Guest Editorial - Special Issue: Threshold Concepts and Conceptual Difficulty

Ray Land, Julie Rattray


This special issue of the PESTLHE journal addresses issues arising from the conceptual difficulty that students face in their disciplinary studies and programmes of professional development in higher education.   Such encounters with difficulty – conceptual, affective, ontological – and the pedagogical and curricular interventions that teachers may identify to assist their students, are central to the Threshold Concepts analytic framework of learning (Meyer & Land 2003). The Threshold Concepts Framework (TCF) is premised on the notion that, in all disciplines, there are certain concepts, or certain learning experiences, which are akin to passing through a portal, permitting the learner to enter new conceptual territory in which things formerly not perceived are brought into view. These learning thresholds are often the points at which students experience difficulty.  The TCF is a transformative approach to learning, assuming that, in a process of becoming, knowledge new to the learner needs to be troublesome in order to provoke new ways of seeing, and a letting go of their prevailing view.  As Dewey (1986) once observed, ‘The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.’ Letting go of a prior view is always troubling, particularly when the new way of seeing, the new knowledge to be integrated, has not yet come fully into view and the learner finds him or herself in an in-between or transitional space which Meyer & Land (2003, 2005)characterise as a state of 'liminality'.  This is the space of transformation, but can become a suspended state or 'stuck place' in which the learner wrestles with language and possible meanings to gain understanding, coherence or clarity.  The learner may be in this space of transformation for considerable time.  It may extend beyond the duration of the programme they are studying.

Full Text:



Atherton, J., Hadfield, P., & Meyers, R. (2008). Threshold concepts in the Wild. Paper presented at the Threshold Concepts: from Theory to Practice conference, 18-20 June 2008. Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario, Canada.

Baillie, C., Bowden, J. A., & Meyer, J. H. F. (2013). Threshold capabilities: threshold concepts and knowledge capability linked through variation theory. Higher Education, 65(2), 227-246

Barnett, R. (2005). Recapturing the universal in the university. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 37, 785–797.

Cousin, G. (2006) An introduction to threshold concepts, Planet No 17, December 2006, pp 4-5.

Dewey, J. (1986). How we think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. In J. A. Bodston (Ed.) John Dewey, The later works, 1925–1953: 1933 Essays and how we think. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1933)

Jacobson, H. (2016) In Praise of Difficulty. BBC Radio 4 A Point of View. First broadcast Sun 16 Oct 2016

Flanagan, M.T. (2017) Threshold Concepts: Undergraduate Teaching, Postgraduate Training, Professional Development and School Education: A Short Introduction and a Bibliography.

Gal, I. (2002) Adults’ statistical literacy: Meanings, components, responsibilities. International Statistical Review. 70,1,1-51.

Hemmi, A., Bayne, S., & Land, R. (2009). The appropriation and repurposing of social technologies in higher education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25 (1), 19-30.

Hestenes, D., Wells, M., & Swackhammer, G. (1992). Force Concept Inventory, The Physics Teacher, 30, 141-157.

Land, R. (in press) Enhancing Quality to Address Frailty, in Kinchin, I. and Winstone, N. (Eds) Pedagogic Frailty and Resilience in the University. Rotterdam, Boston & Taipei: Sense Publishers

Land, R., & Meyer, J. H. F. (2010). Threshold concepts and troublesome concepts: Dynamics of Assessment. In R. Land, J.H.F. Meyer, & C. Baillie (Eds.), Threshold concepts and transformational learning (pp. 61-79). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Land, R., Meyer J.H.F & Flanagan, M. T (Eds) Threshold Concepts in Practice. Rotterdam, Boston & Taipei: Sense Publishers

Land, R., Rattray, J. & Vivian, P. (2014) Learning in the liminal space: a semiotic approach to threshold concepts. Higher Education 67:199–217

McLean, S. V. (1999). Becoming a Teacher: The Person in the Process. In R. P. Lipka., & T. M. Brinthaupt (Eds.) The role of self in teacher development, pp. 55-91. Albany: SUNY Press.

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In C. Rust (Ed.), Improving student learning: Improving student learning theory and practice–Ten years on. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

Meyer, J. H. F. & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49, 373–388

Norman, D. A. (1990) The Design of Everyday Things. Doubleday, New York.

Rattray, J. (2016) Affective Dimensions of Liminality. In Land, R., Meyer J.H.F & Flanagan, M. T (Eds) Threshold Concepts in Practice. Rotterdam, Boston & Taipei: Sense Publishers.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, A., Åkerlind, G., Francis, P., Kirkup, L., McKenzie, J., Pearce, D., & Sharma, M, D. (2010). Measurement Uncertainty as a Threshold Concept in Physics. In Proceedings of the 16th UniServe Science Annual Conference, 29 September-1 October 2010, pp. 98-103. University of Sydney: Australia.


  • There are currently no refbacks.