In this blog post, Dr Kay Hack (Academic Lead for STEM), explores how we can support students as they journey through the liminal spaces; those spaces that precede students crossing a learning threshold to become part of their professional or discipline community. Liminal spaces are characterised by troublesome, challenging and often counter-intuitive knowledge. It is recognised that students will cross these spaces at different speeds, and get stuck at different points. The challenge for teachers is to help students to get accustomed with the uncomfortable, and make them feel at home in a state of uncertainty.
By George she’s got it! – or has she?
In the classic musical, ‘My Fair Lady’, Professor Higgins delights in the moment when Eliza Doolittle manages to accurately mimic him. Of course, she quickly becomes unstuck when applying her new knowledge in an environment outside of the ‘classroom’. Eliza may look and sound like someone in ‘the tribe’, but does not possess the hidden or tacit knowledge required for ‘proper belonging’ and this generates a lot of frustration as she no longer belongs to the tribe she came from, nor does she fit into the new tribe. Many students progress through higher education, successfully mimicking a member of the tribe; they may be able to grasp and apply some quite challenging technical or philosophical concepts, but has there been a transformation in their thinking practices, so that they now think like an engineer, physicist or economist?
Some students are at home in this liminal phase, their emotional capital or resilience, enables them to cope with the uncertainty; but others encounter an overriding feeling of ambiguity that can lead to frustration, alienation and eventually disengagement.
Creating learning environments which provide a sense of belonging is critical to maximising student success in the passage through liminal space; such learning environments ensure that individual students realise that they are not the only ones who ‘don’t get it’. An active learning approach is necessary to provide the recursive environment where the teacher ‘listens for understanding’, Meyer and Land (2006). Whilst the use of active learning can be challenging in large class scenarios, the use of technology and peer and group learning techniques, can allow all students to surface their misunderstandings.
In this week’s tweetchat we will share our approaches to help students through these liminal spaces, explore how learning environments can promote the social interactions that allows the student misunderstandings to become evident. We will also consider if our tacit assumptions of student knowledge might lead to unconscious bias that could further alienate and discriminate against some students.
Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2006) ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Issues of liminality’ in: Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (eds.), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, London, Routledge