Threshold Teaching

by Matthew Luskey on January 26, 2016

As an English teacher, it’s hard to resist a good symbol. And when it comes to symbols, thresholds have superabundant possibilities. Consider how the literal definitions of a threshold from the Oxford English Dictionary invite figurative thinking:

  • The piece of timber or stone which lies below the bottom of a door, and has to be crossed in entering a house.
  • Border, limit (of a region); the line which one crosses in entering. spec. in an airfield: the beginning of the landing area on a runway.
  • The magnitude or intensity that must be exceeded for a certain reaction or phenomenon to occur.
  • An obstacle, stumbling-block.

ThresholdWhen these definitions are combined, a threshold becomes a highly charged signifier, layered with meanings. A threshold is the mark of a border, the pathway one must take to traverse that border, and the very obstacle to such a passage. It is, at once, the sign, the path, and the barrier. There is little wonder, then, that spanning a threshold often involves substantial disorientation, struggle, and transformation.

So what do thresholds have to do with teaching and learning? Here are a few considerations.

First, the symbolic heft of a threshold can powerfully describe core concepts that one must learn if one is to advance in his or her field of study. For the past decade, the articulation of threshold concepts has been the vital work of Jan Meyer and Ray Land. In their first volume, Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, Meyer and Land define TCs as “conceptual gateways” within disciplines that lead to previously inaccessible ways of thinking:


“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” (3). Without an understanding of perspective, for example, we can only draw certain kinds of houses – flat and one-dimensional. No amount of color and landscape can change that. Grasping the concept of perspective enables artistic progress. MirandaHouse

Second, identifying threshold concepts can shift our own attitude about teaching and learning. As one who has played the guitar for many years and still can’t quite get his head around modal interchange, I can attest to the time and struggle associated with learning a threshold concept. Meyer and Land describe this often-prolonged experience as marked by “troublesome,” “counter-intuitive,” and “liminal” features. These words aptly describe my feelings whenever my excellent guitar teacher mentions the Dorian feel to a Stones tune or the Lydian undertones in “Space Oddity.” Living in the liminal space of a learner is good for me. That’s what I tell myself on Thursday evenings at Music Motive.

Threshold Concepts and Writing

This is pretty abstract – we’re talking symbols here – so it’s useful to identify a specific threshold concept and consider how it fits the definition and various characteristics Meyer and Land describe. Since I teach writing at Cal Poly and I work with colleagues across campus on writing-related matters, I’ll focus on a threshold concept for writing studies, Writing is Informed by Prior Experience, recently identified in Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (Utah State Press, 2015). I believe this concept resonates not just for the teacher of composition, but for all of us engaged in teaching writing-intensive courses in our disciplines.

In Naming What We Know, Andrea Lunsford, Director Emerita of Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, points out how prior writing knowledge and experiences can help or hinder writers as they approach new writing situations:

“Writing is, first of all, always part of a larger network or conversation; all writing is in some sense a response to other writing or symbolic action. Even when writing is private or meant for the writer alone, it is shaped by the writer’s earlier interaction with writing and with other people and with all the writer has read and learned… In some instances, prior knowledge and experience are necessary and often helpful; in others they can work against writers. When writers call on strategies they have used before when approaching a new writing task, those strategies may or may not work well in the current situation” (54-55).

On the surface, this seems like a commonplace observation; of course, our prior experiences can help or hinder our learning. However, for many first year college writers (and beyond), critically examining this relationship to prior writing experience can be troublesome and counter-intuitive. First, it often requires student writers to question and reconsider what they have previously learned over many years of schooling. For successful students, this can seem especially irksome: why should prior achievements now seem invalid? For students who have a more checkered writing history, it can also be troublesome, invoking negative and fixed mindsets about writing ability – all those prohibitions, admonitions, and ghosts of essays past. Second, it often destabilizes sturdy models and strategies that many writers have come to rely on. Writing templates (e.g. the five-paragraph model) that are valued on high-stakes assessments, such as the SAT and the Advanced Placement Exam, are suddenly inadequate in new writing contexts. Likewise, the habitual deployment of specific strategies, perhaps mandated by previous teachers or school districts – such as “funneling” an introductory paragraph down from a broad opening sentence, providing two supporting commentary sentences for every concrete detail (Schaffer Model), “dressing-up” sentences with specific clauses, opening an essay with a hook (often in the form of a question), not using passive voice, avoiding the first-person point of view, etc. – may be inappropriate for a new discipline, discourse or audience. Such templates, conventions, and strategies are not bad, but when used unreflectively, as plug-ins, they often lead to what Chris Anson describes as “entrenchment,” a “mismatch between what they produce and the expectation or norms of their new writing community”(Naming 77). Identifying those moments of mismatch, and asking students to do so, can itself become a troublesome and counter-intuitive experience.

Yet, in order to advance as writers, this is precisely what students must learn to do: negotiate a new and specific rhetorical situation in light of their own writing histories. Student resistance and frustration is understandable, even reasonable. Again, Meyer and Land’s term, liminality, is especially apt (liminal from the Latin limin-, limen = threshold). Quite literally, the student struggling to make sense of the writing present by (re)considering the writing past is in a threshold state.

This capacity to analyze one’s previous writing experiences and to determine to what extent they might usefully inform or obstruct a current writing situation is often what distinguishes a developed writer from a novice one. It is also a transformational skill that enables writers to progress. Recent literature on writing transfer focuses on developing this capacity, what Yancey, Blake and Tacsak describe in Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Cultures of Writing as “big-picture thinking,” in which students consider “how writing in one setting is both different from and similar to the writing in another… so as to create a framework for future writing situations” (4). Prior writing experiences often do serve writers well as they negotiate a new writing situation. Indeed, a great many passing Writing Proficiency Exams at Cal Poly deploy a variety of stock writing moves and genres, such as the use of a five-paragraph schema or a personal narrative in order to navigate quickly through a two-hour, single-draft, high-stakes task. However, such schemas are less likely to work effectively on a profile assignment, a research proposal, field notes, a technical memo, or dozens of other writing tasks. The past may be usable for the writer, but not always. This is what the developed writer understands and the novice writer struggles with.

In truth, writing is always hard, time-consuming, and forged through the crucible of revision. As Justice Brandeis noted, “there is no great writing, only great rewriting.” This doesn’t change; it remains a liminal process. But writers who can take stock of present writing needs by rethinking past experiences – writers who can decide when and how to (re)use, adapt, or ignore a genre, a strategy, a specific move – are much more likely to advance in their work.

Finally, threshold concepts enable us to think about our disciplines in ways that make explicit what has become deeply tacit for many of us. When we identify the thresholds for our students, thresholds that may take years to span, we have the potential to be more equitable in the classroom, more mentoring with our comments on student writing, more open to new pedagogies, and more empathetic in our interactions with liminal students. We know what it’s like to experience fear and uncertainty in our work. But we’ve passed through, and so can our students.

The next blog will consider more fully the issue of liminality and how it manifests itself in student work. In the meantime, I invite you to share specific threshold concepts in your own discipline. What defines them? What makes them troublesome and counter-intuitive for students? In the end, how are they transformational?


Adler-Kassner, Linda, and Elizabeth A. Wardle, eds. Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2015. Print.

Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land, eds. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake; Robertson, Liane; Tacsak, Kara. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Cultures of Writing. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2015.



Author : John Webster
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Good post.  I have approached this threshold from a different direction–that of a switch from “rule-governed” to “rhetorically appropriate” writing.  Much early composition assignments enormously simplify audience.  Instead of saying that sometimes it makes sense to use “I” and at other times it’s better to avoid the first person, many teachers, dealing with far more pressing issues than voice, just give a rule, and frequently that rule is:  Don’t use “I”.  Rules become the substructure for various choices, however, and that prevents building a more context and audience sensitive understanding of what will work best.

Maybe this means that when we talk about a “threshold concept” we need to think exactly as you suggest in beginning–of a way of highlighting what Piaget called accommodative (vs assimilative) learning.  It may take more than one “concept” to bring a mind to effect a learning that requires restructuring current knowledge/paradigms.  Many so-called TCs require “unlearning” as well as learning, and as Quintilian might have been the first to observe, “No one prefers unlearning to learning.”


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