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?
concept map of transfer theories

Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer – Research Highlights (Part 1)

If writing-intensive courses are a high-impact practice, as George Kuh and others have suggested, what can universities do to help students transition from these high-impact experiences into other contexts and apply what they’ve learned about writing? What bridging strategies (as Perkins and Salomon call them) can faculty employ in their classes to facilitate mindful abstraction? How might course designs foster what King Beach calls critical transitions? And how can colleges prepare students to be boundary crossers when it comes to their writing? From 2011 to 2013, the Center for Engaged Learning sponsored a two-year, multi-institutional research seminar to explore these and other questions about writing transfer, and we’re featuring some of the resulting research this week in Critical Transitions Online.


Here are some of the highlights:

  • In first-year writing courses, content matters.
  • Students need reiterative opportunities for reflection throughout their education.
  • When considering students’ ability to transfer or adapt writing strategies, personal identities matter.
  • Across the university, expectations for student writing often are misaligned.
concept map of transfer theories

Theory-Building: Borrowed Legends for Understanding Transfer

This week the Center for Engaged Learning launches Critical Transitions Online, a free online seminar focusing on the common curricular assumption that students will take writing knowledge and strategies gained in one context (for instance, a first-year writing course) and apply them (or “transfer” them) to other contexts (for instance, a course in a major, or a future workplace). This three-week online event leads into the Critical Transitions Conference at Elon University, June 24-26, which is the culmination of a two-year, multi-institutional Elon Research Seminar (ERS) on writing transfer.

Join week one of CEL’s Critical Transitions Online to learn how ERS participants have adapted learning and transfer theories as borrowed legends for understanding transfer (broadly) in their own research on writing transfer (specifically).