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Threshold concepts and certainty: a critical analysis of ‘troublesomeness’

Stopford, Richard

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The threshold concept framework is a key contemporary theory in pedagogy. The core idea is that ‘threshold concepts’ are distinctively ‘troublesome’ for students and act as gatekeepers to their disciplines. No doubt the theory is compelling because there is surely something right about this. Student difficulty with conceptual material is familiar to all teaching practitioners. Furthermore, to avoid rote levels of understanding, mastery of discipline-specific conceptual material is key. However, TCF has struggled to articulate key dimensions of its theory: it is without a methodology for identifying threshold concepts. It has also faltered in explaining how student difficulty is a function of difficulties endemic to the concepts, rather than as a contingent phenomenon about individual students. I offer a novel way to think about identifying threshold concepts, and for theorising student difficulties which may arise from those concepts. I argue that there is an ‘existential’ kind of certainty which acts as a framework within which epistemic activities take place. Disciplines which theorise concepts in ways that clash with students’ existential certainties are candidates for threshold concepts and may generate ‘objective’ difficulties for students. As much as I think theorising existential certainty helps TCF overcome theoretical challenges, it would require revisions to the way that it is currently being theorised and applied. I also believe that even without attachments to TCF, ‘existential certainty’ is a real phenomenon, shaping the very possibilities of student experience, and which any pedagogical theory should be aware of.


Stopford, R. (2021). Threshold concepts and certainty: a critical analysis of ‘troublesomeness’. Higher Education, 82(1), 163-179.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 14, 2020
Online Publication Date Oct 3, 2020
Publication Date 2021-07
Deposit Date Oct 14, 2020
Publicly Available Date Oct 14, 2020
Journal Higher Education
Print ISSN 0018-1560
Electronic ISSN 1573-174X
Publisher Springer
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 82
Issue 1
Pages 163-179


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