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Formo and Neary. Threshold Concepts in Assignments Sheets. TETYC May 2020. Posted 07/16/2020.


Formo, Dawn, and Kimberly Robinson Neary. “Threshold Concepts and FYC Writing Prompts: Helping Students Discover Composition’s Common Knowledge with(in) Assignment Sheets.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47.4 (2020): 351-64. Print.

Dawn Formo and Kimberly Robinson Neary examine seventy-five assignment sheets gathered online from first-year-composition courses at thirty-two community colleges, thirty-five public universities and eight private institutions (337). They sought to address how the prompts given to students for their first writing assignments could be better used rhetorically to introduce the “threshold concepts” related to writing.

In their view, research on the rhetorical uses of assignments is sparse (336). They identify lines of research that guide teachers in writing clear assignments, that help teachers show students how to “decode” assignments, and that “moves beyond the practical pedagogy . . . into more theoretical considerations” (336-37). Their study, they write, resonates with this third approach.

Quoting Jan Meyer and Ray Land, the authors identity a threshold concept as presenting “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” and “a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress” (qtd. in Formo and Neary 336). As a source of such concepts for writing instruction, Formo and Neary turn to Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth A. Wardle’s Naming What We Know (338).

The authors begin with a grounded-theory examination of the seventy-five prompts, creating a rubric (presented as Appendix A) that suggests five salient questions involving how students are instructed on what is expected, how the assignment is “scaffold[ed],” how work will be assessed, what audience is addressed, and how format is explained (354-55). They then compared the issues relayed by these questions to the threshold concepts outlined by Adler-Kassner and Wardle, looking for correspondences (338).

Quantitative analysis of these data allowed the authors to make some observations about elements that appeared or did not appear in the prompts. Majorities of the prompts defined a “specific question or task” and included such features as formatting instructions, references to assigned texts and in-class discussions, and questions and suggestions to facilitate student responses. However, the authors identify seven features missing in the majority of the prompts. These omissions included identifying audiences for the assignment, building in peer review and revision, clarifying learning objectives, providing assessment criteria, and scaffolding response steps (339-40). The authors consider the “underrepresent[ation]” of these elements “alarming” (340).

To illustrate how incorporating these missing elements can make the assignment sheet what Meyer and Land call “a bridging device” (340) that helps students access threshold concepts in writing, Formo and Neary present two “exemplars” and critique them to suggest how their use of specific elements guides students toward the threshold concepts identified by Adler-Kassner and Wardle. Clarifying that every assignment need not contain every concept and that the study of assignment sheets in isolation does not capture how teachers contextualize the assignments when they present them in class, the authors argue for heightened awareness of the sheet as “a rhetorical tool” (341).

One exemplar asks students for a narrative about “an event from their lives that results in a revelatory moment,” while the other, in contrast, asks students to enter a scientific controversy through explicit research-based, integrative steps (341). The assignments themselves are provided as appendices.

Threshold Concept 1 illustrated in the authors’ analysis of the exemplars is “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity,” which addresses concerns about the inclusion of audience in an assignment; 55% did not mention audience and only 19% provided any details about an audience (339). The second concept is “Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognizable Forms.” This focus addresses the failure of 64% of the assignments to provide models of the genre being invoked (339), emphasizing the role that familiarity with genre plays in writing decisions (342-43).

A third concept addressed is “Writing Enacts and Creates Identities and Ideologies.” The authors connect this concept to the process of peer review in assignments (343-44). Fourth, the authors examine the exemplars in light of “All Writers Have More to Learn.” The exemplars vary in their calls for multiple drafts and their use of grading criteria to help students assess their own development (344-45).

The fifth threshold concept illustrated by the exemplars is “Writing is (Also Always) a Cognitive Activity.” For the authors, at stake is the creation of “new habits of mind by developing alternative neurological pathways through approaches such as scaffolded activities or assignments” (345). They find this concept most visible in the scientific-controversy assignment, which indicates the steps students will take in building their argument, at the same time encouraging a metacognitive awareness of how the process of moving from research to argument unfolds (345-46).

These analyses lead to seven elements that they believe will contribute to assignment sheets that guide students toward threshold concepts:

  • Student Learning Outcomes . . . and Metacognition
  • Audience and Invoking Others
  • Sequenced Tasks and Making Knowledge
  • Models and Recognizable Forms
  • Peer Review and Reconstructing Meaning
  • Revision Tasks and Developing Writing and Texts
  • Assessment Criteria and Learning to Write

In each case, the writers draw examples of how these elements might be incorporated from the seventy-five assignment sheets they studied. They add an argument that reflection on the contents of the sheet itself can supply an opportunity for metacognitive growth (352).

Formo and Neary note the limitations resulting from their decision to sample assignments available online rather than asking colleagues to submit examples, which might have resulted in a collection of “best” rather than representative samples. Online sampling also limited sample size, as did the decision to focus on “first-in-the-semester assignments” (353). They advocate for a “composition studies assignment repository” (353) and indicate in a note that one such repository will debut in spring 2020 at (360n3).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

2 thoughts on “Formo and Neary. Threshold Concepts in Assignments Sheets. TETYC May 2020. Posted 07/16/2020.

  1. Thank you for the summary and for inviting us to participate in the discussion! Before writing this article, we facilitated workshops with K-12 and university faculty. We have been struck by their responsiveness to our suggestion to apply threshold concepts to actual assignment sheets. The summary above is a helpful backdrop to our research. We would invite writing instructors to look at pages 346-353 in the article which offer concrete suggestions for designing assignments with threshold concepts in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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