Illuminating the nature of threshold concepts and their use in engineering education

Research team: Ann Harlow, Jonathan Scott, Mira Peter, & Bronwen Cowie
Project dates: 2010-2011
Partnership: Faculty of Education and Faculty of Science and Engineering

Description of the study:

During 2010 and 2011, the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research (WMIER) in collaboration with the Faculty of Science and Engineering have been undertaking a research project looking into the teaching and learning in the first and second year analogue electronics courses (ENEL 111 and 205) at the University of Waikato.

Electronic engineering educators have long observed that students find the course challenging. Threshold concept theory offers one explanation of why this is so. It states that some concepts are both troublesome and transformative—these are the concepts where students tend to get ‘stuck’ but once they have mastered them their understanding of the discipline is transformed.

Educational researchers from WMIER have been collaborating with Professor Jonathan Scott to identify the threshold concepts in his course. Consequently the lecturer has revised his teaching approach to help students learn more effectively. The researchers, working with the lecturer, have been monitoring student experience of the revised programme. Data have been collected using videos of lectures, student surveys, and lecturer and student interviews.

Findings to date have highlighted that students find articulation of knowledge and reflection on learning the most difficult thing to do. The study has drawn attention to the places where teaching could be developed further to help learners enter into and pass through the liminal space with more confidence. At the same time the study raises issues around timing of assessments as a measure of conceptual development or the crossing of knowledge thresholds.

Key outputs:

Scott, J., Harlow, A., Mira, P., & Cowie, B. (2010). Threshold concepts and introductory electronics. Presented at the AAEE Conference, Sydney, Australia, 5–8 December.

Scott, J., Harlow, A., & Peter, M. (2010). Impact of running first year and final year electronics laboratory classes in parallel. Presented at the AAEE Conference, Sydney, Australia, 5–8 December.

Scott, J., Harlow, A., Cowie, B., & Peter, M. (2010). Exploring threshold concepts in electronics engineering. Presented at the 3rd Biennial Symposium on Threshold Concepts, Sydney, Australia, 1-2 July. Abstract available:

Harlow, A., Scott, J., Peter, M., & Cowie, B. (2011). ‘Getting stuck’ in analogue electronics: Threshold concepts as an explanatory model. European Journal of Engineering Education. 1-13.

Peter, M., Harlow, A., Scott, J., & Cowie, B. (2011). How concept maps illuminate threshold concepts for both students and teachers. Presented at the New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Conference, Tauranga, New Zealand, 28 November–1 December.

Scott, J., & Harlow, A. (2011). Identification of the threshold concepts involved in early electronic engineering: Some methods and results. (2011). Proceedings of the 2011 AAEE Conference, Freemantle, Australia, December

Scott, J., Peter, M., & Harlow, A. (2012). Towards a TCT-inspired electronics concept inventory (ICI). Paper accepted for the 4th Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference and 6th NAIRTL Annual Conference, Dublin, Ireland, 27-29 June.

Harlow, A., Peter, M., Scott, J., & Cowie, B. (2012). Students’ perceptions of travel through the liminal space: Lessons for teaching. Paper accepted for the 4th Biennial Threshold Concepts Conference and 6th NAIRTL Annual Conference, Dublin, Ireland, 27-29 June.

Scott, J., & Harlow, A. (2012). Identification of threshold concepts involved in early electronics: Some new methods and results. Australian Journal of Engineering Education, 18(1).

Future research opportunities:

  • The findings of this collaborative work have indicated that threshold concept theory can provide a sound methodology by which one can arrive at a concept inventory that includes only ideas that are truly important to a discipline. This idea has led to the lecturer setting out to develop an assessment tool to investigate the depth of student understanding, independent of numerical ability and mimicry.
  • The collaborative team have been granted funding from the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) to extend their threshold concept research across four tertiary disciplines within the University of Waikato for two more years. The team will be investigating the changes that tertiary lecturers make to curriculum and pedagogy when they focus on threshold concepts and how students respond to a threshold concept-informed curriculum.

Student quote:

It’s been a long time since we had to answer any questions about it (the threshold concept), but I think it has clicked. Last year I just didn’t really – the moment of realisation happened this year. I have been answering the questions correctly, but sometimes, you know, you can answer questions correctly but you don’t actually understand how the stuff works. (second year student)