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Threshold Concepts: Portals to New Ways of Thinking

“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:

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)

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.