Threshold concepts are ideas that "may define critical moments of irreversible conceptual transformation in the educational experiences of learners" (Meyer & Land, 2005, 373). Getting a handle on such concepts may require dealing with "troublesome" knowledge in such ways that the new understanding thus generated facilitates the transition from a before state to a state characterized by a new awareness. Meyer and Land (2003) have proposed that such "conceptual gateways" may be:
While threshold concepts are often discipline-specific, some may span across disciplines (Meyer & Land, 2005).
Starting Points in the Literature
Land, R., Meyer, J. H. F., & Smith, J. (2008). Threshold concepts within the disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. Retrieved from
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003, May). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising
within the disciplines. Enhancing Teaching-Learning (ETL) Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project Occasional Report 4,
Higher and Community Education, School of Education, University of Edinburgh. Retrieved from
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a
conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49, 373-388. doi: 10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5
Continued Discussion in the Literature: Conferences, Websites, and Grey Literature
Booth, C. (2015, June 15). Information Privilege: Narratives of Challenge and Change. Keynote at the Workshop in Information for
Library Use (WILU) 2015 conference in St. John's, NL. Retrieved from
Not every idea that is troublesome for students to learn is necessarily a threshold concept.
Work by Middendorf and Pace (2004), "Decoding the disciplines: A model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking," explains how disciplinary bottlenencks, "stuck" places students cannot navigate without unpacking their complexity, impede student learning. Bottlenecks are often not noticed by those who teach because these experts have, over the years, accumulated the tacit knowledge while navigating through the ideas, the processes and their affective counterparts en route to expertise. Students, as novices, however, need scaffolding first to see, then to negotiate, these disciplinary stuck places. In other words, students need more assistance with specialized and discipline specific ways of thinking.
Joan Middendorf, Sherry Linkon and Katie King explain the differences between threshold concepts and disciplinary bottlenecks in the video embedded below.
While threshold concepts tend to be cognitive issues that, once understood through explanation and practice, completely transform the learner's big picture view of the world, disciplinary bottlenecks can be any ideas, perceptions, even assumptions, that trap students in stuck places. Many threshold concepts are, in fact, bottlenecks, but not all bottlenecks are threshold concepts. Some bottlenecks simply need unpacking to make their underlying processes and expert shortcuts explicit to the learners.
Starting Points in the Literature of Transfer
Middendorf, J., and Pace, D. (2004). Decoding the disciplines: a model for helping students learn disciplinary ways of thinking.
New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 98, 1-12.