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Teaching and Learning

Threshold Concepts


Threshold concepts are fundamental understandings that sit at the heart of a body of knowledge. Students need to 'get' them in order for core disciplinary knowledge to make sense. They are like a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking. They can be challenging, troubling and finally transformative. They matter in curriculum design as there are places in learning where students get 'stuck". Here curricula can be designed to help them take the steps towards really 'getting' the understanding they need to know, which is core to the discipline.

Examples of threshold concepts from broader discipline areas include:

  • 'opportunity cost' in Economics
  • 'gravity' in Physics and Engineering
  • 'depreciation' in Accounting, and
  • 'deconstruction for text analysis' in English literature.

Temperature Gradient: An example of a threshold concept

Through a simple experiment, a trainee chef reflects on the relationship between heat transfer and temperature gradient, both important physics concepts for the chef's art:

Temperature Gradient: An example of a threshold concept

  1. Two identical cups of tea are poured

  2. To cool down one as quickly as possible, milk is added to Cup 1
  3. After waiting a few minutes, milk is added to Cup 2
  4. The chef is asked to reflect which cup would be cooler, Cup 1 or Cup 2?

What do you think?
Intuitively, you would think the first cup will be cooler but it is the second. In the initial stages of cooling, Cup 2 is hotter than Cup 1 (with the milk already in it) therefore loses more heat. In technical terms, this isbecause of the steeper temperature gradient.

Through this simple learning experience, the trainee chef comes to reflect on the concept of heat transfer as a function of temperature gradient. Once this principle is understood, trainee chefs will shift their attention from ingredients to selecting appropriate pots and pans. This kind of shift in understanding a subject marks an important initiation into any subject culture.

Characteristics of Threshold Concepts

There are five key characteristics of a threshold concept:



A shift occurs in the learner's perception. New understandings are assimilated into a learner's biography, becoming part of who they are, how they see and how they feel

In a Law course students learn the principles of justice and of ethical practice in lawyers' roles - codes of conduct, ethical rules and responsibilities, limitations


Once understood the learner is unlikely to forget it. New patterns and connections are recognised and earlier patterns of understanding cannot easily be retrieved. Subsequent variation or a rejection of the new concept is still possible

In an Education course students are required to reflect on performance feedback to identify and action learning opportunities and self-improvements. Reflective and critical thinking become inherent in their professional work


Exposes inter-relatedness, enabling students to coherently integrate what were previously seen as unrelated aspects of the subject. Things start to click into place

In a Health course students learn to deliver safe and effective collaborative healthcare. This calls upon their knowledge of the roles of other health practitioners


Bordering with other thresholds or new conceptual spaces. The more interdisciplinary a subject, the more complex this will be

In a Tourism course students consider the social, economic, political and biophysical dimensions of sustainable tourism

Troublesome knowledge

Difficult to grasp concepts - this may include concepts that: clash, compete or interact; appear illogical, unfamiliar or alien; counter-intuitive and initially very difficult for learners to accept

In an Accounting course the students' desire for the 'correct answer' is counter intuitive to the modelling process that emphasises alternatives used to support problem solving

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