November 7th, 2014

Threshold Concepts: Portals to New Ways of Thinking

By:

“A threshold concept is discipline-specific, focuses on understanding of the subject and … has the ability to transform learners’ views of the content.” (Zepke, p. 98) It’s not the same as a core concept, although that’s a useful place to first put the idea. “A core concept is a conceptual ‘building block’ that progresses understanding of the subject; it has to be understood, but it does not necessarily lead to a qualitative different view of the subject matter.” (Meyer and Land, p. 4)

Meyer and Land were among those first to write about threshold concepts. They proposed the idea based on a round of interviews with economics faculty members. Since this early work, the idea of threshold concepts has been written about and researched mostly in Europe. In the early paper referenced below and available online, Meyer and Land offer what has become the classic definition: “A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something.” (p. 1) It results in the learner understanding, interpreting, or seeing something in a new way. “As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept, there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view.” (p. 1)

Threshold concepts have five characteristics, according to Meyer and Land. They are:

  • Transformative – The change that results from understanding the threshold concept is significant. Meyer and Land use the adjective “powerful” to describe it. It can change how learners think about the discipline, about themselves, or about the world.
  • Irreversible –These are not changes likely to be unlearned or forgotten. Meyer and Land use Adam and Eve as an example. The knowledge they acquired caused them to be expelled from the Garden of Eden. As they passed through the threshold from innocence, the landscape before them was totally transformed. Once the threshold concept is understood, that new knowledge makes it all but impossible to go back to former ways of thinking.
  • Integrative – “Once understood, it enables students to knit dissimilar elements of a subject together.” (Zepke, p. 100) Students suddenly get the large picture. They see how details or a set of ideas fit together. Suddenly a whole variety of things make sense.
  • Bounded – Thresholds border with other thresholds, and those boundaries and frontiers come to define disciplinary areas and academic territories.
  • Troublesome – Here Meyer and Land defer to the work of Perkins, who previously explored the idea of troublesome knowledge. Threshold concepts, Meyer and Land claim, are troublesome in the sense that they are difficult for students to understand. Perkins defines troublesome knowledge “as that which appears counter-intuitive, alien (emanating from another culture or discourse), or incoherent.” (quoted in Meyer and Land, pp. 5-6) They are not easily or automatically understood when first encountered.

The Meyer and Land article is filled with examples of threshold concepts, but because they are discipline-specific and presume some level of preexisting knowledge, they aren’t all that easily understood. However, Blackie, Case, and Jawitz propose an example that is meaningful to readers of this publication: student-centered teaching. “Student-centered teaching is not just a different style of teaching. It requires that the academic really understands and appreciates the need to pay attention to the students and their learning. It involves a shift from measuring one’s success as a teacher by how much of the syllabus is successfully covered to measuring one’s success by how much students actually learn and with what depth of understanding. This requires the academic to be invested in the learning of the students, rather than in the transfer of information, and to be concerned about the actual process of learning happening in the students.” (p. 638)

References:
Blackie, M.A.L., Case, J.M., and Jawitz, J. (2010). Student-centeredness: The link between transforming students and transforming ourselves. Teaching in Higher Education, 15 (6), 637-646.

Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines. (available at: www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/docs/ETLreport4.pdf)

Zepke, N. (2013). Threshold concepts and student engagement: Revisiting pedagogical content knowledge. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14 (2), 97-107.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, 27.7 (2013): 3. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.


  • Perry Shaw

    I sense a strong coherence between "threshold concepts" and patterns of "transformational learning". Take for example Brookfield's well-known five stages of transformational learning:
    •Trigger event that causes perplexity or discomfort.
    •Appraisal phase – clarification of the issue and self-examination of what is going on.
    •Exploration of explanations or of new ways of responding.
    •Developing alternative perspectives, through which new ways are tried and tested.
    •Integration of the new with other aspects of our lives.
    The "troublesome" characteristic of "threshold concepts" matches the "trigger event". The "transformative" and "irreversible" characteristics are reflected in the "appraisal", "exploration", and "alternative perspectives". And integration is seen in both.
    I wonder if it could be said that transformational learning theory explains how threshold concepts are engaged and embraced, and threshold concept theory develops further the consequences and value. I see the two as dancing a complex waltz together. 🙂

  • Michelle Mugatha

    Dr. Weimer,

    Thank you for sharing your explanation of threshold concepts. Though I know the post was initially intended for higher education professionals, the idea that threshold concepts lead to student-centered teaching not only has important implications for the higher education system, but also for instructional designers working with adult learners outside of university settings (and for PreK-12 teachers as well.) As a current Instructional Technology and Design student (and a practicing 20-year veteran of 7th and 8th grade classrooms around the world) I see some obvious parallels between the research on threshold concepts and the course reading for my ID degree/the professional development sessions offered to me through my school system. First of all, when Zepke(2013) and Meyer and Land (2003) describe one of the characteristics of threshold concepts as being integrative, this mirrors the connections that are made in the information processing model of elaboration (the process of expanding upon new information by adding to it or linking it to what one knows – Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M., 2009) for the purpose of encoding (putting information into the information processing system to prepare it for storage in the long-term memory – Ormrod, et. al.) Also, the notion of threshold concepts being bounded seems similar to the current project-based learning and reading-across-the-curriculum initiatives in many public schools, which seek to link the subject areas together in order to increase student learning. (This isn’t a new concept – it used to be called interdisciplinary education – but the notion is being revisited in school systems around the country.)
    The suggestion that threshold concepts could be useful for both PreK-12 teachers and Instructional Designers is especially true in Blackie, Case, and Jawitz’s example of student-centered teaching as: “It requires that the academic really understands and appreciates the need to pay attention to the students and their learning…to be invested in the learning of their students rather than in the transfer of information…” (Blackie, M.A.L., Case, J.M., and Jawitz, J., 2010). This reminded of something Dr. Jean Ormrod commented on in one of our video resources for my Instructional Design coursework:

    That’s really where the psychology of learning is now. It is focusing on what is going on inside the head and also how teachers, instructional designers, anyone who wants to help people learn how they can design instruction to make those cognitive processes work well for the learner. To teach effectively, you've got to know how students learn. And you've got know in particular how they think, what's going on in their heads as they're studying, as they're reading, as they're responding to questions, and so on. Because without knowing how they think through things, you're not in a good position to help them think more effectively about the subject matter that you're teaching. (Laureate, Introduction to learning, n.d.)

    By paying more specific attention to how our students learn – no matter what their level – we as teachers and instructional designers will be able to deliver lessons and curriculum in such a way that maximizes learning, a goal that I think is at the heart of any educator. Finally, given the current political climate in the field of public education, the importance of student-centered teaching is certainly present. With the advent of Educator Effectiveness legislation in many states, there has been a significant increase in high-stakes student performance assessments, with student growth measures being used to measure teacher effectiveness. In light of this, a working knowledge of threshold concepts, particularly as it relates to student-centered teaching, would seem to be an important addition to any educator’s toolbox, whether working in a PreK-12, University, or Adult Learning environment.

    RESOURCES

    Blackie, M.A.L., Case, J.M., and Jawitz, J. (2010). Student-centeredness: The link between transforming students and transforming ourselves. Teaching in Higher Education, 15 (6), 637-646.

    Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). An introduction to learning [Video file]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu

    Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines. (available at: http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk/docs/ETLreport4.pdf)

    Ormrod, J., Schunk, D., & Gredler, M. (2009). Cognitive information processing theory. In
    Learning Theories and Instruction (Laureate Custom ed.). New York: Pearson.

    Zepke, N. (2013). Threshold concepts and student engagement: Revisiting pedagogical content knowledge. Active Learning in Higher Education, 14 (2), 97-107.

  • Confused

    Well without any examples that was thoroughly unhelpful

  • Phd student

    Thanks for this post. I am now exploring the usefulness of this theory.

  • intermart

    Really like this synopsis. A great starting point and very helpful