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.



Constructive Alignment in Process

Constructive Alignment October Task 1
In response to the reading of Chapter 4 Biggs & Tang (2007) Teaching for Quality Learnng at University: What the Student does. Maidenhead: SRHE & OUP

I am to answer this assignment by presenting my explanation in the form of a classroom activity. I have aimed to explain Constructive Alignment in a way that a classroom of K3 learners could understand. This exercise is directed to a group of K3 learners, and involves through practice and discussion adequate means from which to understand the term ‘ constructive alignment’.

It seems unjust for me to discuss in this post how I would in theory inform a K3 student of Creative Alignment, as from what I now understand C.A. is so much about the experiential benefits of learning and the effects it has on the individual aside of taught theory.

Therefore I choose to adopt the workshop model not only to illustrate an example from my own teaching context, but to also answer the October assignment. The workshop model seems appropriately relevant to reflect on the fundamental theories inherent in Constructive Alignment, i.e. ‘that experience has to be reflected and provided independently from learning’ Chapter 4 Biggs & Tang (2007) And from what I may add – Outside of teaching and informed by the experiences and learning activities of the learners themselves.

When considering what is Constructive Alignment? I would first seek to ensure all K3 learners understand the meaning of those two words separately from one another i.e. constructive and alignment.  And it is from this first cognitive enquiry that I will introduce the learner to C.A. through the following creative workshop.
Please note, this workshop has been designed to assist in the understanding of CA for a K3 class of graphically minded learners. This addresses my own undergraduate / postgraduate teaching context as Graphic Communications lecturer.

Duration 1Hr 30Mins

‘Adults and children sometimes have boards in their bedrooms or living rooms on which they pin pieces of paper: letters, snapshots, reproductions of paintings, newspaper cuttings, original drawings, postcards. On each board all the images belong to the same language and are all more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant. Logically, these boards should replace museums’.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972
Prior to the session all K3 students please familiarise yourself with the selection of workshop images and the suggested online resources ( see below)
Through completing these few simple exercises you will be introduced to Constructive Alignment and more importantly, learn how to reflect on your practice, not repeat answers.

What is Constructive Alignment ?

Teachers notes: C.A. is defined as a method of teaching which builds on learning through experience aligned with a learners own practice.
C.A. is to do with direct experience, it is believed that learned experience has to be reflected and provided independently from learning, therefore a learners involvement with the learning activities and understanding of the subject to explore is holistically aligned to their learning outcomes.

‘Constructive Alignment is common sense’

‘..It is obvious yet most university teaching is still not aligned’

‘A common method of grading students is comparing how well they compared to each other (norm-referenced) rather than whether an individuals learning matched the learning outcomes’ Chapter 4 Biggs & Tang (2007)

To construct means to build (and you usually build upon something or with something) Have you ever tried to build something out of nothing?! To be constructive means to build in knowledge and to develop skills through personal activity.

Teachers Notes: Constructive learners use their own activity to construct their knowledge.
‘What the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does’ (T.J. Shuell, “Cognitive Conceptions of Learning ” (1986), 429 ).

Alignment is all about the way different elements work together, when your teacher asks your class to stand in a line for assembly, and when you all do this correctly, this is a form of alignment. When you empty all your pencils out of your art-box, they most likely will fall all over the table randomly, it is highly unlikely they will fall aligned. But if you consider all your pencils individually you will see that they share many different relationships, for example some are the same height, some are the same colour, some are sharp, etc.

Teachers Notes: Alignment through teaching states that the learning activity in the intended outcomes expressed as VERBS are activated through the teaching AND in the assessment task. Alignment is achieved by ensuring that the intended VERB in the outcome statement is present in the teaching/learning activity and in the assessment task.

For your first exercise –

Look at the 100 images provided for you in the folder on your desktop and demonstrate the many different ways you can Align them into different groups, activities or collections. Refer to the list of verbs below for examples to represent.

20 Minutes Task

Well Done! You have demonstrated that you have skills in visual alignment, aligning similar images based on personal decision making. What you have demonstrated is a common skill which we all share. Everybody in your class has alignment skills,

Teachers Notes:  ‘The level of engagement is expressed in the cognitive level of the verbs used’ Chapter 4 Biggs & Tang (2007) To what level a learner aligns their learning activities with high level VERBS and how they choose to describe the reasoning behind their decision making and choices enables the teacher to understand at what level of assessment, learning outcomes are to be assessed.

Groups of images which are assorted by verbs such as ‘tall’ ‘small’ ‘blue’ ‘wide’ ‘square’ ’round’ etc all low level cognition
Groups of images which are assorted by verbs such as ‘twisted’ ‘cut’ ‘creased’ ‘scattered’ ‘discarded’ ‘suspended’ ‘layered’ ‘symmetrical’ etc high level

Activities are verbs, specify what verbs the students must enact in the context of the discipline being taught.

Now lets look at everybody’s examples of aligned collections, who would like to describe the decision making that informed their choices of alignment?

5 Minute Discussion

If we look at the whole groups outcome, can anybody tell me what else we can see?

You were each given the same 100 images, but you have all aligned your images in entirely different ways..

The way you have chosen to align these images is based on your individual tastes, your preferences, and personal experiences, which means that the decision making which informs your alignment is special to you and this is why everybody has completed the task and has different outcomes from each other.
And here is another interesting fact about constructive alignment, everybody has completed the task and got it all 100% correct.

Teachers Note: ‘While teachers will encourage ‘intended’ learning outcomes.  we should also allow for desirable but unintentional outcomes, as these will inevitably occur when students have the freedom to construct their own knowledge’.Chapter 4 Biggs & Tang (2007)

When using constructive alignment in the classroom, each student is assessed individually it is not about outperforming each other, there is no best student or worst student, there is however the freedom to construct from you own knowledge, whilst ‘learning specific content to acceptable standards’ Instructional Alignment: Searching for a Magic Bullet. S.A.Cohen 1987

Now for your second exercise –

With your aligned images design a poster and demonstrate how well you understand what is meant when we use the term ‘alignment’ .
Use typography and titling to help explain each individually aligned group of images. Consider using a typeface with a similar appearance to effectively represent your chosen group of images. When looking for the right typeface consider its weight, legibility and visual appearance.For example if you have a selection of images which all look square, you may want to find a san serif condensed typeface, as this can be considered to have a similar visual appearance to your aligned imagery.

20 Minute task

Who would like to describe the reason behind their choices and the relationships that are happening when we look at both the text and images together?

5 Minute discussion

Now for fun, choose two groups of aligned images which you consider to be opposite from one another in visual appearance, and exchange the typefaces used in each title for one another.

Who feels this looks better than their original type and image composition?
Who feels this looks worse than their original type and image composition?

Those that feel their images look better form a group and write down the reasons behind your decision.
Those that feel their images look worse form a group and write down the reasons behind your decision.

10 Minute discussion

Teachers Notes: Learners are helped to do what they need to do in order to meet the intended ILO’s of the course, learners are asked to record learning related incidents and reflect upon them.

As a class lets now discuss these two choices.

5 Minute discussion

What do you think the learning outcome of this last exercise was?

10 Minute discussion

Teachers Notes: Discussions included as part of the learning activities and group work activities assist the learners in engaging not only with the topics that need to be learned but with the learning activities they need to engage with in order to achieve the intended outcomes.

With Constructive Alignment in the classroom a proper means of assessment is crucial. You have all presented such unique designs and individual responses to the last task and it is impossible to evaluate the learning outcomes via norm referenced assessment, this group exercise has demonstrated how well you understand the subject being taught. Your group discussions have shown evidence of the learning that has taken place and have for certain individuals shown evidence of reflection and analysis in the written evaluation.


Assessment of this workshop would ensure the alignment of the learning outcomes and the teaching activities as related to the expression and elicit use of the verbs therein described. i.e. How well the learner demonstrated an ability to understand the concept of aligning and grouping together a class of images, the level to which he/she had represented the verbs list referred to in the activity and also the types of verbs (low level , high level) the learner had used to assist in decision making. The assessment would also take into account at what level of cognition the learner was able to describe his/her informed decision making within written and group work related discussions through reflection and analysis.

Learning Resources

Design Online :

Hans Peter Feldmann – Sonntagsbilder 

Roy Arden – The World as Will and Representation
Collect the World Exhibition 2011

Golden Voyager Record Mission 1977

Online search tools:

Google image recognition

Search by drawing

Search by colour

Image Aggregators:

Verb List –