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UBC Theses and Dissertations

An investigation of student learning using threshold concepts in a first year cell biology course Smith, Karen Margaret


There is a lack of understanding of how conceptually difficult content is processed by students in first year biology courses. Much of the research reports that threshold concepts can be applied in multi-disciplinary frameworks from the sciences to humanities (Lucas and Mladenovic, 2007). By drawing on Land and Meyer’s (2003) operational definition for threshold concepts, the purpose of this study is to investigate threshold concepts and their potential for high levels of student engagement in a first year cell biology course at the University of British Columbia. To investigate to what extent threshold concepts exist, student feedback with educators perspectives were examined for areas that represented threshold concepts and used to create a framework. Focus group interviews explored the student learning experience and evaluated if the course activities supported threshold concepts and provided a transformative learning experience. The transformative nature of concepts was related to levels of course engagement by administering a validated course engagement questionnaire to focus groups. The study showed there is some evidence of threshold concepts in cell biology, particularly in the areas of genetics and energy generation and focus group interviews corroborated these results. As three threshold concepts were chosen to examine in depth, discussions among focus group participants showed that students struggled with overcoming difficulties in understanding discursive language, linking concepts across the disciplines and distinguishing important concepts that are central to understanding biological processes. Two learning strategies that were found to be particularly useful in enhancing transformative learning were the use of in-class clicker questions and group investigation activities. However, students were assessed to be only moderately engaged in the content, relied on surface learning techniques for mastery and lacked the deeper learning processes that were necessary for a transformative learning experience. This study has implications for the role of instructional development to identify threshold concepts, help students in learning challenging material and achieve deep learning processes. Based on these results, threshold concepts can provide the foundation for examining conceptually difficult content within a first year cell biology course and a specific focus on threshold concepts can assist students in crossing conceptual boundaries.

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