Threshold Concepts in Practice
by Susannah McGowan
Threshold Concepts in Practice, an edited compilation of papers presented at the Fifth Biennial Meeting on Threshold Concepts in 2014, came out earlier this year. This is the third edited volume from Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Mick Flanagan examining the theoretical foundations of the threshold concepts framework, its dissemination and how it looks within multiple disciplines. Let’s step back a moment and look at where the “threshold concept” concept came from and its influence on disciplinary-specific professional development.
The impetus for thinking about important disciplinary concepts as “thresholds” stems from the work of Meyer and Land who led a professional development project at the University of Durham, UK from 2001-2005. Meyer, Land, and many other colleagues explored teaching and learning practices within fifteen departments, looking at first-year courses and final courses. In one of the initial reports from the project, Meyer and Land defined a threshold concept as “akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress” (Meyer & Land, 2003). Their claim is that each discipline has its own set of such concepts and these concepts lead students to deepen and change their understanding of disciplinary ways and practices over time.
Threshold Concepts Characteristics:
One way to think of these concepts and their role in student learning is to look at six characteristics of threshold concepts as defined by Meyer and Land. A threshold concept can be: irreversible (once understood a student cannot look at the concept in any other way); transformative (once understood significant shifts in perception of a discipline occur); integrative (reveals interconnectedness of discipline); troublesome (takes a bit of intellectual wrangling); and bounded (clear demarcation that this resides within one discipline and not another). Taken together, these characteristics are implicit in those “Aha!” moments we look for when working with students; the moment when the intellectual wrangling leads to transformation and transfer.
What do they look like?
What are some of these threshold concepts? The most famous example is the concept of opportunity cost In Economics. Once students understand opportunity cost and the strategies and choices implicit within that concept, they are equipped with new lenses and disciplinary tools to tackle other economic models. In my own research on threshold concept application in history, one professor I worked with defined a historical threshold concept as the notion that ‘history is a constructed narrative’ (Majewski); the idea that history texts (primary sources, secondary, textbooks, etc.) are a series of layered interpretations and the authors’ claims within those historical texts depended on how they analyzed and used (or omitted) evidence. Inherent in these concepts is the underlying list of disciplinary actions, strategies, and practices that students need to practice as they progress through a series of courses.
This progression of learning takes time. Meyer and Land (2006) considered how students move from first-year courses to final courses and what these troublesome, transformative moments look like. Taking the threshold metaphor one step further, Meyer and Land discuss this learning journey as “liminality,” literally evoking the action of being on the cusp of crossing a threshold. These stages occur in two parts:
- the preliminal stage is where prior knowledge and concepts interfere with the new concepts in the course; the liminal stage is where a student thinks, applies, and works with the new concept in some way;
- the postliminal stage represents the student’s ability to think like a member of the discipline where her initial knowledge of the concept has now been transformed and integrated into new knowledge.
Following these stages, the final aspect of defining exactly what Meyer and Land ask faculty practitioners to consider is the threshold and what it means to cross it (or through it) and what understanding looks like when it is transformative, irreversible, and integrative. Approaching learning within a discipline may pose particular challenges that involve the uncovering of hidden practices within a discipline,
in which ways of thinking and practicing that are often left tacit come to be recognized [sic], grappled with and gradually understood. This underlying game is a common feature of the processes of entry, meaning making and identity formation typically required for entry to a given community of practice. (Meyer, Land, & Baillie, 2010, p. xi)
These underlying games support the concept identified – for instance in the case of economics and “opportunity cost.” It is not so much about the terminology per se, as it is about the process of making choices and how a student learns to make those choices and how to weigh the costs and opportunities that foregrounds future work in the discipline. Some authors have suggested that such an awareness of an episteme or the underlying “game” on the part of students determines their progress through passageways of the discipline (Anderson & Day, 2005; Pang & Meyer, 2010). Understanding the ways and practices of a discipline and their integrative nature lead to the transformative and irreversible ways of thinking that Meyer and Land encompass in key concepts.
Implications for professional development
Regardless of the discipline however, the basic premise of even thinking about threshold concepts prompts faculty to consider connecting their teaching to disciplinary ways of thinking in meaningful and profound ways. Furthermore, threshold concepts originated within a higher education setting in order to connect research on learning to the teaching context. Threshold concepts as a conceptual framework provide a heuristic for thinking about central concepts to a discipline in order to identify, acknowledge, and study how they might be taught within higher education (Perkins, 2006). They “help faculty attend to what critical disciplinary concepts and ways of thinking look like from the students’ experience and provide a bridge between the teacher’s (expert practitioner) and the students’ (novice learners) experience” (Bain and Bass, 2011, p. 199). Furthermore, any discussion around threshold concepts functions as its own threshold into discussion about teaching and learning leading to important questions about what disciplinary practitioners know, how this knowledge is validated, and if these concepts constitute disciplinary boundaries (Entwistle et al., 2002; Adler-Kassner & Majewski, 2015). Take a look at any volume of threshold concepts to have a first-hand look at how faculty have implemented threshold concept framework in multiple disciplines.
Resource to explore threshold concepts:
No-frills, comprehensive web site dedicated to all things threshold concepts: http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html
- Adler-Kassner, L., and Majewski, J. (2015). Extending the Invitation: Threshold Concepts, Professional Development, and Outreach (pages 186-202). In L. Adler-Kassner & E. Wardle (Eds.), Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts in Writing Studies (Logan: Utah State University Press).
- Anderson, C. & Day, K. (November 2005). Subject overview report: History. Report from the Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project. University of Edinburgh. Retrieved from:http://www.etl.tla.ed.ac.uk//docs/HistorySR.pdf
- Entwistle, N., McCune, V. and Hounsell, J. (2002). Approaches to studying and perceptions of university teaching: Learning environments: concepts, measures and preliminary findings. ETL Project Occasional Report. Retrieved from http://www.ed.ac.uk/etl/publications.html
- Meyer, J. & Land, R. (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. Occasional Report 4: Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project. Retrieved from http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/142206.pdf
- Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2006). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Issues of liminality. In Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (Eds.). Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding (pp. 19-32). London: Routledge.
- Meyer, J. H. F., Land R., Baillie, C. (2010). Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
- Pang, M. and J.H.F. Meyer. 2010. Modes of Variation in Pupils’ Apprehension of a Threshold Concept in Economics. In Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, ed. J.H.F. Meyer, R. Land, and C. Baillie. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. In press.
- Perkins, D. (2006). Constructivism and troublesome knowledge. In Meyer, J.H.F and Land, R (Eds.), Overcoming barriers to student understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. London, Routledge.
Susannah McGowan works as a visiting teaching fellow in the Centre for Advancing Learning and Teaching(CALT) at University College London. Most recently, she contributed to a Higher Education Academy (HEA) report on SoTL practices in the UK. Her research interests include threshold concepts, SoTL, and effective technologies for learning.