Getting Stuck: On Threshold Concepts

Why do some students get stuck on particular disciplinary concepts? Why is it that this difficulty is sometimes encountered when the concepts seem perfectly straightforward to us as their teachers, or when other students in the same cohort  grasp them with ease? Investigating this question in the context of an ESRC funded project on Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments between 2001 and 2005, Jan Meyer and Ray Land began to develop their theory of “Threshold Concepts,” which they described as conceptual kingpins that unlock disciplinary understanding in a profound, epistemic fashion. They propose that their work serves as both an evolution of, and a corrective to, the generalised principles of outcome-based education and constructive alignment which underpin contemporary approaches to Higher Education programme design in the UK. However, they also claim that their theory underscores a limit to outcome-based education insofar as an achievable learning outcome cannot necessarily capture the ontological and intellectual uncertainty involved in grasping a threshold concept. Their ongoing work proposes that threshold concepts should be the “Jewels of the Curriculum” around which learning design focuses to enable students to engage deeply with the discipline.

More than just conceptual building blocks that students need to climb in order to gain disciplinary knowledge (“core concepts”), threshold concepts are what transform students into individuals who begin to think like experts in the discipline and who also begin to perceive the world through the lens of that disciplinary understanding.  First published in 2003 as a report for the ETLE project, the paper for this SoTLN session has since been revised and republished as the Introduction to their seminal 2006 collected edition Overcoming Barriers to Students Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge.  Three further collected editions on the theory have since been published by the authors, the most recent in March 2016.

The rapid proliferation of studies on threshold concepts, which have focused upon devising ways of designing curricula and assessing student learning within different disciplinary contexts, have led some to argue the theory has taken hold without sufficient rigorous critique of its central premise (much in the same way as we discussed with regards to deep/surface learning last year). One such critique is supplied by the author of our second paper for the session, Rod O’Donnell.  He interrogates the validity of threshold concepts on multiple grounds, not least that the vague elasticity of the theory promotes it as a “magic bullet” for recurring issues with teaching and learning in Higher Education.  However this, he proposes, risks some profoundly undesirable outcomes.

Questions to consider:

  • Are you convinced (or seduced!) by Land and Meyer’s theory?
  • Do you agree with O’Donnell’s critique, or would you have counter arguments?
  • What might constitute a threshold concept in your discipline? Which of the knowledge categories described by Land and Meyer does this concept fall into (ritual, inert, conceptually difficult, alien and/or tacit  knowledge, pp.7-9)?  Is it rooted in “troublesome language” or even in the “Ways of Thinking and Practising” in your discipline? How many “troublesome” categories do you think the concept needs to belong to before it can be called a threshold concept rather than a core concept?
  • Land and Meyer note that some disciplines have greater difficulty identifying Threshold Concepts than others. Is this the case with your discipline? Do you agree with O’Donnell that the problem is with the elasticity and imprecision of the theory, or do you think there is something more fundamental at work here?
  • What might be the consequences of putting threshold concepts at the heart of curriculum design?  Are there issues with regard to assessment, especially bearing in mind O’Donnell’s critique of the difficulty of evaluating conceptual understanding versus demonstrable ability?

Meeting Report

Our lively discussion of the two papers tackled the nature of threshold concepts head-on, concentrating on the ‘truth’ of threshold concepts as an idea, the practical worth of the theory, and the potential of organising a curriculum along threshold concept lines. As an appetiser for our group discussion, we reviewed and discussed a list of possible threshold concepts experienced in various disciplines and subject areas. Separate discussions around the table noted that the list felt unfinished, the stated thresholds not quite applicable to our own particular understandings of our disciplines. How, then, could such concepts be used to underpin a programme of study?

We began the discussion proper by challenging whether threshold concepts in fact exist, or at least in quite the way Meyer and Land argue. We were in agreement that challenging concepts certainly arise in every discipline, but, it was felt, the ‘branding’ of such difficulty as ‘threshold’ was neither necessary nor immediately helpful. Indeed, some felt that conceptualisation of difficulty in these terms was almost overthinking the issue: of course areas in every subject are more difficult than others, but it was unclear whether thinking of these aspects as ‘threshold’ – not just difficult but perhaps unattainable – would aid in their resolution, or in fact actively work to prevent student attainment by discouraging them from trying. Telling a student that something is a threshold concept might turn them off from approaching it, making yet more difficult the thing already recognised as an area of difficulty. This was felt to be an issue exacerbated by the present system of UK higher education, which tends to work against the taking of risks and chances.

Others found the idea of thresholds seductive, and the theory potentially useful in helping to identify and be aware of areas of (perhaps tacit) knowledge that ought to be touched on in some way in order to help students to progress. From this point of view, there is a sense in the threshold concepts literature of really trying to intellectually grapple with a process which is hard to positively identify and define but which, for that very reason, is worth pursuing. It was noted that threshold concepts have become something of an industry in educational development circles, partly as a result of that seductive quality, but partly also as a reaction to the existing modes of outcome-based, neatly ‘packaged up’ education. However, we felt that while there is thus an attraction in threshold concepts as something of a problematizing ‘pedagogy of uncertainty’, this does make it potentially difficult to apply in terms of a full curriculum; as a way of organising courses, of helping students progress, how would it hold up in practice? Generally speaking, the feeling seemed to be ‘not particularly well’: the group felt that in identifying particular things to put at the heart of the curriculum, one either misses other important things, or the whole theory starts to slip.

There is, to be sure, a psychologically pleasing experience in grasping a difficult concept, in experiencing that ‘eureka’ moment – and certainly the more gradualist approach to learning built through current programme structures doesn’t necessarily afford such opportunities on a regular basis. But in thinking about how we might organise learning to afford students these ‘a ha!’ moments, we realised we would have also to tackle the issue of learner individuality. After all, threshold concepts, as acknowledged by Meyer and Land, can be fundamentally individual. For example, legal trust was noted as a hard concept – unless you happen to have a trust fund, in which case it becomes rather more understandable. Or, to put that another way, individuals may naturally meet with different threshold concepts in different places and at different times: for some a curriculum organised along these means could be genuinely transformational, for others a journey in things they’ve already grasped (of course, this is also an issue faced under current educational paradigms). Thus, the troublesome-ness of a concept is not a property of the concept but a property of the learner. So there exists the question of how we can help individual learners in their traversal of the threshold: would one simply present the student with this threshold more often, or is it possible to structure learning to assist in a portal’s traversal which is by nature cognitively (maybe even ontologically) dependent on the individual?

And if that issue is surmounted, how then could you go about measuring the level of success: to what extent can we test whether someone is thinking like a biologist or an archaeologist, or simply mimicking, with whatever level of unconscious or conscious intent, such a state of being? (This is, in fact, something that Meyer and Land address in their 2010 paper on the “Dynamics of Assessment,” if perhaps with uncertain and conditional conclusions.)

This was the sort of discussion which we felt was missing from both the Meyer and Land piece and the critique from O’Donnell. The learner seemed to be absent from both papers, with concepts regarded only as concepts, structurally isolated from the personal experience of the learner and not susceptible to change. One would expect the experience of being liminal – an integral part of the experience of tackling threshold concepts – to potentially change not just the nature of the learner, but also the nature of the concept. Otherwise no concepts would be advanced, or at least only by those with acknowledged ‘mastery’. This is something that the O’Donnell critique does pick up on, with the metaphor of academia as a medieval guild system, complete with lengthy apprenticeships (without power) and an oligarchy of guild masters (with power) controlling both access and progression. Although not, as it happens, a strictly accurate description of craft guilds, this did seem to be mud that sticks in a number of ways as regards the process of education; that said, it wasn’t clear that this metaphor was a valid critique of the methodology of threshold concepts alone so much as a critique of all higher education on the UK model. Moreover, Meyer and Land’s work on thresholds did hold value for us in terms of an approach to thinking about learner understanding of a subject, which the critique paper somewhat misrepresents as students being brainwashed into a certain way of thinking – this may be the case, depending on how the theory is applied, but is not a condition of the theory. Concomitantly, it was suggested that, actually, operating within a disciplinary silo of master and apprentice isn’t always a bad thing for a limited amount of time: sometimes difficult fundamentals need to be taught, understood and traversed in order for a student to be empowered to operate as an independent agent.

So: where next? There was clearly a distinction to be drawn between what is simply a cognitively challenging concept and what amounts to an ontological change in being. Several members of the group felt that if a threshold concept had to be absolutely life-transforming, then it hadn’t occurred to them – or at least only extremely rarely. But, that said, we felt that thinking together about possible disciplinary threshold concepts allowed a fascinating insight into other ways of seeing the world that are intrinsic to a subject, and that the exploration of such insights can only be a good thing. Understanding that, however precise we think our own disciplinary terminology, such terms might mean something completely different in another discipline is incredibly useful both in reflecting upon our own work and when operating in interdisciplinary fields or across disciplinary boundaries. If knowledge is built through years of trial, error, and experimentation, then it is often the case that students get the finished product of that rather than the dirtier, messier business of research and knowledge creation. And while there are ways to teach process as well as product (e.g. Problem Based Learning, students as research partners, or as co-creators of the curriculum) these methods do tend towards being the exception. As an exception, such methods can often introduce anxiety: a number of group members noted ways of working with students to set the parameters of their own learning, and while some students relished the opportunity to articulate their own opinion in a subject area, others experienced anxiety in operating outside of the system of learning with which they were familiar. Moreover, a curriculum truly organised along the principle of the threshold concept would necessarily bring students in continual contact with the anxious process of failure (albeit potentially removing such anxiety thereby). In fact, it would probably expect such failures, which left us with a final question reminiscent of our discussions on Dweck: would it be ethical to set someone up to fail? Perhaps – if the assessment could be of process rather than product, if it were formative, or if the criteria for assessment could be about the process of failing itself. It was felt that staging such a curriculum would be a difficult process and something of a brave move in UK HE, but – and given the envying glances some of us had for Alverno’s system in the previous meeting – perhaps one to be considered.

Works Cited

Meyer, J.H. and Land R. (2003) “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines” in C Rust (ed.) Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On.  OCSLD, Oxford.

Meyer, J.H. and Land R (2006) Overcoming Barriers to Students Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. Routledge, Oxford.

Meyer, J.H. and Land R (2010) “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (5): Dynamics o fAssessment” in Meyer, J.H. and Land R and Baillie, C. (eds.) Threshold Concepts and Transofmrational Learning. SensePublishers, Rotterdam.

O’Donnell, R (2010) “A Critique of the Threshold Concepts Hypothesis and an Application in Economics” Working Paper 164. School of Finance and Economics. University of Technology Sydney.

References and papers are available in Paperpile in the folder for 2016/17.


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