Understanding Threshold Concepts, Spring 2009

By Jennifer Boman, Department of Psychology
King's University College
Spring 2009

One of the key challenges we face as educators is helping students move toward deeper understandings and new ways of thinking in their respective disciplines. A useful framework for thinking about student understanding and subsequent curriculum design is the idea of threshold concepts.  Meyer and Land (2003) introduced threshold concepts as conceptual gateways or portals that students in a particular discipline must pass through in order to arrive at transformed understandings.  Within any course there may be many important concepts that we desire students to master before moving on to the next component of the course curriculum.  Meyer and Land suggest that what distinguishes threshold concepts from "important" concepts is their transformative potential.  Threshold concepts are fundamental to a discipline and may open up new ways of thinking for students.

An example that illustrates the idea of threshold concepts and transformative understanding is the concept of heat transfer described by Meyer and Land (2006).  In their example, a chef experiences a shift in perspective in his understanding of cooking.  Meyer and Land first ask that you imagine the situation of two cups of tea (of equal temperatures) sitting on a countertop.  You add milk to Cup A immediately but wait several minutes before adding milk to Cup B.  Which cup of tea is cooler?  Although the most intuitive answer may be Cup A, the correct response is actually Cup B.  In the initial minutes of cooling, Cup B is hotter and consequently loses more heat because of the steeper temperature gradient.  Meyer and Land suggest that understanding heat transfer as a function of the temperature gradient represents a threshold concept in cooking.  Once chefs pass through this portal of understanding they show a new comprehension of cooking.  Cooking is no longer just about the mixing of ingredients but involves a complex awareness of which pots and pans may be best to use in relation to a given heat source and combination of ingredients.  In other words, the chef's understanding of cooking has been transformed.

So how do faculty recognize which concepts within a discipline are threshold concepts? Meyer and Land (2003) suggest several key characteristics that help identify threshold concepts.  First, threshold concepts have transformative potential in that they require a significant shift in perspective such as the chef's changed understanding of cooking as involving the physics of heat.  Second, threshold concepts are typically irreversible.  Once a learner arrives at a new understanding, he or she is unlikely to forget it.  A cook who understands the concept of heat transfer is unlikely to return to her view of cooking as a simple combination of ingredients.  A third characteristic is that threshold concepts are integrative.  A transformed understanding exposes interrelationships among knowledge that may have been hidden or previously inaccesible to the learner.  Understanding the principle of heat transfer may also help chefs to understand which cooking method (e.g., frying, steaming) is best suited to a given situation.  Finally, a threshold concept may involve what Perkins(1999) terms as "troublesome knowledge" whereby students may find knowledge to be conflicting, counterintuitive, or conceptually difficult.  As in the heat transfer example described above, the leaner needs to come to terms with counterintuitive knowledge in order to come to a new understanding.

Identifying threshold concepts can have important implications for curriculum development.  Focusing on threshold concepts in a discipline may mean shifting our thinking about course design from content coverage to a focus on the key understandings that students need to develop within a discipline.  In recognizing that threshold concepts may involve troublesome knowledge, this shift may also entail a willingness on the part of students to enter into uncomfortable or troublesome states.  Day (2008) suggests that in some programs students can avoid fundamental concepts that require a shift in perspective by choosing alternate pathways or by finding ways to cope with limited or inaccurate understanding.  A focus on threshold concepts may mean allotting more time to helping students pass through certain thresholds.  Identifying threshold concepts and assessing whether or not students have passed through them will ultimately help ensure that students acquire the core understandings and thinking skills that are essential to their discipline.

References

Day, H. (2008, June). 'Uncomfortable knowledge': Are students better learners than academics? Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Threshold Concepts, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Meyer, J.H.F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing within the disciplines in Rust, C (ed.), Improving student understanding: Theory and practice---10 years on. Oxford: Oxford Center for Staff and Learning Development. 

Meyer, J.H.F., & Land, R. (Eds) (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge.  London and New York: Routledge.

Perkins, D. (1999). The many faces of constructivism.  Educational Leadership, 57(3), 6-11.

Reflections Spring 2009
Number 60
The University of Western Ontario