9.18 Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge


Author: Rayya Ghul

What are Threshold Concepts?

YouTube video Celia Popovic - Threshold Concepts

The biggest difficulty in designing teaching activities and curricula in Higher Education (HE) is deciding what to include and what to leave out. When you are teaching at HE level, you are dealing with your subject at the highest and broadest level so the temptation to include as much as possible is always present. You don’t want to leave anything out. Unfortunately, this often leads to the two greatest barriers to learning - content overload and transmission teaching.

At the heart of this process is a mistaken assumption that just because you have ‘taught’ something, it means that the student has learned it. The anxiety that some teachers feel if they do not cover all the content in a lecture is misplaced. Students do not learn from someone talking to them, however well you explain the facts or concepts to them. Ironically, one of the main reasons given for continuing to use transmission teaching (the idea that the teacher somehow ‘transmits’ information to the student) is that students don’t read or engage in independent study. If you are giving the message to students that you are telling them everything they need to know, then why would they?

If you find yourself frequently at the front of a classroom, presenting information with too many slides to get through, speeding up your delivery to fit them all in, running out of time for questions and frustrated that even with all your efforts, student just don’t seem to engage or learn, then designing with threshold concepts might be a powerful tool for you.

Threshold concepts were proposed by Jan Meyer and Ray Land as a way to identify those parts of a subject or discipline which act as a portal or essential stepping stone to full integration. At HE level, knowledge is considered for its own sake and a scholar will have integrated it to become a specialist in that subject or discipline; it has become part of your identity. You are not just someone who knows certain facts; you are a sociologist, a historian, a scientist, a nurse or economist. In order to become this, you had to grasp certain key concepts or skills and in doing so you were gradually transformed into who you are today in relation to your specialism. It is akin to passing through into a new realm where everything is transformed; there is no ‘unlearning’ what you have learned, it is not a matter of forgetting a few facts, what you have learned has changed your perspective.

What are these concepts? They will be different for every discipline. One way to think about them is to imagine you are at a party and you meet someone who is pretending to be a specialist like you. Lots of people now have access to information on the web and could acquire knowledge. How long would it take you to find out they were an amateur? How would you know? Another way to identify threshold concepts is to think about knowledge which is essential for progressing in the discipline – concepts which must be understood in order to proceed. This could be something like the laws of thermodynamics, the divine right of kings, semiotics or opportunity costs. In HE, students are expected to be able to do something with the knowledge they gain. If they have not grasped the threshold concepts, it does not matter how many facts they learn, they won’t know what to do with them.

Therefore, when planning your teaching or curriculum, by identifying threshold and key concepts, you begin to focus what is important for you to help the students learn and distinguish that from what the students can learn independently. You can make your teaching much more student-centred, using active learning techniques where the students are doing most of the work based on tasks you have designed for them and you can strip away the content to give time for students to engage with you and each other to promote discussion, experimentation and learning from mistakes. Knowing your threshold concepts also means you can assess a student more effectively as you are able to identify why they are not progressing and give more useful feedback and guidance. It means that when you are teaching you can make learning meaningful as you are able to communicate how what students are learning fit with a wider whole.

Troublesome Knowledge

Troublesome knowledge is another useful tool when thinking about designing for learning. Unlike threshold concepts which are inherent to the discipline, troublesome knowledge is relational to the student/s. It is knowledge which challenges the student in a particular way – perhaps it is simply difficult to grasp, or it questions previous knowledge or assumptions. Sometimes knowledge is troublesome because it is shocking or unpleasant. Some examples of troublesome knowledge might be: a very difficult mathematical equation which the student has to go over and over until they get it; learning about slavery, rape or genocide; discovering that the atom bears no relation to the picture you were taught at school, or realising that the way you were parented could be considered abusive. Not all of your students will find these elements affect them, but for many they could be real stumbling blocks to learning. Reflecting on knowledge which could potentially be troublesome means that you might choose to teach in different ways; giving more time to a difficult concept, presenting difficult material with sensitivity or ensuring you know how to support a distressed student, for example.

To complicate matters, many threshold concepts are also troublesome! However, knowing this means that you can become more creative and thoughtful in your teaching as you become more focused on session and curriculum design for learning. You can approach teaching with an enquiring mind; ‘how can I best help my students learn?’

Further Reading:

Land R, Cousin G, Meyer JHF, Davies P (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: implications for course design and evaluation. In: Rust C (Ed) Improving Student Learning Diversity and Inclusivity. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Learning Development. Full text available

Meyer JHF, Land R, Baillie C. (Eds)(2010) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning. Rotterdam: Sense. Full text available

Timmermans, J. A. (2014) Identifying threshold concepts in the careers of educational developers, International Journal for Academic Development: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1360144X.2014.895731

The Open University guide to Tricky Topics  


9 The Real Deal

Home page

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

2 comments on “9.18 Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge

  1. On Sept 29th 2021, we hosted a Speakeasy focused on Threshold Concepts. Virna Rossi led the provocation. Here are some of the questions which came up. It would be great to carry on the conversation here.

    1. What is the difference between asking instructors to identify threshold concepts vs learning outcomes?

    2. Are threshold concepts particularly useful because they encourage the staff to think back to before "they knew" to take a novice or fresh view?

    3.I am intrigued by the question of how we can design assessments that evaluate threshold concepts... in addition to evaluating learning outcomes.

    Take care everyone

    Celia and Fiona

  2. OK, some starters.
    1 Maybe threshold concepts are just particular kinds of learning outcomes? The problem here is, learning outcomes are things that people can do, whereas threshold concepts sound more like facts, like stuff - nouns rather than verbs. That's why I prefer threshold capabilities or practices to threshold concepts.
    2 I suspect so. I think it's very hard to teach a threshold concept when you've already crossed the threshold, and if you've forgotten what life was like on the other side of the threshold. If you can recall the way you crossed the threshold, you may be able to bring your students with you on a similar journey. A good way is often to guide the students to invent the concept for themselves. Guided discovery rather than telling. Don't start with the threshold concept. Start with the problem the threshold concept is intended to solve.
    3 I think my comments on question 1 address this as well. It's easier, and much more important, to assess outcomes, achievements, than it is to assess knowledge of facts or stuff. People can tell you facts without understanding them, without being able to do anything useful to or with the facts. Achieving an outcome means doing something! Unless all you are doing is recalling the way you did it before… Assessment is hard!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.