Tackling Threshold Concepts

If you’ve had a chance to look at the ACRL’s draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, you probably noticed that the idea of threshold concepts factors heavily into the language of the document. You may be wondering just what in the world they are.

Threshold concepts were developed by Meyer and Land (2003), who described them “as akin to 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.” Sounds fancy, right? Or maybe just confusing. So I decided to take a closer look at them. Here’s what’s interesting. The further I delved into threshold concepts, the more they resembled two very prominent areas of cognitive research: conceptual change and schema. Take a look:

5 Characteristics of Threshold Concepts

(Meyer & Land, 2003)

Roots in Cognitive Views of Learning

(Ormrod, 2012; Walker, 2012)

Transformative, meaning it must lead to a major shift in the way the student perceives the subject or idea. Conceptual change, learners’ existing beliefs affect their interpretations of new information, are often consistent with everyday practices, and are often erroneous.
Probably irreversible, meaning that the changes in perception are unlikely to be forgotten. Schema, a mental template of a situation, based on past experiences, changeable but irreversible.
Integrative; meaning it reveals a previously unseen connectedness with something else. Conceptual change, some beliefs are integrated into a larger body of knowledge, with many interrelationships between ideas; changing beliefs impacts the whole body of knowledge.
Possibly often (though not necessarily always) bounded, meaning it will define a particular conceptual space. Schema, holistic representations that recognize the boundaries between concepts.
Potentially (and possibly inherently) troublesome, meaning counter-intuitive or conceptually difficult for a student. Conceptual change, when learners’ existing beliefs are supported by their social environment, they may have difficulty abandoning them (i.e. the affective component).

A classic example of conceptual change a la threshold concepts is the concept of the earth revolving around the sun. We observe the sun rising and setting every day, but we’re not actually observing the sun literally moving. That’s a threshold concept, which once understood becomes an integrative part of a larger body of knowledge about the earth’s place in the solar system, which permanently changes understanding about things such as weather and seasons, etc… A person’s beliefs (i.e. religious) might make the earth-sun relationship concept very difficult to grasp, in other words troublesome.

As I see it, threshold concepts can be understood from a socio-cognitive perspective. Easily. I’d even go so far as to say that they are essentially the same. The biggest difference I found between the older approaches and threshold concepts is the idea of liminality.

Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of liminality (Latin limen — ‘threshold’), a suspended state in which understanding approximates to a kind of mimicry or lack of authenticity.” (Meyer & Land, 2003)

To me, liminality closely resembles Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

What’s that saying? Everything old is new again? Are threshold concepts just a rehash of older, more established educational theories? Food for thought.

Next task: Examine the threshold concepts that ACRL has laid out for information literacy. That’ll be another post.

















3 thoughts on “Tackling Threshold Concepts

  1. Thank you for this, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the three infolit concepts. I was fairly turned off of this document because of all the jargon (I was thinking about how I could not share this with my teaching faculty) but then when I read the actual concepts and especially the potential assignments and activities I became very excited by the possibilities.

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