The OU centre for STEM pedagogy
In summary, this project aimed to create shared understandings of disciplinary misconceptions (Tricky Topics) in particular modules, and to create new ways of overcoming those misconceptions.
Threshold concepts – referred to here as ‘Tricky Topics’ – are key conceptual problems that students face, which act as barriers to learning. They may arise from incomplete pre-knowledge, gaps in essential concepts, issues with terminology, or existing intuitive beliefs.
A Tricky Topics process was developed from the EU-funded Juxtalearn project and has been successfully implemented in contexts such as secondary education and with the UK police, a process that includes face-to-face workshops.
We aimed to combine learning networks doctoral research with a Tricky Topics pilot in three OU modules (S215, MST124 and H800), as part of a funded eSTEeM project. The learning networks (a type of discussion forum) were used to prime online conversations amongst geographically-separated Associate Lecturers (ALs) before a Tricky Topics workshop, held either online or face-to-face.
The workshops lead to the identification and prioritising of key Tricky Topics by the module team and ALs. The module teams were asked to consider putting in place new interventions into their modules to address one or more of these Tricky Topics. This was underpinned by the ambition to help students increase their understanding and lead to higher student success rates/satisfaction and progression.
Results of the project are mixed, with very positive results from one particular module (S215), and more ambiguous results from the other two modules (MST124 and H800). However, the process itself has been evaluated and shown to produce excellent outcomes, when key elements are in place. The most critical of these we have identified, is the engagement, or buy-in of the module chair(s) and also the ALs; however this is heavily related to, and dependent upon, available time in which to put in place any subsequent interventions.