Faculty Focus


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:

  • 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)

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.