Threshold concepts

Threshold concepts are a recent addition to the ways we think of developing learning resources for students.  It arose in the Ways of Thinking and Practicing project in the UK.

Threshold concepts are defined as troublesome, transformative, irreversible, integrative, and bounded.  They are also said to be ‘liminal’ that is, they are akin to a rite of passage through coming to know a concept.

What troubles me about threshold concepts is that sometimes it appears that the defined threshold was troublesome for the teacher.  A certain ego-centric take on what troubled them would be the same as what troubles others.  There may be more to it and this is particularly highlighted by O’Donnell (2010) in his study of the ways in which economists understand the classic example of a threshold concept: opportunity cost.  O’Donnell found that there were 4 distinct conceptualisations of opportunity cost and that only one of them aligned with the classic definition.  He also found that economists were equally likely to claim any one of the four definitions as their understanding (that is, in a question about opportunity cost, each of the four multiple choices gained around a quarter of the responses).

Troublesome, indeed.

So when we start to talk about information literacy, what are the concepts that are most troublesome? Are they the same for everyone? Can we define a set of concepts that lead everyone to the same (or similar) understanding?

And when we talk about information literacy in universities, are we invoking a broad categorisation or a more confined set of skills around academic literacies?


Ref: O’Donnell, R., 2010. A Critique of the Threshold Concept Hypothesis and an Application in Economics. Working Paper Series, #164. Available at:

This entry was posted in Research, Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *