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Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: a Transformative Approach to Learning

Date: 13 May 2009 Time: 12.30 - 2.00 p.m.

Venue: IAS MR1

Department of Educational Research Seminar Series, Wednesday 13th May 2009, 12.30 - 2.00 p.m., IAS MR1, everyone welcome.

Professor Ray Land, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: a Transformative Approach to Learning

This seminar will outline and invite discussion of a new analytical framework to inform programme design and assessment. The approach builds on the notion of 'Threshold Concepts' which 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. Typical examples might be 'Marginal Cost', 'Opportunity Cost' or 'Elasticity' in Economics; 'Evolution' in Biology; 'Gravity' or 'Reactive Power' in Physics; 'Depreciation' in Accounting; 'Precedent' in Law; 'Geologic Time' in Geology; 'Uncertainty' in Environmental Science; 'Deconstruction' in Literature; 'Limit' theory in Mathematics or 'Programming' in Computer Science.

This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding often involving 'troublesome knowledge'. Depending on discipline and context, knowledge might be troublesome because it is ritualised, inert, conceptually difficult, alien or tacit, because it requires adopting an unfamiliar discourse, or perhaps because the learner remains 'defended' and does not wish to change their customary way of seeing things.

Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of 'liminality', a suspended state or 'stuck place' in which understanding approximates to a kind of 'mimicry' or lack of authenticity. Insights gained by learners as they cross thresholds can be exhilirating but might also be unsettling, requiring an uncomfortable shift in identity, or, paradoxically, a sense of loss.A further complication might be the operation of an 'underlying game' which requires the learner to comprehend the often tacit games of enquiry or ways of thinking and practising inherent within specific disciplinary knowledge practices. In this sense we might wish to talk of 'threshold practices' or 'threshold experiences' that are necessary in the learner's development.

The thresholds approach addresses disciplinary contexts and emphasises transformation in learning. It results in a reformulation of the learners' frame of meaning. It is currently being implemented in a wide range of disciplinary areas and has been the focus of two international symposia in the UK and Canada with a third planned for Australia in 2010.


Ray Land is Professor of Higher Education and Director of the Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement (CAPLE) at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow UK. His research interests include educational development, threshold concepts, research-teaching linkages, and theoretical aspects of digital learning. He is the author of Educational Development: Discourse, Identity and Practice (Open University Press 2004) and co-editor of Education in cyberspace (Routledge Falmer 2005), Overcoming Barriers to Student Learning: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (Routledge 2006), Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines (Sense Publishers 2008) and Research-Teaching Linkages: Enhancing Graduate Attributes (QAA 2008).


Who can attend: Anyone


Further information

Organising departments and research centres: Educational Research


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD
United Kingdom

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