In this post, and ahead of the the Teaching and Learning Centre’s workshop ‘Student transistions: an academic literacies approach’ on 28 November, Dr Jenni Carr considers the role of threshold concepts and liminal space in successful student learning.

Often we talk about student transitions in terms of recruitment, retention and achievement, or as one colleague remembers being told during teacher training “Get ‘em in, get them on with it and get them out of there!”. These fixed stages are monitored, quantified, reported on and translated into quality markers for the consumption of the general public. As such, it is not surprising that much of the discussion around participation in higher education focuses on these transitional stages. In this blog, however, I would like to reflect on the liminal spaces between those transitional points, and how these have the potential to shape the student identity and their relationship with knowledge.

Crossing the threshold

Readers may be familiar with the notion of threshold concepts and their pedagogical implications, but if this is new ground for you this summary of the key principles of threshold concepts will be useful.

“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.”  (Meyer and Land, 2006:3)

As the theorising of threshold concepts has developed there has been an increasing focus on liminality. We have recognised that occupying this liminal space can be a messy business for students. Given that threshold concepts represent troublesome knowledge, knowledge that once gained will be transformational, it shouldn’t be surprising that students do not progress through these spaces in orderly steps. Not everyone will ‘get it’ at the same time. And some will think they have ‘got it’ at one moment only to feel this understanding slip away when they try to apply this new-found knowledge in a different context.

threshold concepts dog

Supporting students as they navigate these liminal spaces can be a frustrating experience for teachers too. We find ourselves fine tuning our explanations of concepts, tinkering with contexts in which we deploy them as we attempt to produce the spark that will provide some forward momentum for the student.

But I want to turn our attention away for a moment from the teaching of content – if our courses are well-designed we know that the majority of students will ‘get it’ eventually – and focus on the ‘peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding and arguing that define the discourse of the community’ (Bartholomae 1986:4).

Living with ambiguity

Proficiency in academic literacy – the specialised forms of communication that occur in higher education learning, teaching and assessment – is fundamental to students’ success. Students need to know not only academic concepts and theories but also how to meet the academic communications expectations in different disciplines, and this is a much more complex process. Lillis (1997) argues this process involves entering new linguistic and academic communities, and that this touches upon key issues of people’s identities and roles in work, study, and life.

I think that it is valuable to think of academic literacy itself as a threshold concept (or maybe a collection of threshold concepts?). Two features of threshold concepts are particularly relevant here – that they are irreversible and reconstitutive. Once learned it is impossible for them to be ‘unlearned’, and the process of that learning involves a shift in subjectivity. As teachers we have, for the most part, crossed that threshold into academic literacy, but perhaps in that crossing we have become less able to identify with those who have yet to ‘get it’ – and less willing to think ourselves back into that messy liminal space!

“It (liminal space) is when you have left the tried and true, but not yet been able to replace it with anything else. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” Richard Rohr (Franciscan monk and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation)

One possible approach that can offer the students the support they need, but also provide us with a framework within which to operate is an academic literacies approach to pedagogy. This approach moves beyond a monologic approach, the aim of which is to reproduce academic and disciplinary norms, and adopts a dialogic approach, which aims to make explicit and to challenge those norms (Lillis, 2003).

Students are framed within this approach as engaged participants rather than subjects to be acculturated (Lea, 2005). There is an explicit recognition that certain textual practices shape the ways in which knowledge is created, and in making these practices more visible students are given the opportunity to explore and challenge the notion that ‘this is just the way things are done’. In this way we can normalise ambiguity and in doing so make that liminal space – the space between the tried and true and new knowledge – a less anxious place for students to inhabit.

threshold concepts free running

Developing your practice

If you would like to explore the issues highlighted above in more detail with colleagues, and think through how they might apply to your own practice, please come along to the  workshop ‘Student transistions: an academic literacies approach’ on 28 November (10:00 – 12:00).

The aim of this workshop is to explore the principles of pedagogies informed by an academic literacies perspective and examine how adopting this perspective can impact on learning and teaching practices designed to support student transitions. Specifically, we will discuss the implications of this perspective when supporting students to think critically about topics such as what counts as evidence, the role of personal experience and opinion, plagiarism and evaluating ideas and theory. We will also discuss similarities/differences across the disciplines and how these might impact on learning and teaching practice, with a particular focus on assessment and feedback.



Bartholomae. D. (1986) ‘Inventing the University’, Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 5 (1), 4 – 23.

Lea, M (2005) Academic literacies: a pedagogy for course design, Studies in Higher Education, Vol 30 (1), 739 – 736

Lillis, T. (1997) New voices in academia? The regulative nature of academic writing conventions. Language and Education, 11 (3), 182–99.

Lillis, T (2003) ‘An ‘academic literacies’ approach to student writing: drawing on Bakhtin to more from critique to design’ Language and Education 17 (3), 192-207

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

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