Threshold concepts


Threshold concepts

18 Jan ’19 Leading learning Teaching 0

The term ‘threshold concept’ has made an appearance in three teaching practice conversations this past week. Not a new education practice term, like Cognitive Load Theory, there has been interest in this construct for ten or more years, it is not as pervasive or currently as popular as Responsive Teaching for example. One suggests that with the raising importance of curriculum, the term threshold concept with become more common place.

What exactly are Threshold Concepts?

According to Meyer and Land (2003), a threshold concept can be considered as akin to

a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.

On this basis, then, they might be considered the crucial elements of disciplinary understanding – ‘Oh, I get it now…’ moment when the pieces of a conceptual idea fit together and you can see the big picture? Not everyone will ‘get it’ at the same time. And some will think they have ‘got it’ only to feel this understanding slip away when they try to apply this new-found knowledge in a different context.

But the very notion of a Threshold Concept then, seem to represent a challenge to my thoughts of mastery? That understanding develops over time as students’ progress through a liminal or transitional space, often applying a recursive process, or deliberate practice, in pursuit of deeper understanding. I was therefore, left searching for greater definition.

Investigations of the term offered five regularly presented characteristics: transformative, integrative, bounded, probably irreversible and troublesome. Expanded by Meyer and Land:

a) Transformative in that, once understood, its potential effect on student learning and behaviour is to occasion a significant shift in the perception of a subject, or part thereof.

b) Probably irreversible, in that the change of perspective occasioned by acquisition of a threshold concept is unlikely to be forgotten, or will be unlearned only with considerable effort.

c) Integrative; that is, it exposes the previously hidden interrelatedness of something. Note that if we re-examine the earlier example of opportunity cost from the novice perspective we may observe that while it satisfies (a) and (b) above, it may not be integrative.

d) Possibly often (though not necessarily always) bounded, in that any conceptual space will have terminal frontiers, bordering with thresholds into new conceptual areas.

e)  Potentially (and possibly inherently) troublesome 

These characteristic make Threshold Concepts “very powerful tools in exploring teaching and learning within a discipline,” which connects with curriculum, with course design, with teaching. 

Next on my todo list – identify Threshold Concepts that offer students portals to deeper understanding.


Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003), ‘Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising’, in Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning – ten years on, Oxford: OCSLD


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