A threshold concept is a pivotal idea that allows a student to make sense of acquired information so they can then advance to a higher level of understanding. Once a threshold concept is understood, students move off a learning plateau and experience rapid learning development.
Scholars Meyer and Land (2003) created the framework from their observations of high-performing classrooms.
Threshold Concept Characteristics
There are several characteristics of a threshold concept:
- Transformative: A threshold concept creates a qualitatively distinct understanding of a subject. It serves as a kind of portal to a comprehension that is enlightening.
- Troublesome: Mastering a threshold concept is not a simple matter of memorization. The concept may be counter-intuitive or a student may find it difficult to “let-go” of their previous conceptualizations.
- Irreversible: Because threshold concepts completely alter a student’s perspective, they are often irreversible. It is nearly impossible to “unlearn” what has been so transformative.
- Integrative: Threshold concepts have a unifying effect on information that had previously seemed unconnected. New insights may emerge that were previously unseen.
- Bounded: The terminology contained in the threshold concept may be very specific to a particular domain. It can encapsulate that domain and make it wholly distinct from other subjects.
- Liminality: Threshold concepts are not reached through a sequential process. There can be a bit of oscillation and the learner can become suspended in a state of partial understanding.
- Discursive: Reaching the threshold involves an extension and enhanced use of vocabulary. The student begins to incorporate the lexicon in a manner that conveys a certain degree of professionalism.
- Reconstitutive: The learner’s subjective perspective on the subject changes. Prior conceptual schemata are reconfigured or may be completely discarded.
Threshold Concept Examples
1. In History Class: History as Interpretive
A threshold concept in history is coming to understand that history isn’t about facts and dates; it’s interpretive.
Most students approach history as a kind of listing of events that occurred; each on a specific date, involving key figures, and having a definite consequence.
However, as students begin to study history more in-depth, they discover that history is interpretative. That is, there is no clear definition of what happened, why it happened, and what the results were.
In fact, scholars write books about historical events that often offer differing interpretations than their predecessors. As research uncovers additional knowledge, the interpretation of events changes over time.
For many students, this can be a little disturbing. It does not gel with our initial conception of history as factual. When students accept and learn to tolerate this ambiguity, they have reached a threshold of understanding that changes their perspective permanently.
2. Multiculturalism: Overcoming Ethnocentrism
Often, overcoming ethnocentrism is a slow process and only happens once students befriend children from other cultures. This lived experience can represent a threshold concept.
Growing up in a particular culture means internalizing certain beliefs, values, and customs. If a person spends all of their childhood and young adulthood in that culture, then the internalization becomes quite entrenched.
Since their culture is the only way of thinking that a person knows, it seems valid and “right.”
But what happens when that person takes a course in multiculturalism? Now, all of a sudden, things are a lot different. The student learns about vastly different ways of thinking.
The gestures and mannerisms that people display in those other cultures may seem more than just unfamiliar, they may represent bold acts of rudeness in one’s home country.
Every chapter in the textbook may be an afront to a student’s upbringing and way of life. That can be quite troublesome and some students may simply be unable to take that step across the threshold and into cultural enlightenment.
3. Learning to Teach: A Student-centered Approach
A threshold concept in teacher education occurs when new educators learn how to teach in a student-centered rather than teacher-centered manner.
There was a time when most university professors practiced a kind of unidimensional pedagogy. The professor stood behind a lectern and spoke for the duration of the class; dispensing knowledge to students that eagerly absorbed that wisdom like a sponge.
Although there is something to be said for students’ ability to process information in this manner, there are other ways students can learn.
Today, professors incorporate multimedia, experiential activities, project-based learning, and a variety of blended practices.
For some, the process of moving from what was familiar to implement these more modern instructional approaches was a smooth and welcome transition.
For others, the process was more disruptive. It took a while to see how these approaches would result in enhanced and more impactful learning experiences for students.
Many faculty today have taken that step across the threshold and fully embraced modern pedagogy.
4. In Statistics: How Stats is Unique
For many students in statistics classes, they must first overcome a significant hurdle that stats professors have observed for decades. These students have a great deal of difficulty differentiating between mathematics and statistics.
Of course, the two subjects are very similar: they both involve numbers, formulas, and computations. However, there is a very distinct quality that separates the two.
Whereas mathematics calculations deal with numbers only, statistics involves a consideration of the underlying concepts being studied.
The numbers are there to elucidate the findings. There is a great deal of critical-thinking and interpretation involved.
This requires taking the thought process one step further, which some students have difficulty accomplishing. They can become trapped in a conceptualization of “doing math” that prevents them from understanding the power of statistical analysis.
5. In Photography: Meanings aren’t Fixed
One of the main threshold concepts in photography is getting students to understand that the meaning of a photograph is never fixed.
The meaning is not contained in the photo itself, despite the intention of the photographer.
The viewer’s perception will depend on their sensitivities, their knowledge, cultural perspective, and a host of other factors including their personality and understanding of the photo’s context.
This can be difficult for students to accept. They may take a photo with an intended purpose, to convey a specific point, or create a certain affective state in the viewer.
When that doesn’t happen because of the viewer’s own idiosyncrasies, it can be very disturbing to the novice.
The threshold concept postulates that advanced learning means that the learner’s understanding of a subject domain must be disrupted. It has to break free from the shackles of previous conceptualizations.
That process can be troublesome. It can be unsmooth in the sense that a learner’s perspective can oscillate between old and new schemata.
However, without some disturbance, there can be no progress. This can be observed in nearly every area of study, from history and statistics, to professional occupations such as photography.
Therefore, educators should look for opportunities and methods to help learners achieve this threshold and transform their understanding in a way that is irreversible and progressive.
Beitelmal, W. H., Littlejohn, R., Okonkwo, P. C., Hassan, I. U., Barhoumi, E. M., Khozaei, F., Hassan, A. M., & Alkaaf, K. A. (2022). Threshold concepts theory in higher education—Introductory statistics courses as an example. Education Sciences, 12(11),748. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci12110748
Cousins, G. (2008) Threshold Concepts: Old Wine in New Bottles or New Forms of Transactional Inquiry, in: Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines, Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Smith, J. (Eds), Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, pp 261-272.
Didau, D. (2015) What if everything you knew about education was wrong?
Crown House Publishing, Carmarthen, Wales, UK.
Timmermans, J. A. & Meyer, J. H. F. (2019). A framework for working with university teachers to create and embed ‘Integrated Threshold Concept Knowledge’ (ITCK) in their practice. International Journal for Academic Development, 24(4), 354-368. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2017.1388241
Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practicing. In: Rust, C. (Ed.), Improving Student Learning – Theory and Practice Ten Years On. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 412-424.
Meyer, J.H.F., Land, R. & Davies, P. (2006). Implications of threshold concepts for course design and evaluation, in Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (Eds.). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, London and New York: Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.