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How threshold concepts can transform distance education

In the era of digital education, the Student Retention Unit (SRU) at Unisa pioneers a transformative approach to overcome the challenges of open, distance and eLearning (ODeL) through the application of an educational framework known as Threshold Concepts (TCs). This innovative pedagogy promises not just to improve pass rates, but to revolutionise how students understand complex subjects like computing.

ODeL has changed access to education, enabling students from diverse backgrounds to study remotely. However, ODeL faces significant challenges, particularly in achieving high success rates compared to traditional educational settings. Unisa, the largest provider of distance education on the African continent, has continuously grappled with low graduation rates that mirror a global trend in distance education.

To find a remedy, the SRU has turned to TCs to tackle these challenges head-on. TCs are transformative concepts within disciplines that once understood, profoundly change the learner's view of the subject matter. They are often troublesome and counterintuitive, which makes them both a barrier and a gateway to deeper learning.

Computing, with its abstract theories and complex problem-solving requirements, is particularly challenging for students, especially in an ODeL environment where lecturer-student interaction is limited. The typical dropout and failure rates in such courses are alarmingly high, prompting educators to seek more effective ways to engage and educate students remotely.

TCs were first introduced by educational theorists Jan Meyer and Ray Land in 2003. They described these concepts as points within a learning process that are critical for progressing in understanding within a discipline. These concepts are as follows: 

  • Transformative: Learning a TC profoundly changes the student's perception of the subject.
  • Integrative: They expose the previously hidden interrelatedness of something.
  • Irreversible: Once understood, they cannot be "un-thought".
  • Troublesome: They are often conceptually difficult and counterintuitive.
  • Bounded: They are central to defining the boundaries of a subject discipline.

By focusing on these concepts, educators can potentially unlock deeper and more effective learning outcomes for students, particularly in complex fields like computing.

The SRU’s initiative involved a targeted application of TCs in an introductory module on the Python programming language. This subject was chosen due to its foundational importance in computing and its notorious difficulty for beginners. The study employed a quasi-experimental design where tutorial sessions focused intensively on TCs. These sessions were structured to encourage deep engagement with challenging concepts, supported by interactive and applied learning strategies.

The application of TCs demonstrated notable improvements in student outcomes. Statistical analysis revealed that students exposed to TC-focused pedagogies performed better in both formative and summative assessments compared to their peers in the control group. This was evident in higher exam scores and better overall course performance.

More importantly, students taught through TCs showed a faster and more profound understanding of critical computing concepts. The approach not only helped students grasp challenging materials but also encouraged a deeper, more integrative learning process that could have lasting impacts on their educational and professional trajectories.

Further details can be found in this recently published article.

Looking ahead, the SRU plans to set more experiments on the application of TCs to other subjects and larger, more diverse student groups. This expansion aims to validate the effectiveness of the approach across different academic disciplines and learning environments, potentially leading to a broader transformation in ODeL pedagogies.

* By Jaroslaw Adamiak, Student Success Practitioner, Student Retention Unit

Publish date: 2024/05/20

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