Improving learning by identifying threshold concepts


Learning is rarely a simple, linear process and rather than it proving a straightforward moment of enlightenment – the proverbial ‘lightbulb moment’ or ‘penny dropping’ – is usually a more protracted and troublesome affair. Professors Ray Land and Erik Meyer of Durham University were part of a team investigating how to improve undergraduate teaching and learning environments.They explored further their finding that economists held mastery of certain concepts to be vital for the understanding of their subject, and progress within it.

In each case the integration of an important new perspective, such as ‘opportunity cost’, required the (usually challenging) letting go of an earlier prevailing view. Successful integration led to a transformed perspective, adoption of a new discourse and often a change in the learner’s outlook and even understanding of themselves. What emerged were new ways of thinking and practising.

This was akin to passing through a portal into a changed landscape, where previously inaccessible perspectives came into view.

Subsequently it emerged that such concepts existed in many other disciplines, such as ‘stress transformation’ in Engineering, ‘gravity’ and ‘measurement uncertainty’ in Physics, ‘deconstruction’ in English Literature, and ‘geologic time’ in Geology. Such conceptual change was often triggered by an encounter with ‘troublesome knowledge’, a stepping into the unknown, and frequently involved a challenging phase of transformation towards understanding, with associated and strong emotional responses.

The researchers helped teachers to understand why learners typically find the path to learning a difficult one and how to improve their teaching by examining their practice from a student’s perspective and to make appropriate interventions. The concept has been picked up widely. The approach has been strongly promoted as a key pedagogical tool within and beyond the UK, for example by the Higher Education Academy and JISC, as well as the American Libraries Association and Norway’s TransARK architectural project. Within industry, firms such as Nokia, Atos and
Virtech have used the concept in designing ‘serious games’ for staff training as part of a €9.4m EU collaborative project.


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