Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge

This week Professor Glynis Cousin from Wolverhampton University spoke at Lancaster University about her long-standing interest and research into threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. She spoke for about 40 minutes, with no notes and no powerpoint.

“A threshold concept can be considered 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. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time”
(Meyer and Land 2003)

Professor Cousin started by saying that there is no such thing as a threshold concept. A threshold concept is a heuristic device, not an objective thing; it is a work in progress. For her the most interesting aspects of threshold concepts are troublesome knowledge and liminality. Threshold concepts are not the same thing as ‘key concepts’.

Thinking about threshold concepts helps academics to recognize that they tend to ‘stuff’ the curriculum.  Many make the mistake of seeing the syllabus as a synonym for curriculum. In fact what is needed is to ‘shrink’ the curriculum, to move from coverage to uncoverage, to think about what is critical for students to learn, what is critical for mastery and to consider what will transform students’ learning, and discourage them from simply ‘mimicking’ understanding.

In doing this and in the spirit of ‘less is more’ and teaching for mastery of a concept, we need to consider what shifts we want students to make. For example if we want students of engineering to become engineers and if we want students of French to become French speakers, what is critical to this mastery?

Curriculum design which takes account of threshold concepts is not a spiral curriculum – it is more like an octopus, incorporating many ‘trigger’ materials –  materials that shape who you are. What interferes with design approaches are the students themselves. They often do not understand the rules of engagement of being a University or College student. They not only need to gain conceptual mastery, but also learn to be a student. So there is a lot of ‘noise’ going on as students find themselves in a state of liminality, oscillating betwixt and between mastery and troublesome knowledge. Learning is anxiety invested.

So the idea of threshold concepts in curriculum design, and their dependence on notions of liminality and troublesome knowledge, returns centrality to the teacher and brings the student closer to the teacher. Student-centredness does not mean ‘satisfying’ the student, it means getting the relationship between the student and the teacher right – establishing a gift relationship between student and teacher, rather than a service client relationship.

These were the ideas I noted down from Glynis Cousin’s talk. Many of the ideas resonate with  the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau on designing for emergent learning (see Footprints of Emergence ) – but the centrality of the teacher is a bit of a departure and a challenge to recent thinking about how learners learn in networks and massive open online courses.


Cousin, G (2006) An Introduction to Threshold Concepts. Planet No.17

Meyer, J.H.F. and Land, R. (2003),Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (1): linkages to ways of thinking and practising, in Rust, C. (ed.), Improving Student Learning – ten years on. Oxford: OCSLD.

7 thoughts on “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge

  1. Steve Kirk December 7, 2012 / 3:55 pm

    Great post. It captures eloquently much of what I understand as being the core principles of TCs. I am interested in the teacher side of things and was intrigued by the idea of a ‘gift relationship’. Would you be able to say more about what Glynis meant by this? My pedagogical focus is within teaching English for Academic Purposes, and I’ve been thinking myself about notions of student centredness. I wasn’t able to work out how the gift metaphor was intended. Thanks!

  2. jennymackness December 7, 2012 / 5:11 pm

    Thanks for your comment Steve, but I can’t claim any credit for the eloquence of the ideas. That credit goes to Glynis Cousin 🙂

    Glynis didn’t say much about the ‘gift relationship’. It was more of a passing comment at the end of her talk. But she did say that she had heard Robert Sessions speaking about it and I notice that she has quoted him in this keynote presentation –
    See Slide 15.

    Hope this helps a bit. Sorry that I don’t know more.

  3. Jeffrey Keefer December 8, 2012 / 12:03 pm

    That must have been a great lecture, Jenny. I met Glynis at the Threshold Concepts Conference earlier in the year in Dublin, where she also gave a keynote. She is quite an engaging speaker, bringing a certain practicality to a strong academic tradition.

    BTW, I am using threshold concepts as a frame in my doctoral thesis research (also at Lancs; small world!), liking its way of helping us to move an exploration of liminality into the higher education space.

  4. jennymackness December 8, 2012 / 3:10 pm

    Hi Jeffrey – Yes I thought of you during the talk and thought you should be there 🙂 Hope your PhD is going well. Jenny

  5. Steve Kirk (@stiiiv) December 10, 2012 / 12:04 pm

    Thanks for the slideshare link. Clarifies things.

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