Miami University writing center discusses engaging learners

Photo Credit | Brooke Elward

Elizabeth Wardle, the director of the Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University, spoke at SVSU about engaging learners in the classroom.

Her Thursday, Oct. 24, lecture discussed moving students through liminal spaces and defining threshold concepts.

“Threshold concepts are about deep learning, which is what I think school is supposed to be,” Wardle said. “A key concept is a definitional term, just something you have to know. Your life is not transformed.”

Wardle said threshold concepts are often difficult since they transform a student’s way of thinking.

“Key concepts are building blocks, whereas threshold concepts are difficult and transform your thinking and your actions,” she said.

Wardle said that college faculty often know their threshold concepts so well that, when students do not understand them, a disconnect occurs.

“Students are struggling, and faculty are thinking, ‘This is so easy and so obvious,’” Wardle said. “This is why it’s so important that (faculty) set and define threshold concepts for our students.”

Wardle said teaching threshold concepts is about more than just memorization.

“When you’re teaching threshold concepts, students just can’t memorize things,” she said. “It’s about understanding what people in the field are doing and why.”

Wardle added teachers must be willing to help students through the hardest parts of learning, which she said occurs in liminal learning spaces. In this space, students know what the threshold concepts for a subject are, but they do not fully understand them yet.

“When you are in the liminal space or students seem to not understand things, threshold concept theory reminds us that there’s a lot of reasons why,” she said. “It might be interfering with their sense of who they want to be. It might be hard conceptually. There’s a lot of reasons why people have trouble in liminality.”

Wardle said a lack of connection between classes may also be partially at fault.

“One challenge is that every class is an island,” she said. “How we help faculty connect coursework without impeding their freedom to teach is hard.”

Wardle said educators can help students move through liminal spaces by informing them of their threshold concepts.

“In terms of what we can actually do, we can tell students what the threshold concepts are,” Wardle said. “Say, ‘Here are the underlying things we want you to think about. Here’s how this idea relates to things you’ve done in other classes.’ We can give students time and space to make those connections.”

Wardle said students should have the freedom to take risks and learn.

“We have to think about our grading practices and how to make it safe for students to take those risks,” she said.

Alison Hagen, a professional and technical writing junior, said she understood liminal spaces because of her past experiences.

“I live in liminal spaces literally all the time,” she said. “This reminded me of my first-semester philosophy class, where we talked about pre-destination, and a lot people really hate that because they want control over their lives. So, it relates so much to what I’ve covered in so many of my classes.”

Emily Siemens, professional and technical writing junior, also said she has been in a liminal space.

“I found the whole concept of liminal spaces really interesting because I’ve been in that,” she said. “To know that it’s a real thing and have a word for it almost makes it less scary. I feel like I am not alone now.”

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