Threshold Concepts an Introduction

Shana Moulton. Whispering Pines 2010

My introduction to ‘Threshold Concepts’ has been informed by the reading of Chapter 18. from the publication by Osmond, J., Turner, A., & Land, R. ‘Threshold Concepts and Spatial Awareness in Transport and Product Design’ and through the article ‘Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning‘ By Jan H. F. Meyer, Ray Land and Caroline Baillie (2010)

As well as the above publications, I also accessed the vast online resource of essays, notes, podcasts and power points on the subject (Administered by the UCL Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering)

‘Grasping a threshold concept is transformative because it involves an ontological as well as a conceptual shift. We are what we know. New understandings are assimilated into our biography, becoming part of who we are, how we see and how we feel’    

Threshold concepts as an approach to student learning, was first introduced into the world of economics almost a decade ago, the above quote was originally presented to Earth Scientists by the academic Glynis Cousin in her essay An introduction to threshold concepts.

Meyer and Land propose that students repeatedly have difficulty with certain areas of their academic practice, and that the understanding of Threshold Concepts at an early stage in their development can radically alter all subsequent perceptions and understandings of their chosen discipline. Once ‘mastered’, Meyers and Land suggest the student is unlikely to return to previous perceptions and understandings. This concept therefore is incredibly powerful and one not without dangers or as cited, without ‘troublesome knowledge’.

With the resulting new cognitive powers surging through a students mental state and the student engaging with unfamiliar and new territory, threshold concepts often require a passage through what is called a ‘liminal stage’ where a degree of difficulty is involved and the student has to address approaches to their practice and conduct which can easily be perceived as counter intuitive from the norm.

Characteristics of a Threshold Concept have been perceived as manifesting through a series of transformative features and may be considered to be “akin to passing through a portal” or “conceptual gateway” that opens up “previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something” Meyer and Land

Threshold Concept Characteristics

Transformative: Once understood, a threshold concept changes the way in which the student views the discipline.
Troublesome: Threshold concepts are likely to be troublesome for the student. Professor David Perkins has suggested that knowledge can be troublesome e.g. when it is counter-intuitive, alien or seemingly incoherent.
Irreversible: Given their transformative potential, threshold concepts are also likely to be irreversible, i.e. they are difficult to unlearn.
Integrative: Threshold concepts, once learned, are likely to bring together different aspects of the subject that previously did not appear, to the student, to be related.
Bounded: A threshold concept will probably delineate a particular conceptual space, serving a specific and limited purpose.
Discursive: Meyer and Land suggest that the crossing of a threshold will incorporate an enhanced and extended use of language.
Reconstitutive: Understanding a threshold concept may entail a shift in learner subjectivity, which is implied through the transformative and discursive aspects already noted. Such reconstitution is, perhaps, more likely to be recognised initially by others, and also to take place over time.

Fascinating stuff! In my next post I will consider Threshold Concepts in relation to the practice and teaching of Graphic Design, with an emphasis on Graphic Communication.