Threshold concepts

Threshold concepts

The main idea of threshold concepts in regards to course design is that there is a set of ‘fundamental concepts’ in each discipline that are essential to mastering the subject (Cousin, G. 2006). It is argued that the reason some students do better than others is due to the fact that they have mastered these ‘key concepts’. In my context, this means that instead of cramming your syllabus with every lexical item, grammatical structure and array of sub-skills, you can design your course around a handful of threshold concepts. I have used the words ‘fundamental’ and ‘key’ above but these words do not adequately describe the concept of threshold concepts, so how do you define them?

The five characteristics of threshold concepts

  1. Transformative – ‘ontological as well as conceptual shift’.
  2. Irreversible – ‘once understood the learner is unlikely to forget it’.
  3. Integrative – ‘exposes the hidden interrelatedness of a phenomenon’.
  4. Bounded – The concept has borders with other concepts.
  5. Troublesome – May involve a reversal of intuitive understandings.

Cousin, G (2006)

Here is a slide share that goes into more detail

Threshold concepts in my studies

In this MA I think the PLE was and still might be a threshold concept for me. Initially it seemed quite straight forward, just a collection of tools for creating and receiving information but then it all went a bit weird and I started thinking about the self illusion, a collective PLE and even an anti-capitalistic revolution in education!

As a teacher

In my teaching I have perhaps been through a variety of threshold concepts but the one that has changed the way I teach, for the moment,  is the idea of Dogme teaching, as explained in the book Teaching Unplugged by Luke Meddings and Scot Thornbury. This approach has transformed and revitalised my lessons and despite its name, it fits in quite well with the affordances of digital technologies.

For my students

I’ve been thinking about threshold concepts with my learners and I’m finding it quite difficult to pin them down. Specific areas of grammar or lexis are simply not threshold concepts as they do not meet the five criteria above. I see learner agency, autonomy, collaboration, openness, peer correction, identity creation, lifelong learning and ownership amongst other things as important, so perhaps it is here that I might find the thresholds I’d like my learners to cross. This would mean that some kind of learner training or constructive alignment would need to take place within the structure of a course to help students develop an understanding of these concepts . In theory, this would then enable the students to become successful language learners without having to cover everything in a traditional item-by-item syllabus. From another perspective, it is also suggested that without an understanding of the threshold concepts in a discipline students are effectively blocked from making significant progress.


Should we really structure our courses around threshold concepts?

However, looking into threshold concepts a bit more I can see some major problems with them. The first issue is related to my statement about Dogme teaching being a threshold concept and changing my perspective. It might well be for me but it is most definitely not a lot of EFL teachers, and neither should it be. If courses are designed around threshold concepts, who is to decide which doorway to take? How can I say that my way of viewing the world is the right one? There isn’t just one doorway to understanding something and there shouldn’t be if we want to encourage the creation of personal understandings. So one danger of designing courses around threshold concepts, or any fixed standard of knowledge, is that what might be a threshold for one student may not be for another and vice versa. Our decision to focus on a particular set of thresholds might be a waste of time for some of our students or even restrict their approach to learning. Cousin (2006) does briefly touch on the importance of providing room for questioning concepts and research-based approaches but I feel that this needs to be addressed in more detail if we are to potentially impose ways of seeing on our students.


Is anyone else disturbed by the idea of course design based on threshold concepts?

These issues set me off on a search for some criticism of threshold concepts, it wasn’t easy to find but this is what I found…

Here is an interesting critical blog on threshold concepts in information literacy.

The point I think is worth considering is point 4, which criticises the idea that threshold concepts encourage the promotion of unchanging core beliefs in a discipline, thus inhibiting critical thinking.

Here is another more detailed paper which takes a more critical view of threshold concepts. The author accepts that some interesting findings have come out of research into threshold concepts but questions the need for the concept itself, the vague definitions, lack of science behind it and the undesirable consequences on learning and pedagogy.


Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts, Planet 17, pp 1-5.

Land et al. (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation. In Rust C. (ed) Improving Students Learning: Diversity and Inclusivity. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp. 53-64.





Posted in EFL

One thought on “Threshold concepts

  1. Hi John, that’s interesting reading. But what I particularly like is your last image. For me it represents dealing with the unexpected whilst teaching but also dealing with the unknown. That comes back to your points about course design, (un)disciplined students and threshold concepts.
    Dealing with the unknown also is amusingly represented in this clip (love it or hate it) about Schrodinger’s cat.
    Wikipedia reference and more explanation here:


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