Threshold concepts have been the subject of a burgeoning area of educational research over the last ten years, but what exactly are they and how can they be used to inform teaching?
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 – the things that make some students ‘get it’ while others don’t. But how to teach those elements so that students learn the ways of thinking like an economist or a sociologist? How can teachers promote understanding of, and not just use of, threshold concepts like standard deviation in statistics or opportunity cost in economics education, so that students are supported in developing a real mastery of their discipline?
A more detailed understanding of a threshold concept might be useful here, and Meyer and Land identify the following five key characteristics:
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 characteristics make threshold concepts very powerful tools in exploring teaching and learning within a discipline, with potential relevance to curriculum review and course design as well as to day-to-day teaching. Such potency has led to much recent recent research and debate about threshold concepts, as mentioned above, and we offer below just a few illustrations of that activity.
Professor Noel Entwistle, in this video from a symposium at the University of Strathclyde in 2006, provides a useful overview of how student learning research relates to the identification of threshold concepts.
Staffordshire University’s Embedding Threshold Concepts website explores in detail how threshold concepts have been used to inform and frame teaching and curriculum development specifically in economics education, but there are now many examples in other disciplines of academics looking at threshold concepts in their own teaching.
Finally, Professor Glynis Cousin writes an excellent introduction to threshold concepts (PDF) that explores Meyer and Land’s development of the idea of using threshold concepts as a way of researching into and framing teaching-learning, and can be seen discussing their and her ideas further in this video filmed at Australia’s CQUniversity.
Looking for more on this topic? Read our September 2017 post on transitions, threshold concepts and liminal spaces.
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
Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Smith, J., eds (2008), Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers (Educational Futures series)