ‘What is learning?’ This is a very weighty question. I remember that last year I referred to Stephen Downes’ statement that ‘to learn is to practice and reflect and to teach is to model and demonstrate’. Ever since I first read this I have liked it. It is very straight forward and emphasises the process of learning and teaching. Of course, learning can also be a product which is articulated in this infed.org website.

What I particularly like about this website page is the quote from Carl Rogers

I want to talk about learning. But not the lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff that is crammed in to the mind of the poor helpless individual tied into his seat by ironclad bonds  of conformity! I am talking about LEARNING – the insatiable curiosity that drives the adolescent boy to absorb everything he can see or hear or read about gasoline engines in order to improve the efficiency and speed of his ‘cruiser’. I am talking about the student who says, “I am discovering, drawing in from the outside, and making that which is drawn in a real part of me.” I am talking about any learning in which the experience of the learner progresses along this line: “No, no, that’s not what I want”; “Wait! This is closer to what I am interested in, what I need”; “Ah, here it is! Now I’m grasping and comprehending what I need and what I want to know!” Carl Rogers 1983: 18-19

This aligns completely with my belief that learning is not so much about what we know but about who we are. My thinking has been very much influenced by Etienne Wenger’s work on learning and identity. Ultimately, however we learn, it changes who we are. Through learning I learn about who I am and that knowledge influences everything I do. That’s what learning is all about for me.


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Discussions about our recently published paper, Footprints of Emergence,  continue, particularly with respect to the relationship between curriculum design intentions and the learner experience.

We have been discussing the paper with the CPsquare community, a group of academic colleagues from FH JOANNEUM, ZML-Innovative Learning Scenarios  and others. These discussions are ongoing and we share our current thinking on this wiki . Anyone who is interested in Footprints of Emergence is welcome to join.

The following points in our recent discussions have caught my attention:

Our experience (i.e. the authors of Footprints of Emergence) is that drawing a footprint from the design perspective and from the learner experience perspective can result in very different images for the same course. This raises the question of whether designer intentions and learner experience can be aligned.

If they can’t, then to what extent can the learner experience be validated by anyone other than the learner?

At this point I need to explain that the learner experience in terms of ‘identity’ development, is for me what learning is all about, but whether or not this can or should be ‘assessed’ is another question.

I can’t see that the curriculum/course/learning environment designer will ever be able to ‘control’ the learner experience, however prescribed the curriculum or however heavily assessed. So what then is the designer’s role?

A number of teachers talk and write about the need to first ‘create the space’ in which the learner can grow and develop their identities, and then facilitate learning within that space. If this is true and learners need ‘space’, why do we still see the design of heavily prescribed, content heavy courses? In addition, online learners seem to need and take/create more space than f2f learners, i.e. contemplative learning space. What does the need for ‘space’ mean for the design of blended learning, integrated online and f2f learning, and a prescribed curriculum?

Another point that keeps cropping up in discussion is the extent to which learners need to be pushed out of their ‘comfort zone’ to promote significant learning – possibly through providing a non-prescriptive, less structured learning environment. At what point does the learning environment become so chaotic and ‘unsafe’ that learning is compromised/jeopardized?

Should we expect learners bend to fit the curriculum/learning design or should the learning design bend to fit the learner? This is a difficult question if you don’t know who your learners are going to be, e.g. in MOOCs.

So finally, at what point is a mismatch between design intentions and learner experience constructive and at what point is it destructive and how might this affect emergent learning?

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This week Professor Glynis Cousin from Wolverhampton University spoke at Lancaster University about her long-standing interest and research into threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. She spoke for about 40 minutes, with no notes and no powerpoint.

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up 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. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time”
(Meyer and Land 2003)

Professor Cousin started by saying that there is no such thing as a threshold concept. A threshold concept is a heuristic device, not an objective thing; it is a work in progress. For her the most interesting aspects of threshold concepts are troublesome knowledge and liminality. Threshold concepts are not the same thing as ‘key concepts’.

Thinking about threshold concepts helps academics to recognize that they tend to ‘stuff’ the curriculum.  Many make the mistake of seeing the syllabus as a synonym for curriculum. In fact what is needed is to ‘shrink’ the curriculum, to move from coverage to uncoverage, to think about what is critical for students to learn, what is critical for mastery and to consider what will transform students’ learning, and discourage them from simply ‘mimicking’ understanding.

In doing this and in the spirit of ‘less is more’ and teaching for mastery of a concept, we need to consider what shifts we want students to make. For example if we want students of engineering to become engineers and if we want students of French to become French speakers, what is critical to this mastery?

Curriculum design which takes account of threshold concepts is not a spiral curriculum – it is more like an octopus, incorporating many ‘trigger’ materials –  materials that shape who you are. What interferes with design approaches are the students themselves. They often do not understand the rules of engagement of being a University or College student. They not only need to gain conceptual mastery, but also learn to be a student. So there is a lot of ‘noise’ going on as students find themselves in a state of liminality, oscillating betwixt and between mastery and troublesome knowledge. Learning is anxiety invested.

So the idea of threshold concepts in curriculum design, and their dependence on notions of liminality and troublesome knowledge, returns centrality to the teacher and brings the student closer to the teacher. Student-centredness does not mean ‘satisfying’ the student, it means getting the relationship between the student and the teacher right – establishing a gift relationship between student and teacher, rather than a service client relationship.

These were the ideas I noted down from Glynis Cousin’s talk. Many of the ideas resonate with  the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on designing for emergent learning (see Footprints of Emergence ) – but the centrality of the teacher is a bit of a departure and a challenge to recent thinking about how learners learn in networks and massive open online courses.


Cousin, G (2006) An Introduction to Threshold Concepts. Planet No.17

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003),Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising, in Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning – ten years on. Oxford: OCSLD.

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