Threshold Concepts for Digital History?

Most of you know that I’m teaching an undergraduate Digital History course this semester that satisfies the IT requirement for students in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at GMU. We’ve just pushed into the ninth week of the semester, and I’m doing some reflecting on how things are going.

Even though this course is numbered as an upper division class (390), there are absolutely no prerequisites for registration. That means that the majority of students are not history majors and in many cases they have not even taken other history courses. When I started the semester, I did not fully grasp the implications of this situation. I figured on having to do some refresher work on disciplinary concerns and methods, but I had no clue that this material would be brand new to so many of the students. It shouldn’t have been a surprise after so many years of No Child Left Behind, but it was. Thus, I’ve found myself trying to teach them what history is, what historians do, and how to use digital tools in the service of that work. Turns out, it’s a tall order.

So, I’ve found myself thinking about “threshold concepts”* and how the course would benefit from some very modest and clear assessments tied to those concepts which are central to history. Jan Meyer and Ray Land that there are some concepts that are gateways for learners, and that once they master those concepts learners have an “a-ha” experience that changes they way the approach and make sense of the world. I’ve mentioned before that I think the first six or seven pages of Bill Cronon’s “Getting Ready to Do History” (pdf) is a very good, concise articulation of some of the things that historians care about and I read and discuss it with my students, but the question is:

What are those key activities that move students from reading about what historians care about to understanding why those concerns are important and how they shape what we do when we do history?

I will definitely spend some of the summer trying to devise those activities.

Oh, and then, after we get through that, students need to be able to work in a digital environment.

The current crop of (non-Senior, non-major) undergraduates is in the process of working in groups of four or five to build digital history sites in Those sites should work to respond to an inquiry question by selecting, editing, and analyzing primary sources, and then using those sources and additional contextual scholarship to offer an answer to the inquiry question. Again, it’s a tall order, and I’m not at all sure how the projects will turn out. Will students be able to recognize the threshold concepts that we’ve talked about in class and apply the historical thinking skills that we have reviewed in the service of answering their questions? Will the burdens of learning new content management systems and geospatial tools overwhelm the analytical concerns?

I’ll let you know as the projects start to come together.

* See Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning,” Higher Education 49, no. 3 (April 1, 2005): 373–388. doi:10.2307/25068074. Stable URL:

Comments 3

  • I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts on what worked. I’m planning a summer course and trying to find a way to get over that crest between “learning” and “doing” history, and at the same time getting students to reflect critically on history in popular memory today. I’ve found its the step between analyzing individual sources and answering a historical question using them all together that’s been most challenging.

  • @Adam, I think that’s definitely the trick. If students have learned anything, it’s how to closely read documents, but the steps that call for them contextualize them and to analyze them in concert with other sources to arrive at a conclusion is a stretch for most of them.

  • This is an excellent application of threshold concepts. For a similar project and post–one focused on the threshold concepts of public history–see As a teacher, one of the elements of threshold concepts I like best is the notion of liminality: most students just don’t simply move across the threshold, but move back and forth in their conceptual understanding of the discipline. Teaching students both historical thinking and actual history (which is critical, since context is a treshold concept of history) is thus difficult and frustating because most students will not get it all in one class. But the enterpise is also very exciting because you have the opportunity to really transform the way students see the world. The digital history approach you outline strikes me as an excellent way of introducing students to how historians operate, even if their projects are bound to fail in some manner. Failure, after all, is a big part of learning.

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