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Teaching and Learning

Threshold Concepts - Strategies and Approaches

The following strategies and approaches can be implemented to ensure key concepts are included when developing course and unit learning outcomes during curriculum design and curriculum review.

Identifying Threshold Concepts in your Discipline

Threshold learning outcomes may already have been developed for your discipline. These can be accessed from the Office of Learning and Teaching (OLT) website. To find them, type "standards" in the search box, to locate those relevant to your discipline.

If OLT learning outcomes have not been developed for your discipline, consider:

  • What do practitioners absolutely need to know (and how do they need to think) in order to become professional members of your field?
  • Use the five characteristics of threshold concepts as a checklist to isolate them from a larger group of concepts.

Designing a Curriculum with Threshold Concepts

Curriculum that is designed around threshold concepts can lead students toward 'aha' moments where their understandings shift significantly. These moments have the power to galvanise learning. Threshold concepts are a useful tool, especially where the curriculum is overloaded. Prior identification of them allows academics to determine the places where students typically get bogged down. This insight can be used to design the curriculum, also learning activities, assessment, and feedback strategies to help students move toward a transformed disciplinary understanding.

Design considerationsDescription

Design with discipline peers

Students take a long time, possibly years, to develop some threshold concepts. Designing teaching and learning of threshold concepts at all levels of a course will be necessary

Identify key areas that need mastery

Explore (ideally with students) what appear to be the threshold concepts in need of mastery.

Listen to students

Due to the irreversible nature of threshold concepts it can be difficult for academics to return to pre threshold concept thinking. Listening to what students' misunderstandings are can lead to academics sympathising with students who are having difficulties

Align threshold concepts with learning outcomes

Threshold concepts at a course level need to be translated into learning outcomes at the unit level

Design learning activities

Design 'a set' of learning activities throughout a course to address students' misunderstandings, focussed on achieving desired course learning outcomes

Accommodate confusion

By demonstrating a tolerance for learner confusion academics can support their students through troublesome points in their learning. Some students fear they are the only ones having difficulty. By creating awareness early on in the course these fears can be alleviated

Deviate and revisit

Teaching and learning a threshold concept often involves moving back and forth through the concept. Learning is often a repetitive process requiring a number of attempts and circling back on the conceptual material to be grasped

Revise

Assess student learning outcomes and revise the next iteration of course and unit design

Common Issues with Threshold Concepts

Liminal states

Students inhabit a transitional space during the process of understanding a threshold concept. This liminal state is when they are going through a change in their outlook and understandings. It can take time. This means that they may:

  • fluctuate between old and new understandings
  • need support during this time to gain understanding
  • move back and forth in the liminal state before they can move through it
  • require specifically designed learning activities
  • substitute mimicry for mastery if left to navigate their own passage

Simplification of threshold concepts

There is a natural tendency for teachers to simplify troublesome concepts. However, with the acquisition of threshold concepts, simplified understanding of the concept won't necessarily lead to more sophisticated understanding. They need the sudden 'Eureka' moment in order to progress their deep learning. Similarly challenging may be thinking about how to relate concepts to students' everyday experiences. For example, an introductory accounting course covers the threshold concept of 'depreciation'. Yet, the absence of budgetary or financial experience in students' backgrounds can undermine the learning. Using students' experience of the depreciating value of phones, cars or televisions in accounting case studies, simulations or role play can help them grasp the concept under consideration.

For teachers, the moment when a student grasps a threshold concept is when they have the pleasure of seeing students really connecting as they move forward in their understanding and learning.