Threshold Concepts: Education as Rite of Passage

Initiates of ancient mystery religions would learn the meaning of symbols like this one. Image believed to be in the public domain; originally published 1896. From Wikipedia.

Initiates of ancient mystery religions would learn the meaning of symbols like this one. Image believed to be in the public domain; originally published 1896. From Wikipedia.

By dark of night the master leads you, the robed initiate, beyond the columns of the marble portico and into the candle-lit court of the temple. According to custom, the master has overseen your days of fasting, study, and preparation leading up to this, the day you would be ready to cross the threshold. Now, as the cock crows thrice, you are led into the place where you have never been allowed before, to see what you have never seen before, and to know what has been heretofore unknown…You enter into the inner portal of the holy of holies and behold, in the sacred light of a golden candelabrum… the solution to your chemistry homework.

A movement exists in education to view educational standards in the anthropological terms of the rite of passage. As elaborated by Victor Turner [Wikipedia] and other anthropologists, a rite of passage consists of an individual beginning in one social category, crossing a limen (Latin: threshold), and entering into another social category. Examples include rites of passage by which a boy becomes recognized as a man (e.g bar mitzvah), or by which a girl becomes a woman (e.g. bat mitzvah), or certain religious initiations, such as Greco-Roman mystery cults [Wikipedia] or, to use more familiar, contemporary examples, baptism, first communion, or confirmation.

The analogy is this: a student passes a conceptual limen when he or she comes to really understand any threshold concept. There is a metamorphosis from ignorant to understanding. Like a participant faced with the revelation of divine knowledge at Eleusis, the student confronts quadratic equations, the ideal gas law, the principles of engineering, the grammar of a well-composed sentence…whatever the concept, and that student is changed. Once a student masters a threshold concept, he or she doesn’t simply revert to ignorance. A threshold concept is of a class of concept such that it changes the student’s view of the course subject, and, perhaps, whether in a small way or in a profound way, the student’s entire worldview.

They say a student cannot “revert,” yet the great big blank that represents all I forgot from my high school chemistry education calls this into question. On the other hand, an argument could be made that although I forgot the details, the way of thinking involved in those forgotten principles (the ones that I did comprehend at the time) still influences my worldview, or that if I were faced with chem homework all over again, that comprehension would re-surface.

So what constitutes a threshold concept? Meyer and Land define threshold concepts as:

  • transformative: altering the way the student looks at the subject of study
  • integrative: tying concepts together in ways previously not obvious to the student
  • irreversible: difficult or impossible to “un-learn”
  • troublesome: often foreign to the student’s un-initiated thought process
  • boundary markers: often delineating the conceptual arena of the subject or a topic within the subject, which is to say that, for example, the student passes a boundary at which “being a student of chemistry” begins, for example.

The next logical question is “how are threshold concepts identified or discovered?” Well, from the looks of this paper by Jonas Boustedt et al., it might be as elementary as whatever the instructor identifies as a threshold concept. Boustedt and colleagues argue for the existence of at least two specific threshold concepts in computer sciences by a simple survey of instructors through asking questions that lead their participants to associate concepts from their discipline with the characteristics in Meyer and Land’s list, mentioned above.

Scarification is a rite of passage in several African traditional cultures. This image is believed to be in the public domain.

Scarification is a rite of passage in several African traditional cultures. And you thought your algebra homework was painful. This image is believed to be in the public domain. From Gallery Ezakwantu.

This may imply that any instructor trained in the theory of threshold knowledge might be able to rely on his or her own intuition to identify specific threshold concepts. While this might not be adequate for the rigor of science, it might be good enough to put in practice in the classroom. According to Loertscher and Minderhout of Seattle University, their biochem department is doing just this, hosting a conference of faculty and students to identify threshold concepts this summer.

So what does this mean for educators? Literature I have read remains vague in terms of concrete steps for implementation, but perhaps we can say that a theoretical framework cannot help but alter the way in which an instructor approaches their course subject via changing the way that the instructor thinks about the discipline. In this way, the theory of threshold concepts could be seen as a threshold concept itself. For the initiated educator, it transforms and integrates the view of both education in general and their particular discipline, and it is an irreversible realization that troubles the previous approach and that marks a boundary between a practitioner of threshold concept theory and a non-practitioner.

Congratulations, reader, you are now initiated.


Articles Cited and Additional Reading:

Baillie, Caroline; Ray Land; & Jan Meyer, editors. Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning.

Boustedt, Jonas, et al. “Threshold Concepts in Computer Science: Do They Exist and Are They Useful?”

Land, Ray & Jan Meyer. “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines.” From the ETL Project.

Loertscher, Jenny & Vicky Minderhout. “Improving Learning by Focusing on Threshold Concepts” at The Substrate

Tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

About Bret Norwood

Bret Norwood is a staff blogger for Learning Laboratory in addition to other roles, including UI design and content development for Study Putty, our free memorization tool for chemistry and many other course topics. He is also a published writer of literary fiction--see

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *