Friday, February 6, 2015

Entry 45 IDT1415 Traditional Approaches: Reflections on Cousin (2006) and Land et al (2005): Threshold Concepts

This blog post is a mix between a summary of points from my reading of Cousin's (2006) 'An Introduction to Threshold Concepts' and Land et al.'s (2005) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation.

I must start by making a confession: I found the concept of threshold concepts rather difficult to grasp - which after reading I should call an 'acceptance of my liminal space'.  I first watched the Glynis' interview suggested in the Moodle and to be honest I struggled getting it! :-(  I watched it twice and was still 'stuck' so I was determined to find out what Cousin and Land et al. meant by Threshold Concepts.  It's now 19.00 and so after doing all the readings I can happily say that I think I got it, or at least I think I have!

Now, what are threshold concepts? TCs are those concepts which students have difficulty in understanding, which should be identified by the teachers in conjunction with the students in advanced and focused on in the process of teaching and learning. (Believe me when I say that silly as it may sound, it took me a while to be able to come up with this definition).

Now, Glynis says that threshold concepts are central to the mastery of the subject (2006) and this statement made me think, while struggling to understand the concept itself and looking at the PPT part of the readings, about what the concepts central to the mastery of the English Language were. Thinking of my own students and experience in the ESOL classroom, I came up with the following, but I'm sure there will be more...

  • Register? Difficult for Romance language speakers because they have clearly defined formal and informal established forms while in English it is marked by prescribed grammar, word choice, and pronunciation.
  • Functional Language? Pragmatics?
  • The concept of time (how past tense and future are formed and used in English)?
  • Pronunciation?

A learning activity around one of the concepts above (Future in English) could be along the lines of something I already do to raise students' awareness of how different it is in English.  It seems to me that Italian students struggle with the concept of futurity in English because they approach it from a grammatical point of view rather than a semantic or conceptual one and so if asked whether they know about the future they are likely to say: yes, 'will'.

I often use a mind map like the one above, which I just drew up, with intermediate level students and above to make them think of the different perspective we adopt, that is, by looking at the concept we want to express rather than at the grammar structure we need to use. They usually find this concept difficult to grasp but being recursive and excursive to use Glynis' words (op.cit.), they usually succeed (‘The role of the teacher is to arrange victories for the students.’ Quintilian 35-100 AD Cited in Land 2010 in the Workshop PPT shared in the module Moodle). I have seen evidence of this during the course of studies and after introducing the concept. They start, or better still stop at times when expressing future ideas, to think about the concept they want to express rather than the grammar structure they need. You can almost see the clogs in their brain moving and this I find exciting. Of course, their choices are not always correct, but the fact that they are in this process is wonderful indication of the process they're going through in their accommodation of new language, I believe.

Here's a summary of what Threshold concepts are/can be:

1. Transformative - if you get it, it will change your way of doing things.

2. Irreversible - if you get it, you will not forget it.

3. Integrative - if you get it, you will be able to make connections.

4. Bounded - it can be a form of disciplinary property and is best understood as having a provisional explanatory capacity.

5. Counter-intuitive - it can be troublesome/difficult to understand because it goes against common sense in another culture or discourse.

Curriculum Design

1. Explore and identify with students what their threshold concepts are, the key areas they need mastery in, 'the jewels':-).

2. 'Listening not for what students know but the terms that shape their knowledge' (p2).

3. Uncover fear threshold concepts early on the course and show it is not a problem not to understand a concept.

4. Be recursive (revisit) and excursive (willing to go off and have unexpected outcomes.)

Liminal States

Glynis (op.cit.) says that it is a space where learners oscillate between old and new language, a limbo like the one adolescents inhabit in the transition period between adults and children. For me, they are like Vygotsky's ZPD but without the mentioning of a more able helper or Piaget's accommodation process which can be more painful as one is confronted with what we hold to be true and the new knowledge.


Troublesome knowledge is so because those threshold concepts require students to integrate what they know with new ideas and this integration required acceptance (p2). Their problems when trying to get a deeper level of understanding - Perkins (2005) 'the underlying game', I would call it reading between the lines, inferring in a more sophisticated way, but still, for me: reading between the lines.  Savin-Baden's (2005 in Land et al. 2005) calls it 'Disjunction' - in my humble opinion I see very little or no difference between Meyer and Land's (2003 in Land et al. 2005) threshold concept. I may not be seeing the 'underlying game' ;-)!

Now, 'in-between state' or 'liminality'. Students stuck there tend to resort to 'mimicry' or they give up. I did so when I started an MA in Applied Linguistics many, many years ago and I'm not saying which institution with and found the materials boring and unengaging and this had a huge impact on my motivation. I found I had to read the materials several times and the more I read them the more difficult I found them... those 'threshold concepts!' I felt frustrated and discouraged and that added to problems with work and family overseas led to my decision to give up and try later! I found that when I started an MA in TESOL a few years later with Sheffield Hallam University, the materials, program and tutors were successful in keeping me motivated and interested and so this environment contributed to Land et al.'s 'conceptual peristalsis' which allowed me to successfully move on and complete my studies with a Merit.

Ok, enough sentimentalism already so I'll move on to my summary of the Considerations for course design and evaluation as suggested by Land et al (op.cit.). In their opinion programmes should be designed and reviewed according to:

  • Sequence of content
  • Excursive learning - how ss are helped to deal with threshold concepts.
  • How attainment of threshold concepts is assessed.

Nine  Considerations

1.      Jewels in the curriculum - threshold concepts can be used to identify problematic areas.

2.      Engagement - the more the students are engaged, actively involved with the threshold concept the better. Design a framework of engagement, specific forms of engagement which lead to transformative understanding of concepts at different stages. Lather (1998:492 Provocations which bring things into happening).

3.      Listening for understanding - trying to understand not what they know but where they are stuck.

4.      Reconstitution of self - creating supportive liminal environments as this integration requires acceptance and re shifting of one's beliefs. Bonamy et al (2001) called these 'provisional stabilities'.

5.      Tolerating uncertainty - Elfklides (2005) highlights the importance of self-regulation, a metacognitive skill, which can determine whether students can cope with the issue and determine to engage with the threshold concept or not.

6.      Recursiveness and excursiveness - approaching the same material from different angles. Consideration of threshold concepts goes against a traditional linear and homogenous approach to curriculum design. Recursive = 'always beginning again' (p491). Excursive - you know where you want to go, may get there eventually or reconsider your destination.

7.      Pre-liminal variation - at the time of writing there was no clear answers as a three-year study was undergoing on why some ss will negotiate the liminal space of understanding and others not.

8.      Unintended consequences of generic 'good pedagogy' - simplification of concepts for ss is not necessarily good as shown by the case of teaching the concept of opportunity cost in a South Australian context. Also, trying to base it on the ss' experience when they do not have the experience to relate the concept to.

9.      The underlying game - course designers need to check that there is no threshold conceptions which ss fail to recognise and understand. Lucas (200) explains difference between 'authorised' (endorsed by disciplinary community) and 'alternative' (intuitive or everyday common sense of the same) understandings.

These three readings on Cousin (2006), Land et al (2005), the video and the PPT on Threshold Concepts have helped me figure out what they are and why they are important. I would have called them 'A Theory of 'Difficult Concepts' Learners Struggled with' to start with and this would have probably spared me the initial discomfort hitting the 'threshold concept' barrier myself, but I guess that's the whole point! That I experience myself what it feels like to be able to make sense of it!


Cousin, G., 2006. An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet, (17), pp.4–5.

Land, R. et al., 2005. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation. Improving Student Learning Diversity and Inclusivity, 49(3), pp.53–64. Available at:

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