Threshold concept

Created: Nov 04, 2021. Last updated: Nov 04, 2021.

A threshold concept is like "a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.", as defined by Meyer and Land (2003).1 That last part – that the learner needs to understand these to progress – is what makes this specific type of concept different from the general idea of core concepts.


Some examples of threshold concepts in learning to code: variables (which are very different from mathematical variables in that they are not just a label but contain information that can change over time), and recursion (how to predict behavior of functions that call themselves, and then how to write them yourself). As long as these concepts are not grasped, it is impossible for students to move on to other concepts that build on them. Without a correct grasp of variables, it is impossible to understand how for-loops work.


As described, threshold concepts are key to learningLearning
Learning is one of my passions. I have been in some form of school non-stop since kindergarten ;) I love to learn, whether it is learning how to sing, how to play beat saber at expert+ level, or ho...
, so for whatever topic you want to develop more expertise on, it is valuable to identify what the threshold concepts are and how to get to the other side of that portal they represent.

From the point of view of a research group doing innovative work, this is relevant for:

  • Enabling and training students, teachers, and new employees who want to work on projects in our research group
  • Teaching students in education to prepare them for these innovations in the workplace
  • Communicating with stakeholders, to help them understand what we can do for them, how we go about that, or the relevance to them of projects we have done in the past
  • Defining our expertExpert
    As a relatively young [[research line]] in the group on relatively young topics such as XR and persuasive technology, an interesting question is: When can we call ourselves experts in these fields?...
    ise for ourselves, to get clarity for our vision, PR, links with education, and professionalization strategies. What is it that makes us experts?

For a digital gardenDigital garden
A digital garden is a type of web presence which is somewhere in-between a tweet and a blog, in terms of the amount of structure and finality of the contents (see [[note stages]]). Like a garden, i...
the idea of core concepts and threshold concepts is important as they are important for your readers to be able to understand what you are talking about. So having pages on relevant concepts is something to strive towards.

What to do with this

Following from this, ideally:

  • We should define on our key topics of expertise what the core concepts are, focusing on the threshold concepts (although it may be difficult to identify these without much experience in teaching it yourself).
  • For these concepts we can then either provide short descriptions in accessible language and references to further learning materials or
  • Provide our own learning materials that are more specific to the way we use these particular concepts in our domain and projects. These entry points to learning about our expertise should ideally be open access and marketed to students, teachers, researchers and partners who want to learn more in various ways. (This digital gardenDigital garden
    A digital garden is a type of web presence which is somewhere in-between a tweet and a blog, in terms of the amount of structure and finality of the contents (see [[note stages]]). Like a garden, i...
    could be an easy way to get started on this.)

P.S. This concept was introduced to me by Erik Fledderus in a talk he gave to the Ambient Intelligence group about how you might think about positioning and focus as a lectorate (research group at a university of applied sciences), which is still a thing of discussion in the Netherlands.

P.P.S. The article by Meyer and Land (2003) also contains an overview of different types of “troublesome knowledge” with examples, which might be interesting to explore further to be able to better identify threshold concepts in our own domains.

  1. Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In ISL10 Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice Ten Years On (pp. 412-424). Oxford Brookes University. link