Threshold Concept Theory


Role of key ideas in understanding a broader cluster ideas.

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … interwoven percepts
  • Knowing is … applying a system of interpretation
  • Learner is … a perceiver/connecter/interpreter (individual)
  • Learning is … acquiring, connecting, and integrating percepts
  • Teaching is … deconstructing webs and making available webs of percepts




A threshold concept is a core principle or notion that, when understood, can significantly alter one’s understanding of a domain of concepts. The metaphor of “threshold” was chosen for the imagery of “opening portals” – i.e., into previously unavailable ways of thinking about a topic of range of topics.


The notion of a threshold concept is predicated on an assumption that a domain of knowledge comprises a web of interdependent concepts. Thus, potentially, multiple concepts in that web could serve as a threshold concept, depending on what the learner already understands. Consequently, with regard to a domain, it may not be practical or possible to isolate threshold concepts. Similarly, with regard to individuals, threshold concepts may vary significantly from one person to the next. Phrased somewhat differently, Threshold Concept Theory may be little more than a dressed up appreciation that each domain has key concepts.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Jan Meyer; Ray Land

Status as a Theory of Learning

Threshold Concept Theory is not concerned with understanding that dynamic complexities of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Threshold Concept Theory is a perspective on teaching that is rooted in a conception of knowledge as web of propositions.

Status as a Scientific Theory

There is a considerable literature on Threshold Concept Theory, but little of it can be construed as offering empirical support to the perspective. Most often, it is invoked as either a descriptive principle to interpret domains of knowledge or as a pragmatic notion for informing discussions of teaching. Some evidence has been published to show that, in some domains, focusing on the development of specific threshold concepts can lead to improved understandings.  

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Threshold Concept Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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