Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Threshold Concepts in Undergraduate Engineering: Exploring Engineering Roles and Value of Learning

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Threshold Concepts in Undergraduate Engineering: Exploring Engineering Roles and Value of Learning

Article excerpt


This is the second in a series of papers that explores students' development as engineers during the undergraduate engineering degree. As we have argued previously (Bennett & Male, 2014), engineering educators and their students have access to a vast array of online and offline resources. As such, valuable class time can and should move beyond information transfer and towards student development through interactive experiences. Given that students' development of self and knowledge is socially constructed (Wenger, 1998), it is unsurprising that there is increasing interest in research into class-based experiences that might enhance learning. As Land et al (2006) argued, identifying threshold concepts can focus curriculum and help students overcome the most critical and troublesome concepts. Logically, these concepts then become the focus of class time. This paper draws on threshold concept theory as a framework in which specific concepts are thought to form disciplinary thresholds to learning.

In many disciplines the identification of threshold concepts is an on-going concern. In this paper we explore two recently identified threshold concepts and argue that these should receive greater attention. The study contributes to growing interest in the development of engineering students' skills and knowledge, and also of their selves and identities (Meyer & Land, 2006; Brophy, 2013).

We begin by establishing the rationale for the study. We then introduce threshold concept theory and Parkinson's (2011) study in which the new engineering threshold concepts were proposed. This is followed with discussion of established threshold concepts in engineering. The approach and theoretical framework of the study leads to analysis and discussion of the findings.

1.1 Rationale for the study

This study built on previous research in which engineering educators and students identified potential threshold concepts in an engineering foundation program (Male & Baillie, 2011a; Male, 2012b; Parkinson, 2011). Three of the potential threshold concepts were: "roles of engineers", the "value of learning" and "self-directed learning". In this study we explored the first two of these threshold concepts to better understand how they were troublesome and how educators might help students overcome them.

We recognised the potential for the earlier findings to improve engineering students' engagement and motivation. To explore this potential we investigated students' identities and motivation through three frameworks. The first of these was the "possible selves" framework, through which individuals consider desired, expected and undesired conceptions of self and career (Markus & Nurius, 1986). The second was a motivation and identity framework, through which we linked learning, motivation, self-concept and self-efficacy. This paper reports our investigation based on the third framework: threshold concept theory.

1.2 Theoretical framework: Threshold concept theory

Meyer & Land (2003) proposed that many disciplines have concepts that are critical to students' studies and future work. These concepts are transformative epistemologically because they reveal new ways of thinking and understanding. They are also transformative ontologically, as they can reposition a student's sense of self. Due to the transformative nature of these concepts, however, many students find them troublesome. Concepts can be troublesome for any reason that makes them either difficult to understand or accept: for example, because they are tacit, inert or conceptually difficult, because they use unfamiliar language, or because they invoke fear of uncertainty (Perkins, 2006, pp. 37-41; Male & Baillie, 2014, pp. 395-397; Baillie & Johnson, 2008, pp. 137-138; Meyer & Land, 2003, pp. 8-9). The often-prolonged state experienced by students when a threshold concept comes into view but has not been resolved is known as the "liminal space" (Meyer & Land, 2005, p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.