Threshold Concepts by Mark Deacon

If you don’t “get” this, you won’t be able to understand “that”.

Schools are feeling the impact of curriculum and accountability reforms. There are heartfelt pleas for the future of the arts which are being squeezed out to make space for subjects included in accountability measures. There is also a decline within subject provision.

Science teachers are reporting an inability to deliver learning through practical enquiry as they need time to teach “facts”. Science teachers see themselves in a battle for the soul of science.

There is a fascinating debate to be had around knowledge versus skills and processes, but we need to be pragmatic, we are where we are and to deliver learning through approaches other than didactic teaching, we need to find alternative ways of delivering our curriculum.

We need to work smarter.

Threshold Concepts may be the means by which we can work smarter.

Glynis Cousins (2006) offers an attractive point of view:

“[a} focus on threshold concepts enables teachers to make refined decisions about what is fundamental to a grasp of the subject they are teaching. It is a “less is more” approach to curriculum design.”

Mayer and Land (1992) writing about undergraduate economics proposed that there are some key areas of knowledge which a failure to grasp will limit future learning. The features of these concepts are that they are:

  • Transformative – they change the way you think – a cognitive shift,
  • Troublesome – counter-intuitive, alien knowledge,
  • Irreversible – difficult to unlearn,
  • Integrative – draw ideas together,
  • Bounded – serve a specific limited purpose,
  • Discursive – extend and enhance language
  • Liminal – essentially a rite of passage.

Threshold concepts have been explored in the extensive literature concerning undergraduate courses. The range of literature seems to span all major disciplines. It also includes some vocational courses e.g. business and management, medicine social work and librarianship.

Threshold leads learners to “think like a…” Once through the threshold a learner’s thinking will reflect that of the subject area they are exploring.  Recent publications have raised questions around threshold skills which may include manipulatives in science or procedures in mathematics e.g. changing the subject of an equation. Again, it is easy to suggest candidate “Threshold Skills” within science learning, measurement, graphing, changing the subject of an equation etc. There have also been questions raised about “Threshold Thinking”. This has been investigated in medical schools. Successful medical students reach a point where they begin to “think like a doctor”.

Current literature includes discussion which areas of subject specific learning might constitute a threshold concept.  Within my own specialist teaching area (science) there are some attractive candidates as threshold concepts;

  • Gravity – surrounded by misconceptions, conceptually difficult and with demanding mathematics.
  • Evolution – an area in which theory is often ill defined and over simplified leading to misconceptions with consequent difficulty in subsequent progression.

There are those who argue that threshold concepts are simply “hard stuff” after all we would expect that a threshold concept would be “hard stuff”.

Timmermann and Meyer (2017) offer a useful framework for thinking through how we might find threshold concepts. Their framework offers clusters of actions which educators can take to help identify threshold concepts.

Cluster One is essentially talking to people. For teachers this ought to be stating the obvious. We need to talk to colleagues, experts, and most importantly our pupils. What is knowledge and first- and second-person experience telling us is getting in the way of progress? This resonates with some of the current work being done in medical schools where there is remarkable consistency between trainee doctors in medical schools around the world as to what they need to master before being able to think in a clinical way.

What is an expert understanding of a subject area? This is Cluster Two thinking. How do experts in the subject and teachers (who of course may not be experts) in a specialised area of knowledge conceptualise the area. This process needs to finish with naming the Threshold Concept in one or two words, an important step as it enables the teacher to crystallise the idea, grasping it’s essence.

Cluster 3 -7 are concerned with designing effective teaching schemes with appropriate learning objectives, activities and assessments which will guide learners through the process of cross the threshold concept.

The current school curriculum is unlikely to change in the near future. Redesigning the curriculum to enable pupils to have time to master threshold concepts may offer a way of ultimately freeing up time for investigation and experimentation.

Cousin offers four principles which could lead to mastery of threshold concepts:

  • Explore what appear to be threshold concepts,
  • Listen to what pupils are saying especially the language they are using to shape their knowledge,
  • Tolerate confusing and take pupils through what is confusing them,
  • Revisit learning.

Colleagues will of course be shouting that this appears to tie up more time rather than freeing time. But imagine –

Rather than working in an essentially modular way giving each area of the science curriculum an equal amount of time, we give threshold concepts a larger slice of the time pie. The aim being to make sure the thresholds were mastered.

As pupils progress through the course they come across difficult liminal ideas but can apply their threshold learning moving on rapidly. For example:

  • Molar calculations – the understanding of which opens up the whole area of stoichiometry without which there is little quantitative chemistry,
  • Surface area to volume ratio (SA:Vol) – governs many key processes inducing the rate of chemical reactions, heat loss, oxygen uptake, diffusion and osmosis, absorption and metabolism.

Investigating Threshold Concepts in our subject areas offers a way by which teachers can work to explore theirs and their pupil’s understanding of key concepts.

To tackle these areas teacher’s, need to engage with pupils to ask them what they find difficult and to articulate their understanding. We need to tolerate confusion, being guided through the fog.

A focus on Threshold Concepts could open up curriculum time to reclaim the soul of our subjects.


An introduction to threshold concepts Glynis Cousin, Higher Education Academy

Dr. Glynis Cousin: Senior Adviser, Higher Education Academy, York Science Park, Innovation Way, York YO10 5BR.

Planet No. 17 December 2006 Accessed 04/03/20

Timmermans, J.A. Meyer J.H. A framework for working with university teachers to create and embed ‘Integrated Threshold Concept Knowledge’ (ITCK) in their practice Pages 354-368 | Received 27 Jan 2017, Accepted 18 Sep 2017, Published online: 17 Oct 2017 Accessed 04/03/2020

Meyer E and Land R

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines Occasional Report 4 © ETL Project, Universities of Edinburgh, Coventry and Durham, 2003. Accessed 04/03/20

Mark Deacon

Lead Tutor


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