Integrating Threshold Concepts Into the Curriculum

What Are Threshold Concepts? 

Threshold concepts are core ideas that are initially challenging for students to grasp, but with continued learning these concepts lead to a higher level of understanding. Upon comprehension of threshold concepts, students become equipped to apply this deep understanding to more advanced and broad ideas in that discipline. Once the concept is grasped, it is difficult for that learning to be reversed. 

These concepts are considered transformative, as they transform the student’s understanding in that discipline. Examples of threshold concepts are outlined below (Tucker et. al., 2014).  



Threshold Concept
English Thesis Writing
Math Limits
Law Precedence
Economics Opportunity Cost
Statistics Sampling Distribution


Nine Considerations for Integrating Threshold Concepts into the Curriculum: 

Meyer and Land (2006) suggest nine considerations for instructors when implementing threshold concepts into their course.These considerations are meant to assist instructors in having a smooth introduction of threshold concepts into the curriculum and to enhance student comprehension of course material.       

1. Focus the Curriculum on These Transformative Concepts  

  • Threshold concepts can transform students learning, making them incredibly important aspects of the curriculum. This consideration encourages creators of the class framework to simplify the curriculum and centre it on these key concepts.  

2. Emphasize Student Engagement 

  • Having students actively engage with material has been shown to help students understand the application of these concepts to a variety of contexts. Creating a framework of engagement helps the students discover new ways to think about concepts and transform students’ knowledge. For example, instructors could use active learning strategies, such as case studies, discussions, or problem-solving activities, to incorporate the threshold concept into the course.  

3. Listen to Ensure Student Understanding  

  • As students learn threshold concepts, they go through a “liminal state,” the period of uncertainty when students have not yet completely grasped the threshold concept. It is crucial for instructors to receive feedback from the students in the liminal state, to ensure that they understand the material and undergo that transformative process to comprehend the concept.  

4. Recognize that Students are Rebuilding Their Understanding 

  • The students may be letting go of their previous conception of that knowledge to learn the threshold concept, so the instructor should ensure that they provide a supportive learning environment to accommodate what Meyer and Land call “troublesome knowledge” (2006). For example, in high school physics classes, many students only learned to solve problems containing linear, one dimensional electric fields. Upon entering university, engineering students must solve problems containing non-linear fields. Many students approach those non-linear problems using their high-school methods, initially rejecting this new version of the concept. 

5. Be Aware of Student’s Underlying Knowledge  

  • Meyer and Land (2006) suggest that course designers should acknowledge students’ “underlying episteme,” when students have previously retained a version of the threshold concept that might be correct in some contexts but is not the authorized understanding from the specific curriculum. It is important to ensure that the students are gaining knowledge in the context of the course material related to the threshold concept. For example, counter-intuitive knowledge, like the concept of reactive power for engineering students, goes against what students believe about power because it is a “wattless power that can do no work” (Flanagan et. al., 2010). Students must let go of this initial understanding of what power is to grasp the threshold concept and fully understand power circuits.  

6. Tolerate Student’s Uncertainty 

  • Allowing students to work through the state of transition is important, as many students often want to give up. Having students reflect on their learning is important because it determines whether students will critically engage with the material. Peer review can encourage students in grapple with uncertainty.  

7. Acknowledge Student Variation in this Liminal Space  

  • Some students navigate the liminal space between confusion and understanding of a threshold concept and come out the other side, and some do not. Instructors should be aware that there is variation in how, when, and if a threshold concept is understood by students. Instructors can see how students are progressing through this liminal space using frequent, low-stakes check-in assignments throughout the semester.  

8. Instruct Students using Different Angles and Pathways  

  • Threshold concepts in the classroom should be recursive and excursive. Recursive learning means that students approach the topic from many angles until the knowledge is formed. Excursive learning is the acknowledgement that learning is a journey with some unexpected points and an eventual destination. 

9. Emphasize the Full Concept, Instead of Shortcuts 

  • In teaching threshold concepts, many instructors want to initially teach a simplified, or naïve, version of the concept and get more refined and complex later on. However, upon being implemented in the classroom, students tended to settle for the naïve version rather than the fuller understanding, leading to less comprehension of the threshold concept. It is advised to maintain the full concept when instructing students.  




This page was created by Veja Lianga.

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