Embedding a Threshold Concept in Teaching and Learning of Product Development Management

Coghlan, Paul and Graham, Anne (2009) Embedding a Threshold Concept in Teaching and Learning of Product Development Management. In: NAIRTL, 3RD Annual Conference: Research-Teaching Linkages: Practice & Policy, 6th November 2009, Trinity College Dublin.

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This paper uses insights from the teaching-learning literature on threshold concepts to develop a structure for understanding teaching and learning in the area of managing product development. Product development management practice continues to move towards a multi-functional focus which means that graduates need to be able to think outside of the silo. Correspondingly, cross disciplinary courses in the area are increasing and focus on that challenge. In terms of the teaching-learning literature, such courses have to communicate threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, difficult in a single discipline context and particularly challenging in a multi-disciplinary context. An immediate problem in trying to make threshold concepts explicit for students is that, if these concepts integrate a way of thinking, they necessarily operate at a high level of abstraction (Davies, 2006). If so, then the time to introduce these concepts is when students have acquired sufficient subject knowledge to develop and to practice an integrated understanding. Viewing product development as a process has the potential both to provide a framework for helping managers to assess, to benchmark and to improve this area, and also to define potential research agendas. Seeing product development in this way represents “process” as a threshold concept. This paper defines threshold concepts, outlines pedagogic principles and describes learning activities that seek to enact these principles. The paper is based upon experience of an established final-year undergraduate course in a university in Ireland. The development this paper draws upon output from “Embedding Threshold Concepts”, a project based at Staffordshire University concerned with the application of this approach to teaching and learning. • Academic and practical relevance Meyer and Land (2005) suggest that within each discipline, field or profession there are threshold concepts which integrate and define the scope of the academic community with which a student is engaging. These threshold concepts can be 'considered akin to passing through a portal, or conceptual gateway, thus opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something' (Meyer and Land, 2003). Such concepts lead to a transformed way of understanding, or viewing something that may represent how people 'think' in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend or experience particular phenomena within a discipline. These concepts usually have five attributes: they are transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded and troublesome. Threshold concepts have potential to encourage students towards deep rather than surface learning (Biggs, 1989). To evaluate whether there is substance to this potential we need to be able to identify threshold concepts in a subject, to embed these in the curriculum and to evaluate the results. However, these steps are not straightforward. • Empirical data base and Analysis Davies and Mangan (2006-2) suggest that students progress in stages towards a deepening engagement with their academic communities. Davies and Mangan (2006-1) have identified some key pedagogical issues in supporting the students’ acquisition of threshold concepts: first, a threshold concept acts as a keystone; second, the conception of core and enabling processes, which are critical dimensions of the conception of the overall activity of product development, is distant initially from direct experience and can only be experienced hypothetically; third, the relationships between the core and enabling processes become visible through engaging in a field project as a way of practicing and of thinking; fourth, since the acquisition of threshold concepts transforms understanding of previously acquired subject knowledge, students need to be able to accept that, at each stage in their learning, their understanding is provisional. To highlight these problems, Davies and Mangan (2006-1), propose pedagogical principles and how they might be put them into practice, through different types of activity: reflective exercises, problem-focused exercises and threshold network exercises. All three types of activity are evident in the course examined. The “Managing New Product Development” (MNPD) course was designed for final-year business school and engineering undergraduate students who wished to develop their understanding of the complex management issues associated with the development of new products (Coughlan, 2002). Running each year since 1997, the course objective is to enable students to understand the contributors to shorter development lead times and increased flows of marketable and manufacturable new products, the choices in structuring the development process, and the integration of differing functional capabilities during the development process. Seeing product development as a process represents “process” as a threshold concept. The analysis of the course structure and teaching-learning environment explores stages of progression of student engagement, pedagogical principles, and activities. • Synthesis and Contribution to knowledge The context into which students emerge on graduation continues to be demanding. The rates at which technologies and markets are changing require a capability to build flexibility into the development process. Embedding threshold concepts requires particular conditions of learning to support students in arriving at the kind of transformational thinking required for flexibility in a changing context. This paper has examined how an undergraduate course can develop this capability - which involves both technical and behavioural skills as well as an ability to manage multiple and sometimes conflicting objectives. Further research into threshold concepts, troublesome knowledge and the nature of the ‘learning space’ would add value to product development teaching and learning at third level.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Departments or Groups: *NONE OF THESE*
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Depositing User: Anne Graham
Date Deposited: 24 Sep 2014 19:00
Last Modified: 22 Aug 2016 10:27
URI: http://repository.wit.ie/id/eprint/2918

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