How might we design learning situations that help students encounter dimensions of intellectual work that are “necessarily difficult,” in ways that are formative to students’ thinking, habits of mind, and even their identity?
One compelling challenge facing teachers of the first-year college experience is helping students encounter the difficult dimensions of subjects in ways that lead beyond short term memorization or acquisition of surface skills. How might we design learning situations that help students encounter dimensions of intellectual work that are “necessarily difficult,” in ways that are formative to students’ thinking, habits of mind, and even their identity? One way to approach the idea of difficulty is through threshold concepts, an approach to disciplinary thinking that proposes there are certain foundational ideas that serve as “gateways” to subjects that students must understand in order to progress in that field. These thresholds are more than just core concepts but often serve an integrative function within fields because they draw on the “hidden interrelatedness” of knowledge and otherwise serve to help “reorganize the subject landscape” or even in some cases the students’ sense of identity. We think that threshold concepts could enable faculty to think productively about intellectual development in integrative ways that can not only help focus students’ initial encounters with subjects (including writing), beginning in the first year, but also serve as productive places of return throughout the undergraduate career.
Electronic portfolios (ePortfolios) are a promising environment where students can make this return to difficult threshold concepts visible over time, especially if they are conceived as a pedagogical environment and not narrowly as an assessment tool. In this proposal we want to cultivate ePortfolios as a student-driven, course-supported space for tracking progress in learning through a broad range of artifacts, representing the processes of composition, through works-in-progress, drafts, reflection pieces, and finished work. Through this project we plan to develop the use of ePortfolios as a core strategy for building an institutional culture of evidence, but doing so by emphasizing the developmental and pedagogical uses of ePortfolios as a vehicle for student invention, exploration, intellectual growth, and expression of integrated identity.