Threshold Concepts are concepts that are fundamental to thinking and operating in a given academic discipline, which students must comprehend in order to progress in that discipline.

The idea of threshold concepts first emerged from the work of J. Meyer and R. Land, who identified by five basic characteristics:

  1. Troublesome: the concept goes against learners’ existing assumptions, training, or understanding of the subject
  2. Bounded: the concept applies to thinking or operating within a specific discipline or subject and does not transfer directly to other contexts
  3. Integrative: illuminates connections between key ideas or methods in discipline
  4. Transformative: internalizing the concept fundamentally changes the way the learner thinks about the subject
  5. Irreversible: once a learner internalizes the concept, they cannot “unlearn” or forget it through lack of practice

Identifying threshold concepts in your own discipline and the specific material in your courses can be an effective way to design high-impact lessons and assignments. The WAC program held a workshop at the Winter 2021 faculty development conference that specifically addressed building writing assignments around threshold concepts. Here are the materials from that workshop:

Slide Deck: Threshold Concepts and Assignment Design

Academic Discipline Survey: in Spring 2021, the WAC director conducted an informal study of faculty asking about students’ misconceptions about their academic disciplines. The (anonymous) results are tabulated here.

Handout: Threshold Concepts in Academic Writing

Worksheets: Identifying and Scaffolding Threshold Concepts