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Re-envisioning tertiary teaching and learning of difficult concepts: How “threshold concepts” afford understanding of problematic ideas

Co-directors: Mira Peter and Ann Harlow
Research mentor: Bronwen Cowie
Research practitioners: Jonathan Scott, Marcia Johnson, David McKie, Anne McKim and Kirstine Moffat

Project Dates: 2012 - 2013

Project team
Jonathan Scott, David McKie, Bronwen Cowie, Anne McKim,
Ann Harlow, Mira Peter, Kirstine Moffat and Marcia Johnson

This 2-year project has been funded by the Teaching & Learning Research Initiative (TLRI).

Through collaborative action-research the researchers will work with tertiary lecturers in electronics engineering, doctoral research and writing, management communication, and English to identify threshold concepts in and across disciplines. They will document changes in lecturers' threshold-concept-informed teaching and supervision and the impact of threshold concept-informed curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment on student learning.

A previous study examined the implications of a threshold concept-informed curriculum and pedagogy in electronics engineering. Threshold concept theory asserts that concepts that are troublesome to learn are also transformative when mastered: once grasped they reconfigure students’ understanding of a discipline and what it means to be a disciplinary expert.


  1. to engage tertiary lecturers in rigorous examination of curriculum and pedagogy through an exploration of threshold concept theory;
  2. to foster in students deep rather than shallow knowledge and understanding through the threshold-concept-informed curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment; and.
  3. to address concerns around retention of tertiary students.

We will address these objectives by investigating:

  • How lecturers' awareness of threshold concepts impacts teaching and supervision at the tertiary level.
  • How the introduction of threshold concepts into teacher-student discourse and practice impacts student learning at the tertiary level.
  • The possibility of threshold concepts spanning disciplines.
  • The value of collaborative action research, by lecturers from several disciplines, for tertiary curriculum and pedagogy design.

Why is this research important?
The retention of students through to successful completion of tertiary study is a priority in today’s knowledge-centered society. In our project, education researchers and university lecturers will explore the potential of threshold-concept theory to transform students’ learning through lecturers’ threshold-concept focused pedagogy. In our previous study, in which a lecturer changed his pedagogy guided by the threshold concept theory, the number of students continuing in electronics engineering was double that of previous years. This finding strongly suggests that collaborative action research into pedagogy, based on the threshold-concept theory, can address current concerns around retention of tertiary graduates in New Zealand.

What we plan to do.
The study will progress through two cycles of collaborative action research.

We will collect data from lecturer interviews and research team discussions about the nature of threshold concepts, their identification in the study-courses, and about the development of threshold-concept fashioned curriculum and pedagogy. Lecturers and reflect on their recorded teaching to help them reshape their pedagogy and supervision. We will explore students’ ideas about threshold concepts and their learning through surveys, interviews, observation, and student achievement data.

Analysis will draw on insights from complexity theory to provide evidence of whether and how knowledge of threshold concepts can emerge through self-organisation. Statistical analysis will be conducted to show differences and trends in student achievement (i.e., quiz scores, laboratory assessment scores, final examinations) and opinions, (i.e., students’ surveys). We will use standard analysis techniques for qualitative data to examine how lecturers and students manage changes in teaching, supervision, and learning.

Transforming Disciplines: Emergent Learning and Threshold Concepts Conference 18-19 November 2013
This boutique conference, hosted at The University of Waikato and organised by the project team, showcased current Threshold Concept research in tertiary education and its implications for successful teaching and learning. A report from the conference, authored by Susan Groundwater-Smith is now available to download.

Project outputs

Harlow, A., Scott, J., Peter, M. (2012, June). Students’ perceptions of travel through the liminal space: Lessons for teachers. Paper presented at the 4th Biennial Threshold Concepts Symposium: From personal practice to communities of practice. June 28–29, 2012, Trinity College, Dublin Ireland.

Peter, M., & Harlow, A. (2012, June). Teaching and grasping threshold concepts: Four disciplines and one paradigm. Paper presented at the 4th Biennial Threshold Concepts Symposium: From personal practice to communities of practice. June 28–29, 2012, Trinity College, Dublin Ireland.

Scott, J., Peter, M., & Harlow, A (2012, June). Threshold concept-inspired electronics concept Inventory. Paper presented at the 4th Biennial Threshold Concepts Symposium: From personal practice to communities of practice. June 28–29, 2012, Trinity College, Dublin Ireland.

Scott, J., Peter, M., & Harlow, A. (2012, August). An electronics threshold concept inventory: Assessment in the face of dependency of concepts. Paper presented at TALE2012, August 2012, Hong Kong.

Johnson, E. M., & Haines, A. (2012, November). "The size of the project is overwhelming": Case study insights into becoming an academic scholar. Paper presented at the Tertiary Writing Network Colloquium. Hamilton, New Zealand.

Peter, M., & Harlow, A. (2012, November). Teaching and grasping threshold concepts. Paper presented at the New Zealand Association of Research in Education (NZARE) Conference. Hamilton New Zealand.

Haines, A., Marsh, D., & Johnson, E. M. (2012, November). The 4 x 4 strategy for writing improvement. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Association of Tertiary Learning Advisers of Aotearoa New Zealand (ATLAANZ). Hamilton, New Zealand.

Harlow, A., Peter, M., & Scott, J. (2012, December). Threshold concept knowledge in analogue electronic. Paper presented at the Special Session on Engineering Education attached to The 19th Electronics New Zealand Conference (ENZCon2012). Dunedin, New Zealand.

Making headlines

Crossing the threshold
Education Review - June 2014
Article on threshold learning with Professor Jonathan Scott featuring the WMIER projects on threshold concepts.

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