Threshold Concepts: Student and Faculty Perspectives

by Peter Felten

This post is adapted from the introduction to a special issue of “Teaching and Learning Together In Higher Education (Issue 9, Spring 2013).

Meyer and Land developed the “threshold concepts” framework to help faculty focus their teaching on essential aspects of disciplinary knowledge (Meyer & Land, 2005). Threshold concepts act, by definition, like doorways; crossing a particular threshold enables significant new disciplinary learning, often learning that was impossible before. Mastering a threshold concept not only allows the learner to grasp important disciplinary material, but it also reshapes how the learner sees other aspects of the world. When a student understands the concept of opportunity cost in economics, for instance, she not only can apply her understanding to more advanced work in economics, but she thinks differently about how she spends her time when she is not studying economics.

While threshold concepts are transformative, Meyer and Land explain, they are not easy to learn because they involve “troublesome knowledge” (Perkins, 2006). Knowledge can be troublesome for a variety of reasons, but in all cases the crossing of a threshold involves a shift in epistemological understanding, provoking “learners to move on from their prevailing way of conceptualizing a particular phenomenon to new ways of seeing” (Land, 2011, p. 176). In addition, troublesome knowledge has an affective component that calls into question assumptions about or practices linked to identity: “Grasping a threshold concept is never just a cognitive shift; it might also involve a repositioning of self in relation to the subject” (Land et al., 2005, p.58). Precisely because of this difficulty, once crossed, thresholds are unlikely to be reversed; they cannot be unlearned.

Taken together, the special issue’s essays not only provide valuable insights into teaching and learning in the disciplines, but also raise three challenging questions about threshold concepts:

  1. Are threshold concepts inherently disciplinary?
  2. What tend to be the most troublesome aspects of threshold concepts?
  3. Is the metaphor of “threshold” appropriate to describe these concepts?