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Today I would like to briefly explore the field of study in academic pedagogy known as “Threshold Concepts.”1 A threshold concept is a portion of learning in a given subject matter that has the following characteristics:
Threshold concepts (TCs) are bounded by the discipline, in that they are contained within it, they are troublesome, because they are conceptually difficult, do not connect directly with something else the learner knows, and because they ask learners to take on new identities that may be uncomfortable. TCs are liminal, in that they are thresholds the learner must pass through to move on in the discipline, involving a two steps forward, one back, process as the student pushes against knowledge they will find troublesome in some way. TCs are also integrative, in that they require the integration of new patterns of meaning around the concept, and TCs are transformative, because they transform the learner’s understanding of a concept central to the field, after which their new learning builds upon and in relation to that concept. Finally, TCs are irreversible, because once the learner passes through the threshold, it is unlikely they will be able to unlearn or “unsee” the concept - to ever see it again in the way they did before.2
Why is this important? Well, if each field of study was able to articulate its threshold concepts, that would help teachers of that field immensely. Many of these things may be intuitively understood, but articulating them, and encouraging broad understanding of them, would be a good thing. How?
Well, if you see a student struggling to learn something that is a TC, then you know most of the parameters of the problem they are having, and can tailor your help. If you know the TCs in your subject, you can design your syllabus around those, to spend more time in those areas, perhaps. If you can’t figure out why the whole class suddenly got all glassy eyed… well they might have stopped at the threshold and can’t go through without some tailored help.
How about an example? The most famous one, commonly used in TC research, is opportunity cost in the study of Economics. Once students understand the concept of opportunity cost it helps them learn other economic models, and it appears in many other aspects of economic analysis. Before understanding it, they might have not thought about whether there was a cost to forgoing one opportunity for another. But once they get it, it integrates other things they are learning, and it transforms their understanding of central concepts in the field of economics. Once learned, a student is not likely to forget it.
Another example, for teachers of history, is that “History is a constructed narrative.” That is, we can never truly know the history of a subject, because it is filtered through time, the evidence gathered, and the mind and biases of the historian. Once you learn about this fundamental limitation of historical analysis, you can never unlearn it.
So what are those examples in your own subject? What are the concepts that students must understand to move on in the discipline? What concepts integrate new patterns, and which ones are transformative and irreversible? Check them against the framework described above - the concept needs to satisfy all of those criteria before it is a TC.
In her seminal article beginning the examination of the TCs embedded in legal education, Professor Mel Weresh addresses the Threshold Concept of the malleability of law, which is embedded in the idea of teaching students how to “think like a lawyer.” Part of that transition happens when students come to realize that law is malleable, which is troublesome because many students start law school believing that the law can be defined, and is mostly fixed at any given time.
Malleability of law is a concept bounded within the discipline, because it serves as a demarcation of law as a disciplinary area. It is a concept that is integrative, because, once revealed, it exposes students to interrelated concepts. Once mastered, the concept is irreversible. Understanding the malleability of law is troublesome for most students and may seem counterintuitive or alien. Finally, it is transformative as it occasions a shift in the student’s perception of the law and how it applies to society.3
Once you start to think of your subject in this way, a new world opens up. It helps you to understand your course(s) in a different way, and it also helps you to understand student struggles during the course in a different way. You might even teach the students - while you are teaching them a threshold concept - that it is one, and what that means.
What are the threshold concepts in what you teach? Please describe them in the comments by clicking this button:
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Threshold concepts were initially described by J. F. Meyer and Ray Land in 2006. J. F. Meyer and Ray Land, Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2006). Researchers since that seminal work have described threshold concepts in their fields, including Economics: P. Davis, The Construction of Frameworks in Learners’ Thinking: Conceptual Change and Threshold Concepts in Economics, 30 International Review of Economics Educ. 100135 (2019), and Writing Studies: Linda Adner-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Naming What We Know (2016).
Id. (as quoted in David I. C. Thomson, What We Do: The Life of the Legal Writing Professor, 50:2 J. Law & Educ. 170, 227 (2021))
Melissa H. Weresh, Stargate: Malleability as a Threshold Concept in Legal Education, 63 J. Legal Educ. 689, 690 (2014).