Changing educational practice through ‘Threshold Concepts’ [ICS3]
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Durham
Unit of AssessmentEducation
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Education: Curriculum and Pedagogy, Specialist Studies In Education
Summary of the impact
A Threshold Concept is a new way of thinking, where a specific element of
a curriculum that is difficult for students to understand, such as
`opportunity cost' in Economics or `stress transformation' in Engineering,
irreversibly restuctures the learner's understanding once it is grasped.
Consequently, by identifying Threshold Concepts, and then by adapting
teaching practice and the focus of assessment, educators can significantly
benefit students' progress. Durham's conceptualisation of Threshold
Concepts has had a transformative effect on educational practice,
curriculum design and assessment, particularly in Higher Education (HE),
but also on schools, on educational policy as well as on conceptions of
work-based learning and games design in international companies such as
Nokia. The concept and its application have impacted on professional
practice in HE institutions in at least 30 countries. In the UK, Threshold
Concepts have been adopted by a number of high profile educational
agencies and organisations and are now embedded in the policy and practice
of many institutions.
A Threshold Concept can be thought of as a student finding a key to a
doorway which opens up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking
about something that they are learning. So, for a learner, a Threshold
Concept represents a transformation in how they interpret or understand
knowledge, such as the idea of `equilibrium' in ecology. Prior to
mastering the concept the student would have been unable to make progress
in their learning. A learner's transformation may be sudden or protracted
over a considerable period of time, so a learner may find the transition
challenging. Threshold Concepts were first introduced by Professor Jan
Meyer in 2002. The idea was first formally recognized in a Progress Report
(p. 3) of a research project called `Enhancing Teaching-Learning
Environments in Undergraduate Courses' (ETL1) funded through the Teaching
and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) by the ESRC from 2001 to 2004.
Meyer's notion of a Threshold Concept was introduced into project
discussions on learning outcomes as a key idea for differentiating between
core learning outcomes that represent `seeing things in a new way' and
those that do not. Early verification of its value resulted from research
data collected by the project's Economics team (led by Durham's Nicola
Reimann) during 2001-2004.
Threshold Concepts were first widely publicised in what is now considered
a seminal paper by Meyer and Land [R1] which defines the initial
conceptions of the pedagogic characteristics of Threshold Concepts. This
work therefore sets the foundations of a framework from which pedagogical
experts across disciplines can identify Threshold Concepts within their
specific areas. Subsequently, the idea was further enhanced by identifying
the analytical detail of a Threshold Concept framework and enriching the
framework with specific educational examples collected by the team [R2;
Meyer and Land (who has collaborated with Meyer since 2002 and joined
Durham in 2012), with other colleagues [R4-5], have since taken Threshold
Concepts across disciplines and continents and have further developed and
applied the implications of the theory to assessment, curriculum design
and interdisciplinarity [R5]. Threshold Concepts therefore serve as a
helpful diagnostic in alerting tutors to areas of the curriculum where
students are likely to experience conceptual difficulty. In this regard
the research has provided:
— lecturers, teachers and other educators with a conceptual understanding
of why students find some areas of their curriculum troublesome;
— a framework by which these Threshold Concepts can be identified and
documented that is applicable across a range of disciplines;
— an instrument with which groups of individuals can articulate ways of
improving the practices of learning, teaching and assessment.
Threshold Concepts as an innovation have significantly changed the nature
of curriculum design and assessment, and have enhanced effective practice,
with direct impact on teaching practices and on students' learning.
Professor JHF `Erik' Meyer was appointed to Durham University in December
1999 and was an Associate Director of the ETL 1 project. He retired in
July 2011. Dr Nicola Reimann was a Research Fellow in the School of
Education between February 2002 and June 2005. Professor Ray Land was
appointed to the School of Education in January 2012.
References to the research
R1. Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003). `Threshold concepts and
troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within
the disciplines', in Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning:
Improving Student Learning Theory and Practice — Ten Years On.
Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.
This highly cited chapter defines characteristics of threshold concepts
and establishes Meyer's role in developing the concept. It was
republished from the original Occasional Report (4, May 2003) from ETL1.
R2. Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2005) `Threshold Concepts and Troublesome
Knowledge (2) — Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework
for Teaching and Learning' Higher Education, 49: 373-388. DOI
This article in the leading peer-reviewed journal on higher education
was submitted as one of Meyer's outputs in RAE 2008.
R3. Land R., Cousin G., Meyer, J.H.F. and Davies, P. (2005) Threshold
Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (3): Implications for Course Design and
Evaluation in Improving Student Learning — Equality and Diversity.
C.Rust (Ed), OCSLD, Oxford.
This is the third of the key theoretical papers defining and
illustrating `threshold concepts' and their value in conceptualising
student learning. The following two chapters further define and expand
the initial conceptualisation, exploring variation and assessment.
R4. Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2008) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome
Issues of Variation and Variability in R. Land, J.H.F. Meyer, & J.
Smith (Eds) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Rotterdam
and Taipei: Sense Publishing.
R5. Land, R. & Meyer, J.H.F. (2010) Threshold Concepts and
Troublesome Knowledge (5):
Dynamics of Assessment in J.H.F Meyer, R. Land & C. Baillie (2010) Threshold
Concepts and Transformational Learning. Rotterdam, Boston and
Taipei: Sense Publishing.
Details of the impact
Changing practice in HE
Our case for the impact of Threshold Concepts is the change in the
behaviours and practice of practitioners in higher education and other
teaching contexts resulting from an understanding of the idea. This has
produced a greater emphasis on the student learning experience during
curriculum design and assessment. It has also created a new clarity of
focus around the areas of a curriculum that students tend to find most
challenging. Overall, the impact of Meyer's `Threshold Concepts' as a
pedagogic tool to support changes in practice has been demonstrated on
individuals, on groups and communities of HE practitioners across
disciplines and around the world. In addition, it has spread beyond these
constituencies to other educational contexts in schools, FE and
policy-making and has also transferred to industry through `serious games'
design for staff development.
The catalytic effect of the idea of Threshold Concepts was almost
immediate, but between 2008 and 2013 this has extended across subjects and
disciplines to 32 countries around the world [S1]. The identification,
application or practices to support teaching through Threshold Concepts
have been explored and published across subjects representing each of the
19 HEFCE JACS codes [S1]. More than 500 disciplinary case studies, reports
or scholarly practice articles have been published within REF period (with
a further 400 which focused specifically on Education). These document how
Threshold Concepts are being used by lecturers and teachers to examine
their current practice from a student's perspective and to change their
future teaching and assessment in order to enhance their students'
Impact on curriculum design courses and funding
The benefit of considering Threshold Concepts within curriculum design has
also been widely recognised by numerous educational agencies within the
UK. For instance:
- the HE Academy has facilitated over 40 disciplinary practice-based
workshops on Threshold Concepts [S1];
- in September 2008 JISC (formerly the Joint Information Services
Council) produced an `infokit' using work on Threshold Concepts to
support embedding e-portfolios in HE [S2];
- the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) has produced
materials for recommended inclusion in `PGCert in HE' courses; Threshold
Concepts are widely used in university teaching qualifications including
Bath, LSE, Middlesex & Salford universities [S1].
This impact is significant and in some cases dramatic, such as in
Georgetown University in the US where they state that Threshold Concepts
"shape the undergraduate experience" of writing in the disciplines [S3].
There has also been world-wide acknowledgement of the strategic benefit of
Threshold Concepts to improve teaching. For instance, various national
government funding organisations have released significant competitive and
practiced-based teaching and learning funding to examine their impact on
specific curricular, including:
- $NZ 200,000 for `re-envisioning tertiary teaching' (2012-14) by the NZ
Teaching and Learning Research Initiative to document changes in
lecturers' threshold-concept-informed teaching and supervision and the
impact of a threshold concept-informed curriculum, pedagogy, and
assessment on student learning in electronics engineering, doctoral
research and writing, and management communication [S4];
- $AUS 1,014,400 for projects considering approaches adapting Threshold
Concepts to engineering, mechanics, and biology for curriculum renewal
by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council [S1: section #projects];
- $US 149,998 for Threshold Concepts in sustainability and environmental
engineering by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) [S5].
Impact on practitioners' reflective practice
Threshold Concepts have led to significant reflective practitioner
engagement in reviewing existing pedagogical strategies. This is evidenced
in extensive social media interest. There is a Wikipedia entry (average
500 views per month), a wiki (Edutech with 2956 accesses), a Facebook
account and a JISC email-list [S1]. Reflections on changes in practice can
be found in teachers' on-line blogs and Facebook contributions [e.g. S6].
Projects, workshops and other researchers' outcomes have resulted in
clearly identified changes in practice. For instance:
- a special issue of the Journal of Faculty Development [S7] documents
changes in practices in faculty development programs in the USA and
provides evidence for Threshold Concepts resulting in student learning
that the authors state "transforms faculty members' conceptions of
- the Economics Network's Handbook for Economics Lecturers has a section
embedding Threshold Concepts in undergraduate teaching [S8].
The considerable funding devoted to this area in Australia has created
many such case studies, including:
- the Australian Council of Engineering Deans supported a national
workshop series on Threshold Concepts, one of the outcomes being the UWA
Faculty designing a new curriculum for engineering courses introduced in
- the University of Queensland's Occupational Therapy Department who
identified five Threshold Concepts, designed their curricula around them
and flagged their importance to students with details in their Student
Institutions and professional bodies have also recognised the impact of
Threshold Concepts through a number of personal awards made to individuals
embedding Threshold Concepts in their work of their institutions. These
- a British International Studies Association (BISA) / Higher Education
Academy (HEA) Teaching Award for Excellence in Teaching International
Studies (2008-2009) for work on Threshold Concepts through Enactive
Learning (awarded through C-SAP, the HEA's former Subject Network for
Sociology, Anthropology and Politics) [S1: section #awards];
- an Aberystwyth University Teaching Excellence Award (2009-2010) for
using Threshold Concepts in conjunction with differentiation as a
teaching technique [S1: section #awards].
Wider impact in education
Uptake of Threshold Concepts as a means to support curriculum planning and
assessment is also evident in FE and Foundation courses [S1: section
#found] and in schools [S9] where, for example, the ideas have been
adopted to support an exploration of how Threshold Concepts in secondary
school geography might inform development of students' capabilities in
terms of `thinking geographically'. Similar work using Threshold Concepts
with secondary school Geography teachers has also been undertaken in Korea
[S1: section #SK].
Impact on industry
There is also evidence of impact on industry where companies like Nokia,
Atos and Virtech have used Threshold Concepts in `serious games' design
for the training of staff. This was through a €9.4 million EU
collaborative project which developed the `TARGET' framework
(Transformative, Adaptive, Responsive and enGaging EnvironmenT) and which
embedded Threshold Concepts as knowledge gateways that transform a
person's understanding of a knowledge domain to learn professional skills
in areas that are important to them, their peers, their employers and
society. The project involved six European technology companies with
academic partners in five different countries developing a framework for
staff development using virtual learning environments to support rapid
competence development [S10].
Sources to corroborate the impact
S1. Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training and
Professional Development: A short introduction and bibliography.
This is a key reference source, maintained independently by a member of
staff at University College London. It lists several hundred websites and
publications on Threshold Concepts which provide evidence of impact on the
practice of teachers and academics. It also contains links to examples of
curriculum development and institutional embedding of Threshold Concepts
as well as impact on assessment practices, along with video and Powerpoint
presentations. It has an A-Z Subject Index and A-Z Author Index, theses
and dissertations on the application of Threshold Concepts to improve
teaching and learning and documenting impact on practice. Also listed are
Threshold Concepts conferences, teaching awards and project awards, a list
of publications by country (31 countries) and links to other Threshold
Concepts websites, links to social media such as the Facebook Threshold
Concepts site, the Doceo site supporting work in FE, together with a
S2. JISC Infokit http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/infokits/e-portfolios/considerations/threshold-concepts/.
see also an educator and administrator's blog from Georgetown University
S4. New Zealand' Teaching and Learning Research Initiative: http://www.tlri.org.nz/tlri-
S5. The USA's National Science Foundation (NSF) awards:
S6. Threshold Concepts Facebook group:
S7. Journal of Faculty Development Special Issue http://store.newforums.com/Threshold-
S8. Davies, P. and Mangan, J (2011) The Economics Network Handbook
for Economics Lecturers: Threshold Concepts in Economics
S9. Threshold concepts in Secondary School Geography
S10. €9.4 million EU Cordis project and partners
The linked TARGET website (http://www.reachyourtarget.org) has a number of references to
Threshold Concepts and their use in the project framework e.g.: