Talking Teaching

November 13, 2010

Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge – An Introduction

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , — kubke @ 10:13 am

This is a guest post by our colleague Michael Edmonds, originally posted in Molecular Matters on We asked if he’d let us cross-post it here as it contains some really interesting thoughts about teaching and learning :)

Early in 2009 I attended a talk by Professor Ray Land of the University of Strathclyde on the topic of “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge”, a topic that I think provides some exciting insights into how students learn and why students struggle with different subjects. I found the talk transformed the way I think about teaching and learning.

Threshold concepts is the idea that within different disciplines there are specific concepts that are so transformative in their nature that they lead to “new and previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something.” (Meyer and Land, 2006). Such concepts can be described as being:

Transformative – once fully comprehended, they can alter one’s perception of the subject, or of life in general.

Irreversible – once mastered it is difficult to return to one’s previous way of thinking.

Integrative – the new concept is integrated into one’s existing way of thinking.

Troublesome – these concepts may be counter intuitive and initially difficult to understand. They may also clash with currently held values and conflict with one’s current world view (e.g. evolution may conflict with religious values). Hence the term troublesome knowledge.

Bounded – such concepts may “demarcate subject boundaries” (Ako Aotearoa website)

So how do these concepts inform and assist us in teaching? Well, if we can identify threshold concepts in our subjects and work on ways to help students to understand them then we are better placed to help students to truly master our subjects, instead of rote learning facts in order to “pass” the exam. In my opinion the mastering of threshold concepts not only provides for much a deeper understanding of a subject but is also more likely to ignite the passion of a student for the subject.

Examples of troublesome knowledge in my subject area, chemistry, would include equilibria, the kinetic theory of matter, and atomic structure.

Professor Land also made the point that it is not always easy for educators to recognise threshold concepts, because we have already “crossed” these various thresholds of learning, sometimes with no difficulty, and once these thresholds have been crossed it can be difficult to remember how one thought before this knowledge was gained (e.g. threshold concepts are transformative, irreversible and integrative).

I would be interested in hearing from the various readers of sciblogs what concepts in their own areas of expertise they would consider to be threshold concepts.


  1. Interesting. I think for geology, I would hav to say plate tectonics. With a stable earth view, the idea that continents moved around constantly like giant rafts seemed preposterous, but once accepted, so many things that made no sense suddenly clicked into place. It is harrd to imagine now trying to explain much of geology and paleontology without recognizing plate tectonics. It changes one’s thinking from the stable earth that people are familiar with to a dynamic, ever changing environment. I think it ties in well with evolution because once one accepts a dynamic earth, it is a small step to see dynamic and changing species.

    Comment by jdmimic — November 14, 2010 @ 2:31 am

  2. I can see that plate tectonics could be a challenge. And it really is that “clicking into place” that is for me the one of the joys of teaching. You can see a students whole expression and demeanour change when all the pieces fall into place for them and you just know that they have “crossed a threshold”

    In chemistry the kinetic theory of matter seems to challenge students: The idea that all matter is made up of moving/vibrating particles doesn’t seem to make sense when they can look at a desk or a glass of water and it doesn’t look like there is any movement.
    The understanding of how relatively small an atom is in terms of the world we see is also a challenge for most students, even sometime postgraduates.

    Comment by michaelkedmonds — November 15, 2010 @ 10:37 am

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