35 Threshold Concepts & Tricky Topics

One of the biggest barriers between instructors, who are experts in their fields, and students, who are novices, are “tricky topics” that students need to be able to grasp before they can engage properly in the discipline. These concepts are usually a part of the foundation of the discipline. Identifying these concepts, and carefully positioning them within your course, will help ensure that your students are able to achieve your course goals and find success in your course. 

Photo via rawpixel

“Tricky topics”, as we define them, are topics that students struggle with. Some researchers in teaching and learning use the term “threshold concept” to describe these kinds of tricky topics. Meyer and Land, who defined this term for the field, identify the following five characteristics of a threshold concept: 

  • It is transformative. Student perception and behaviour will shift as a result of grasping the concept.
  • It is irreversible. Once students know it, it will be quite difficult to forget. This also means, from an instructor’s perspective, that it may be difficult to imagine not knowing it (which may increase how difficult it is for instructors to relate to their students).
  • It is integrative. Students will be able to relate it to other parts of the discipline.
  • It is bounded. It is linked to a particular discipline and may demarcate the difference between one discipline and another.
  • It is troublesome. Students have difficulty grasping the concept. It may seem “alien, counter-intuitive or even intellectually absurd at face value” (Meyer and Land, 2)

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view.

Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, 2003. 


Watch this video to learn more about threshold concepts:

Video: “Decoding the Disciplines and Threshold Concepts” by CELatElon can be found online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqe_kKFoOq4

We recommend this pioneering article by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines.”

We also like this short Faculty Focus article on the topic: Threshold Concept: Portals to New Ways of Thinking


Download the Topics Template and write out the topics for your course. Bold or use different colour text to identify any particularly tricky topics.

Guiding Questions

  • When do students stop following your train of thought?  What produces the dreaded “deer in the headlights” stare?
  • About what concepts do your students ask the most questions?  Do they ask the same questions on more than one occasion?
  • What gaps in knowledge do you notice in your past students?
  • What particular topics do you wish you had understood more clearly as an undergrad?
  • To what resources or analogies have your students responded best in the past?
  • What “ah ha!” moments have taken place in your class? When did they take place?



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Online Course Development Copyright © 2022 by Teaching and Learning Centre, Mount Saint Vincent University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book