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2-Minute Mentor: Threshold Concepts

Threshold concepts

  • What are threshold concepts?
  • How do they relate to bottlenecks?
  • How would students benefit if I consider these facets of teaching in my courses?

Click below to watch CTE’s 2-Minute Mentor video on this topic:

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Threshold Concepts video transcript (doc)

Understanding threshold concepts

Here are keys to understanding threshold concepts:


What are
threshold concepts?

A threshold concept changes the way students see and understand a discipline.

Think of a door leading outside a building. From the inside, the confines of the building limit your understanding of the outside world. Once you step through the doorway, though—over the threshold—your view expands immensely, providing richer context for your surroundings and yourself.

Once students understand a threshold concept, they begin to see a discipline in a richer way, making connections they didn’t before. The concepts are different for each discipline, so it’s important for instructors to identify the central elements of understanding that help transform understanding and learning.

Can you give me
an example?

Here’s one tied to digital literacy: No information is truly neutral.

That’s a crucial concept in every field, but it’s especially important in an age of abundant information. Only by understanding that raw data is stored for a reason; that articles, books, photographs, videos and other media were created with an audience and purpose in mind; and that even something as seemingly innocuous as a search engine works under the principles and assumptions of its creators can students begin to sort through the clutter and find the most useful and reliable material online.

Understanding that concept diminishes students’ naïveté, pushes them to move beyond the first entry from a Google search, and helps them add dimension and context to their thinking, research, and writing.

Why use
threshold concepts?

By definition, threshold concepts make up the core ideas of a discipline. They provide several other benefits, though.

  • Improve class focus. Rather than trying to cover every topic, instructors can narrow their focus to key concepts and free up class time for richer discussions or development of additional skills.
  • Improved retention. Once students master a threshold concept, they tend to incorporate it into their thinking and rarely backtrack.
  • Improve curriculum development. Identifying threshold concepts helps departments focus on key areas that students need to know and that courses need to cover.

How can I help
students understand
threshold concepts?

There’s no magic formula, but some of the basics of good teaching will help.

  • Listen. Instructors often have difficulty remembering their own “a-ha” moments of understanding, and it’s important to listen to students explain their struggles so that instructors can help. It’s also important to allow students to share their frustrations with one another so that no one feels isolated.
  • Be patient. Threshold concepts take time to master, so expect to revisit ideas in many different ways over many class periods.
  • Embrace the messiness. Mastering a threshold concept is rarely a linear process. Students will take many paths to understanding as they grapple with threshold concepts. Some of those paths will be dead ends, some will circle back on themselves and others may move in directions no one expected. Instructors must accept this inherently messy process of learning even as they provide direction.


More about threshold concepts

The following links provide more information related to threshold concepts and bottlenecks:

Additional materials are available in CTE’s Essential Guide to Teaching.

These portfolios in the CTE Gallery show examples of teaching threshold concepts and addressing bottlenecks:

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