Threshold concepts and student-academic partnerships

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Threshold concepts are the transformative moments that students undergo as they develop in their subject and ‘become’ specialists.  A student successfully crossing a threshold by grasping a particular concept will think differently, speak differently and be able to make connections between other concepts in the discipline they are seeking to master.

For a brief (2-page) introduction to threshold concepts, see Glynis Cousin’s article for the GEES subject centre.

In all subject disciplines, there have been found to be certain concepts subject specialists believe to be central to mastery of that subject (Land et al., 2008).  Threshold concepts can be described as ‘threshold’ ones because they have the following characteristics (Cousin, 2010):

Transformative

Grasping a threshold concept is transformative because it involves an ontological as well as a conceptual shift in the learner. 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. An illustration would be a shift from a student of French to a French speaker. Or a student of architecture to some one who thinks like an architect.

Irreversible

A threshold concept is often irreversible; once understood the learner is unlikely to forget it (this does not exclude revision or rejection of the concept once understood). One
of the difficulties teachers have is that of retracing the journey back to their own days of ‘innocence’, when understandings of threshold concepts eluded them in the early stages of their own learning. Their own understandings have become so internalised that it is hard for them to sympathise with students who are having difficulties. This is why talking to them is so important.

Integrative

Another characteristic of a threshold concept is that it is integrative in that it exposes the hidden interrelatedness of phenomenon. Mastery of a threshold concept often allows the learner to make connections that were hitherto hidden from their view. Things start to click into place.

Bounded

A threshold concept is likely to be bounded in that ‘any conceptual space will have terminal frontiers, bordering with thresholds into new conceptual areas’ (Meyer and Land, 2003: 6). The more interdisciplinary a subject, the more complex this will be.

Troublesome

Finally, a threshold concept is likely to involve forms of ‘troublesome knowledge’; David Perkins (2006: 7) describes such knowledge as ‘that which appears counter-intuitive, alien or seemingly incoherent’. Troublesome knowledge or ‘stuckness’ can be more fully understood through the notion of liminality as I next discuss, but first I should stress that threshold concepts are likely to be contested in any discipline and should be regarded as providing provisional stability for teaching, learning and assessment purposes.

Threshold concepts: further reading

The extract above is taken from Glynis Cousin’s excellent article in the Journal of Learning and Development in Higher Education on threshold concepts and what they can mean for co-creation and partnerships between academics and students:

Cousin, G. (2010). Neither teacher-centred nor student-centred: threshold concepts and research partnerships,Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Issue 2: February 2010.  Available from http://www.aldinhe.ac.uk/ojs/index.php?journal=jldhe&page=article&op=viewFile&path[]=64&path[]=41 [last accessed 6 August 2014]

Mick Flanagan has collected and organised a range of resources (book chapters, journal articles, conference presentations etc.) on threshold concepts on his web space at UCL:

http://www.ee.ucl.ac.uk/~mflanaga/thresholds.html

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