Threshold concepts: what they are and how they help students learn

Threshold concepts are themes that underpin an academic discipline and can provide a framework for students to build knowledge. But teachers must be mindful of how and when to introduce them, as Becky Lewis explains

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University of East Anglia

University of East Anglia
15 Aug 2022
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What are threshold concepts

Threshold concepts are the themes and theories that underpin an academic discipline. The idea of threshold concepts was first developed by Jan Meyer and Ray Land in 2003, with reference to economics. They are not strictly defined for every discipline.

Suggested threshold concepts for biosciences are:

  • Evolution;
  • Structure and function;
  • Information flow;
  • Transformations and systems.

Within biosciences, whichever sub-discipline you work in will include elements of each of these underlying themes, which vary by scale. For example, if we take the threshold concept, “structure and function”: At the smallest level, we can learn about how the shape of molecules and proteins affects their function. This can be applied to cells, tissues, organs and organ systems, entire organisms, populations and ecosystems, spanning all biological disciplines.

How we might use threshold concepts

Teaching students about threshold concepts, as the underlying themes behind all biosciences topics, comes with many advantages. It helps build the foundations of understanding, leading to those “lightbulb moments” where everything slots into place. It can help students focus on their learning rather than their grades. Finally, it can help students form cognitive links between different modules or topics, rather than considering them in isolation – a hurdle that many of us have struggled against.

An understanding of threshold concepts at the beginning of a degree course can provide a useful scaffold or skeleton for students’ learning, which they flesh out during the course of their degree. Understanding threshold concepts could help the students “construct” their knowledge and give them a basis upon which to reflect on their learning.

However, this level of synthesis and fluency may only be attainable by some students. It is important to consider that students coming from further education or foundation years may find it difficult to grasp threshold concepts and apply them to their learning, because their previous teaching has been structured differently.

When to introduce threshold concepts

As students entering at either level three or four – the first year of a bachelor degree – are unlikely to have encountered threshold concepts before, introducing them at the beginning of level four, when they arrive at university, may be too much of a leap. Perhaps waiting until the end of first year or even their second year – level five – might provide students with an opportunity to settle into their degree programme and learn enough to be able to apply their knowledge to the threshold concepts framework retrospectively, giving them a solid structure on which to build.

Do students need to understand all the threshold concepts?

In their first year of a degree specifically, but more generally too, students do not need a strong understanding of every threshold concept. Instead, it’s important to convey the connections between concepts in a discipline. Although we tend to teach in modules or units, these are artificial boundaries and students who synthesise knowledge from other modules tend to perform best.

The threshold concepts can be used as a reflection or revision tool at the end of first year, to help students consider how the content they have learned during the year interlinks and to break down the arbitrary categories that we assign to subject knowledge.

Threshold concepts should be taught as an idea, rather than as a way to label content. Adding labels can mean students disengage from content. For example if they didn’t previously enjoy learning about subjects categorised under “structure and function”, students may subconsciously decide that they are not interested in any “structure and function” related content. Enabling students to scaffold their own learning to threshold concepts avoids this issue and encourages deeper learning.

Threshold skills

Alongside threshold concepts, there are threshold skills – the key skills the students require to succeed in a biosciences degree. Knowledge acquisition tends to be the focus of A-level and other level-three studies, with skills development being more of a focus in tertiary education. This means that even students with very high level-three attainment may lack certain skills. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

This means that one of the key differences between pre-university and university study is the emphasis on skills development. There are several avenues to achieve this. Universities could include a focused “skills week” during the semester, a module dedicated to skills development, or embed a significant amount of skills development work into every module.

Embedding skills into every module is the most authentic way to teach skills in context, but it requires a lot of coordination between module leads and course directors. They must work together to ensure all skills are covered, without too much repetition and with consideration of flexibility in courses such as optional modules.

Threshold concepts as learning tools rather than knowledge

While teaching threshold concepts and skills does not result directly in knowledge acquisition, it provides students with the tools they need to build knowledge more efficiently and independently. Much like the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, we can give students the facts they need to learn, but if we teach them how to learn and how to scaffold this information to retain it, they can learn more deeply and efficiently.

Rebecca Lewis is a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

This piece summarises conclusions of discussions that took place following talks given by Mark Coleman and Chinedu Agwu at the Heads of University Biosciences (HUBS) funded workshop, “Fundamental Biosciences: what foundations do students need for success in their study of Biosciences?”, hosted by the University of East Anglia.

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