Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Research in Science Education: Threshold Concepts

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Research in Science Education: Threshold Concepts

Article excerpt


This article introduces the idea of threshold concepts as a means to better understand student learning and, hence, to develop an enhanced curriculum to facilitate that learning. The debate surrounding threshold concepts is relatively recent and has mainly been focused within other disciplines such as economics, maths and history. Following on from their contributions to a conference in the UK on threshold concepts in geography, earth and environmental sciences, the authors are seeking to open the debate more widely to the geoscience community and thereby begin to develop an understanding of what this new approach to learning means for our subject area.


"What students really want is trouble-free knowledge" (Land, 2004).

It is well recognised by teachers of geoscience that students tend to find some geological concepts more difficult to grasp than others. It is also apparent that our curricula are becoming increasingly 'stuffed' as advances in geoscience reveal new and ever-changing concepts that are 'vital' to our understanding of the Earth. So how do we decide what our students 'need to know' in order to become geoscientists, and to what extent is this dictated by the fact that teachers often spend a lot of time and effort trying to help their students acquire concepts that they simply 'do not get'?

A student experiencing difficulty in grasping a particular concept can lead to an apparent 'blockage in their learning, which is only cleared when the student finally gains the necessary understanding to proceed. With some concepts this can be a fairly straightforward process, requiring only an alternative explanation or carefully worked example to smooth the way for continued learning. With other concepts, however, the clearing of this mental blockage has a much more significant and fundamental impact, with the resulting understanding or 'insight' opening up a whole new way of thinking and practising in a discipline. These concepts have been termed threshold concepts (Meyer and Land, 2003) and they represent:

"a transformed way of understanding ... something without which the learner finds it difficult to progress within the curriculum".


The easiest way to envisage a threshold concept is as a 'gateway' or 'portal' that leads the learner to a previously undiscovered, and perhaps inaccessible, way of thinking. While the exact nature of threshold concepts is still under review, some key characteristics have oeen identified (Meyer and Land, 2003):

1. They are transformative - acquiring threshold concepts will change the way in which students perceive and practice aspects of their discipline.

2. They are irreversible - once learned, threshold concepts are unlikely to become 'un-learned' or forgotten.

3. They are integrative - threshold concepts will allow connections (e.g. between isolated concepts or pieces of knowledge) to be made in ways that were previously unknown to, or hidden from, the student. For example, understanding the rate and scale of geological processes may enable a student to connect aspects or structural geology and metamorphic petrology which they had not previously linked, in order to form a more complete understanding of crustal processes.

4. They are bounded - threshold concepts can help to define the boundaries of a subject area or discipline. For example, historians and scientists recognize that their disciplines are distinct from one another, and within science, disciplines are also viewed as fundamentally distinct. The concept of "density" is important for most science domains, while the concept of subduction (which requires an understanding of density) is unique to the geologic sciences (although whether or not subduction is a threshold concept as such is open to debate for the geoscience community).

5. They may also be troublesome - threshold concepts may require students to deal with knowledge that is conceptually difficult, or that appears to be counter-intuitive or 'alien' in some way. …

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