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The ACRL Information Literacy Framework and Assessing Threshold Concepts

September 26, 2015
View of bride and groom walking on snow--Legs only

I have a crush.

Since I have been engaging more with the 2015 ACRL Information Literacy Framework during the last few months, I have become enamored with the idea of “threshold concepts.” When I think of the word “threshold” I can’t help but conjure a mental image of a newlywed carrying a new life partner over a stoop or through a doorway to embark on their life together as a couple. Once the twosome crosses that plane, their intention is to go onward together with little thought of turning back or changing course, at least at that rapturous moment.

On a more serious note, ACRL’s “Introduction to the Framework” uses an explanation by Meyer, Land, and Baillie (2010) to describe what is meant by a threshold concept:

Threshold concepts are core or foundational concepts that, once grasped by
the learner, create new perspectives and ways of understanding a discipline
or challenging knowledge domain. Such concepts produce transformation within
the learner; without them, the learner does not acquire expertise in that field of
knowledge. Threshold concepts can be thought of as portals through which the
learner must pass to develop new perspectives and wider understanding.
(Meyer, Land, & Baillie as cited in ACRL, 2015, Introduction, Note 3)

Applying the more formal definition of a “threshold concept,” the newlyweds metaphor still works. Who, when united with one’s beloved, doesn’t hope to begin a shared, and thereby transformed, life experience together? In this unification, differing perspectives are likely to become more apparent, and ideally, respected, to create a greater understanding not just between the partners themselves, but of human relationships overall. Students who engage intentionally with information and its sources progress through the thresholds of the Framework and ultimately emerge as empowered participants in the larger world of scholarship.

The ACRL Framework’s statement is both powerful and challenging, just as beginning a new, shared relationship as a couple can be both wondrous and demanding. One particularly challenging aspect of utilizing the Framework and respecting the threshold concepts lies in assessment. How will we as librarians know whether or not students have traversed the identified thresholds into new levels of understanding? How can we determine if students will maintain intimate relationships with information and information sources beyond more of a “one-night stand” or “rush-to-the altar” demonstration of discrete skills? Yes, perhaps the students know they can search library databases for scholarly articles; they know how to critically evaluate information they find on the Web; maybe they know which types of sources are best for different types of information and can apply the lens of contextual levels of authority to make these judgments; and perhaps they can even create a project that includes effectively paraphrased or quoted information and has a correctly formatted Works Cited page at the end, but how do we determine that our students have incorporated these individual skills into a more comprehensive modus operandi?

As we get more deeply involved with planning instruction modeled on the Framework, I would argue that the threshold concepts are also calling us to a more longitudinal view of information literacy assessment. Taking individual snapshots of students’ performance of information literacy-identified tasks gives us a glimpse of their levels of information literacy, but this view is truly limited. To carry out effective assessment of students’ movement through the thresholds, we need to consider collecting student artifacts and data over the passage of time. We need to ask students to reflect on, and narrate their experiences with information seeking, making meaning, and knowledge creation. We need to be connected to how students work through information problems in their real lives and look for ways they are thinking critically and making decisions in those contexts. Librarians as embedded assessors using ethnographic approaches and involving students in more portfolio-type assessments, which require them to make choices about what they believe demonstrates their progress, are important methods to consider.

Of course, making these types of assessment a reality may make many of us feel like someone suffering from unrequited love. The obstacles to their implementation often seem insurmountable. I find this especially true for those of us working as librarians at community colleges. With program graduation/completion and successful transfer out rates somewhere in the range of 20% and below (Institute of Education Sciences, 2014)*, figuring out how to collect longitudinal data on a continuing cohort of students is definitely difficult. Even if we find a two-year program through which a group of students tends to move sequentially and steadily, we are left with a group that likely represents only a small, discipline-specific subset of our students. While collecting data on this group would potentially give us some information, we would still probably crave ways to gain a broader and fuller picture of where all our students are. Tracking the performance of students from one semester or year to the next and retaining assignments beyond students’ completion of the course for which it was originally submitted would require students’ permission. This could prove especially problematic in a community college setting where we often work with students for whom such practices might be greeted with suspicion due to their unfamiliarity. For those students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions, instead of losing track of these students, could we create on-going partnerships among librarians at both levels for a continued assessment of students’ progress? For non-transferring students, such as students who complete associate-level degrees and those who go from either a two-year or four-year school to the workforce, can we better use our institutional research departments, advancement offices/alumni organizations, and connections with companies that hire our students to help us assess their information literacy on authentic tasks outside the confines of course assignments?

These issues and questions deserve our attention. As we work through the trials and implications of solving them, we may just learn more about ourselves, our students, and our institutions. Who knows, we may find ourselves falling in love with information literacy and librarianship all over again.

*Data for Harrisburg Area Community College filed for Harrisburg Campus were used to inform this summary statement.

Image Credit: “Winter Wedding” by Fabrice Lambert available on Wikimedia Commons


Association of College & Research Libraries. (2015). “Introduction.” Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Retrieved from

Institute of Education Sciences. (2014 Data). “Harrisburg Area Community College–Harrisburg.” College Navigator, National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from


3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2015 1:14 pm

    It would be great to see this type of long-term investment in our students’ skills.

    I enjoyed your choice of imagery in this post. Very nice!

  2. October 12, 2015 4:56 pm

    Great post, Kim! It’s definitely challenging to think about long-term assessment when we mostly deal with one-shot sessions, but I agree that the concepts sort of call for that. In the past, we’ve just had the one student assessment–the same version for all students–but I’m thinking we need to develop separate ones for each set of students (freshmen, sophomores, etc.) I’m curious to hear if you have any specific plans for assessment/partnerships, and what you’ve been trying (if anything) to incorporate the concepts in your lessons :)

  3. October 14, 2015 4:42 pm

    Thanks, Nathan & Katie. I wrote this with more of an institution-level perspective in mind, since there has definitely been a growing emphasis on assessment at HACC. I think we are in the process of moving toward more authentic assessment here, but I still wonder about just capturing small snapshots of student performance of skills–I don’t know how much this really tells us. So, in an ideal world (and I’m truly still in the beginning stages of brainstorming how this could happen), we would be able to document students’ growth and attitude shifts, etc., over time; but again it seems to me this would involve multiple partnerships!

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