Notes: Sarah Barradell, “The Identification of Threshold Concepts: A Review of Theoretical Complexities and Methodological Challenges”

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



Barradell overviews the ways that threshold concepts are decided and researched, proposing that a consensus methodology used with other methods may allow for threshold concepts to be appropriately identified within their disciplines.

Keywords: Threshold Concepts, Disciplinarity, Pedagogy, Higher Education, Curriculum Design, Interdisciplinarity


Tanner, B. (2011). Threshold concepts in practice education: Perspectives of practice education. Journal of Occupational Therapy 74.9: 427-434.

Taylor, C.E. (2008). Threshold Concepts, Troublesome Knowledge and ways of thinking and practising – can we tell the difference in Biology? In: Threshold Concepts in the Disciplines. R Land, JHF Meyer and J Smith (eds), pp. 185-197. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.


“Threshold concepts grew from a conceptual framework exploring ‘crucial topics or concepts that affect how the teaching is carried out and how understanding develops within that subject area'” (266).

“Threshold concepts may never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’; disciplinary differences regarding ways of thinking and practising professionally, academically, and pedagogically make sameness impossible and probably unnecessary” (267).

“[A] common interpretation of what a threshold is—and what makes it a threshold concept and for whom—needs to be established” (267).

“Representatives of the profession or similar wider community might have useful insights to offer given that disciplines are decided as much by professional issues, as they are academic ones…. These external concerns will influence the validity of the identified threshold concepts” (273).

Computers and Writing Reflection: Writing is Multimodal

All writing is multimodal. It’s one of 37 “threshold concepts” in writing studies published in Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know. The word “multimodal” appears across FYWP outcome statements. Multimodality appears to be a central value in writing studies, but how is it implemented, how is it defined, and how is it assessed and housed in FYWPs?

Many of my early conversations with faculty around multimodal composition alluded to some of these questions. One even compared it to many notions of literacy that too easily become some sort of apparently “neutral good” that has a tricky definition. It doesn’t quite mean computers; it doesn’t quite mean words in a row writing.

In my reading Jody Shipka’s “Rethinking Composition/Rethinking Process” chapter in Toward a Composition Made Whole, I am understanding a definition of multimodal composition that may not utilize a certain technology, but rather, argues for an understanding of composition that calls attention to the technologies used to produce that writing. She writes, “By asking students to examine the communicative process as a dynamic, embodied, multimodal whole–one that shapes and is shaped by the environment–students might come to see writing, reading, speaking, and ways of thinking and evaluating as “a function of place, time, sex, age, and many other elements of life” (Malstrom 1956, 24)” (26). This sort approach mixes object-oriented ontology with multimodality in a compelling way that forces an understanding of technologies and environments for writing that shape the writer and what is produced as a function of that space, time, object, etc. This kind of encounter with an object unessentializes and deinstrumentalizes objects and process for the production and evaluation of a given text. Instead, it calls for an encounter with the impression the objects of production have on the composition through the recognition of the liminal spaces objects and environments afford.

I can hear this echoed in composition’s past in Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2004 CCCC address, where she calls attention to the way that technology is rapidly and dramatically creating and changing genres and understandings of literacy. She writes that students are writing more on their own than ever before with these (then) new technologies. Though not articulated in quite the same way as Shipka’s (2011) chapter, Yancey seems to be calling attention to this same understanding of composition; one that encounters the modes of production and recognizes their contribution to the production of that text. The idea that all writing is “interfacing,” I find a compelling way to conceive of texts as creating interaction and invitation.

This is certainly something that I strive for in my own pedagogy. The idea of making as composing is language that I’m slightly more familiar with, largely coming out of the hacking vs. yacking debates in the digital humanities and the maker movement. I’ve attempted to structure the courses I teach around this idea of multimodal composition and emphasize the means of making a text to call attention to the underlying assumptions about what a text is and the technologies that go into its production.


Notes: Neal Lerner, “Writing is a Way of Enacting Disciplinarity”

Lerner, Neal. (2015). Writing is a way of enacting disciplinarity. In Linda Adler-Kassner & Elizabeth Wardle (eds.) Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Logan: Utah State University Press, 40-41.


Lerner states that the writing that occurs within a given discipline evokes and invokes a set of disciplinary values and boundaries, and that the writers of that discipline at a given time are (re)creating those values each time they compose. In this way, writing is the enactment of the discipline’s values, both in its communication of ideas within its field and reproducing its values in a given text.

Keywords: citations, composition, disciplinarity, genre, threshold concepts, writing studies


Connors, Robert J. (1999). The rhetoric of citation systems: Part 2, competing epistemic values in citation. Rhetoric Review, 17(2), 219-45.

Hyland, Ken. (1999). Academic attribution: Citation and the construction of disciplinary knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 20(3), 341-67.


“In sum, the relationship between disciplinary knowledge making and the ways writing and other communicative practices create and communicate that knowledge are at the heart of what defines particular disciplines” (40).

“On a larger discursive level, any disciplinary genre speaks to the process by which members of a discipline shape, make distinct, and value its forms and practices of knowledge creation and communication, and these processes, in turn, are shaped by the histories of those genres” (41).


In what ways is the enactment of disciplines in writing performative? How can we make student writers aware of the histories they enact when they write in a given genre to make aware the tacit expectation of the rhetorical situation in which they are writing?

Are disciplinary boundaries only fluid insofar as the (en)actors choose to evoke or communicate within them? Is what is created by this fluidity an evolution of a genre, a hybridity, or a new genre altogether? How might these transgressive texts communicate to their intended disciplines?

Notes: Tony Scott & Asao B. Inoue, “Assessing Writing Shapes Contexts and Instruction”

Scott, Tony & Asao B. Inoue. (2015). Assessing writing shapes contexts and instruction. in Linda Adler-Kassner & Elizabeth Wardle (eds.) Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Logan: Utah State University Press, 29-31.


Scott and Inoue discuss the ways in which the assessment of student writing impacts the relationship that writers have with writing, the limitations that this relationship brings, and the impacts this relationship brings to genre and the content of writing. Scott and Inoue articulate that this relationship defines the context in which composition occurs, situated in an assessments-oriented environment.

Keywords: composition, first-year writing, genre, pedagogy, threshold concepts, writing assessments, writing program administration, writing studies


Gould, Stephen J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: E.W. Norton.

Hanson, F. Allan. (1993). Testing testing: Social consequences of the examined life. Berkley, CA: University of California Press.


“[A]ssessment is not neutral: it shapes the social and rhetorical contexts where writing takes place, especially in school. Any assessment or evaluation applies specific values and also encourages writers to adopt those values” (30).

“Institutions can use assessments to inform teachers and students while lending them agency, or they can align prescribed curricula with assessment outcomes to determine the focus of teaching and circumscribe the scope of students’ writing. Writing assessment can thereby function as an intentional means of controlling the labor and creative latitude of teachers and students” (30-31).


Is there space in writing assessments to value writing that may inhabit a space outside its defined scope? What might that space look like and how can it be enacted? In what ways would assessing these kinds of writing trouble the tacit values in writing assessments and the expectations of the labor in writing? And in what ways can those performing assessments be reflective about these issues?

If writing assessments determine the contexts for writing and are, in turn, given their own shape within a given context, in what ways are those values enacted–further, in what ways can the values of writing assessment be made explicit to student writers who have to intuitively inhabit this context?

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?

Notes: Linda Adler-Kassner & Elizabeth Wardle, “Naming What We Know, Introduction”

Adler-Kassner, Linda & Elizabeth Wardle. (2015). Naming what we know: The project of this book. Naming what we know: Threshold concepts of writing studies. Logan: Utah State University Press.


Adler-Kassner and Wardle lay out the writing of Naming What We Know by outlining both the methods by which entries were written and revised and by attempting to articulate the “spirit” of the book. The authors argue for the necessity of the act of naming what we know, they argue that this act of naming allows us to better advocate for writers in policy and to other entities outside of the field, and they argue that these threshold concepts are not only beneficial for such explanations but also for the formation of new knowledge within the field of writing studies.

Keywords: communities of practice, composition, disciplinarity, disciplinary history, pedagogy, rhetoric, threshold concepts, writing studies


Hesse, Doug. (2012). Who speaks for writing? Expertise, ownership, and stewardship. In Jennifer Rish and Ethna D. Lay (eds.) Who speaks for writing: Stewardship for writing studies in the 21st Century. New York: Peter Lang, 9-22. .

Wenger, Etienne. (1999). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


“Threshold concepts are concepts critical for continued learning and participation in an area or within a community of practice” (p. 2).

“There is a difference between naming and describing principles and practices that extend from the research base of a discipline, as this book begins to do, and stripping the complexity from those principles in order to distill them into convenient categories to which generic attributes can be associated or attached” (p. 8).


In what ways can this act of naming and defining resist either being a best-practices approach to teaching or a hyper-focused articulation of what “writing studies” is?

In what ways would these threshold concepts be used during assessment practices? Is there a way to prevent the conversation of threshold concepts to become limiting outcome benchmarks?