Notes: Lane Wilkinson, “The Problem with Threshold Concepts”

Wilkinson, Lane. (2015). The problem with threshold concepts. Sense and Reference: A Philosophical Library Blog. Web.


Wilkinson, in this blog post, points out that over the eleven years, by his count, since the inauguration of “threshold concepts” there has been little in the way of criticism of these readily adopted pedagogical practices. Drawing on the scant articles that criticize these concepts, Wilkinson attempts his own criticism of thresholds.

Keywords: disciplinarity, information literacy, literacy studies, library, library science, threshold concepts


Barradell, S. (2013). The identification of threshold concepts: a review of theoretical complexities and methodological challenges. Higher Education, 65(2), 265-276.

O’Donnell, R. (2010). A critique of the threshold concept hypothesis and its application to opportunity cost in economics.(Working Paper No. 164).


“The key thing here is that threshold concepts have a way of reducing all of our students to a single idealized student who learns a particular way. But, we know that isn’t the case. In a room of 30 students, each student will have a different standard for how troublesome or transformative a concept is.”

“O’Donnell (2010) raises what I feel is the most damning criticism: that the threshold concept hypothesis requires us to reduce disciplines down to core sets of unchanging beliefs. The push to have students “think like an x” (a doctor, an engineer, an economist, a librarian, etc.) has negative impacts on critical thinking, O’Donnell argues, because “if we want creative thinkers and innovators, we need graduates capable of moving outside the x framework and operating within multiple frameworks” (2010, p. 9).”

“Even worse than that is the problem Barbara Fister alluded to on 27 February (link above). If we’re going to talk about disciplines having threshold concepts, we have to ask “whose threshold concepts?” As O’Donnell argues, “the view that there is a single set of threshold concepts in a discipline typically reflects the view that a discipline only has one reputable school of thought.” (2010, p. 9).”


If we talk about threshold concepts in a rhetorically savvy way that addresses whose threshold concepts these are, what purposes they purport to serve, and discuss what is at stake within them as we go about this practice of teaching them, is it possible to create a counter-narrative to the grand narrative of threshold concepts that Lane Wilkinson speaks to? What could that counter-narrative look like?

In order to move beyond a given discipline, to integrate other ways of thinking within it, do we have to understand the original discipline? But, if that too is problematic, then, in order to integrate other ways of thinking into a given discipline, do we need to name our audience and make works understandable to them?

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