Crossing Thresholds in Learning — Julie Timmermans

If you had to name the most important concept in your course – the concept without which learners couldn’t progress, what would it be?  Would it be a “threshold concept”?

First introduced by Meyer and Land in 2003, a threshold concept is defined in the following way:

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).”  (Meyer & Land, 2003, p. 412).

So, among other qualities, the definition shows that a threshold concept may be
• irreversible (unlikely to be forgotten or “unlearned”)
• integrative (exposing the previously hidden inter-relatedness of something)
• potentially troublesome (causing learners to struggle or “get stuck”)
• bounded (demarcating the boundaries of a discipline)
(Meyer & Land, 2003)

The most non-negotiable characteristic of a threshold concept, however, is that it is transformative, causing a shift in perspective and identity (J.H.F. Meyer, personal communication, May 1, 2009).

Perhaps it’s the allure of transformation, but there’s something deeply appealing about the notion of threshold concepts, and the idea has generated excitement among educators across disciplines and across the globe.   It may be the simple, yet powerful notion of a “threshold” marking the passage from one space or state or stage to another.  Also, we don’t have to be scholars of teaching and learning to know or feel that such concepts exist in our own fields – concepts that facilitate learners’ transformation from (for example), students of Engineering to Engineers, from students of Accounting to Accountants, or from Philosophy students to Philosophers.  But threshold concepts have enticed many instructors to become active teaching and learning scholars, as they seek to identify threshold concepts in their own fields.  The following are some examples of threshold concepts that have emerged in the increasingly rich literature:

  • Depreciation in Accounting
  • Central limit theorem in Statistics
  • Opportunity cost in Economics
  • Entropy in Physics
  • Irony in English literature
  • Pain in Medicine

For those of us interested in facilitating the learning others, threshold concepts provide a powerful lens through which to approach the design of instruction.  Engaging in the process of identifying threshold concepts asks that we shift from thinking about course or program content from the instructor’s perspective to thinking about content from the learners’ perspectives.  The question is no longer, “What do we teach?”, but “What do we want students to learn?”.

As the definition implies, the initial encounter with a threshold concept may be “troublesome”.  Why might this be?  In a previous blog posting, I explored the idea that learning that leads to growth of mind – to transformation – may involve giving up an existing balance – that is, experiencing some disequilibrium (Kegan, 1982).  It’s understandable that this experience might be “troublesome,” cognitively and emotionally, since learners are faced with the possibility of giving up existing ways of thinking, acting, and valuing that have probably worked well until now.

But herein lies the power of a threshold concept – it may be developmentally very productive (Timmermans, 2010), stimulating the disequilibrium learners need to begin or continue that process of transformation.  But the journey from recognition of a threshold concept to integration of a threshold concept takes time, courage, work, and guidance to implement.  As instructors, we must therefore ask how we can intentionally design our courses so that we reveal threshold concepts for students and support their struggle, and possibly, their transformation.

Some resources for getting started on threshold concepts:

Web Site
The most comprehensive web site on threshold concepts is maintained by Mick Flanagan, University College London.  Here, you’ll find many disciplinary examples, links to articles, videos, and presentations:

Land, R., Meyer, J. H. F., & Smith, J.  (2008).  Threshold concepts within the disciplines.  Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense.

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (Eds.). (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Meyer, J. H. F., Land, R., & Baillie, C. (Eds.). (2010).  Threshold concepts and transformational learning.  Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense.

Key Articles and Book Chapters
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning: Improving student learning theory and practice – 10 years on (pp. 412-424). Oxford, UK: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49, 373-388.  doi: 10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5

Meyer, J.H.F., Land, R. & Davies, P. (2006) Implications of threshold concepts for course design and evaluation.  In J.H.F. Meyer & R. Land (Eds.), Overcoming barriers to student understanding (pp. 195-206). Oxon, UK: Routledge,

Upcoming Conference:
Fourth Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference:

Additional references used in this posting:

Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Timmermans, J.  (2010).  Changing our minds: The developmental potential of threshold concepts.  In. J. H. F. Meyer, R. Land., & C. Baillie (Eds.), Threshold concepts and transformational learning (pp. 3-19).  Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense.


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As the Instructional Developer - Consulting and Research, Julie supports research on teaching and learning. She is Chair of the annual teaching and learning conference at uWaterloo: Opportunities and New Directions and manages the Learning Innovation and Teaching Enhancement (LITE) Grant program. She also collaborates on research projects, regularly reviews journal manuscripts, and works on publications. Most recently, Julie has had the opportunity to facilitate a week-long course design workshop in Japan and see first-hand how the questions, frustrations, and joys related to teaching are both similar and different across cultures.

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