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Durham Research Online
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Threshold concepts and certainty: a critical analysis of 'troublesomeness'

Stopford, Richard (2021) 'Threshold concepts and certainty: a critical analysis of 'troublesomeness'.', Higher education., 82 (1). pp. 163-179.

Abstract

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.

Item Type:Article
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Status:Peer-reviewed
Publisher Web site:https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-020-00628-w
Publisher statement:This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
Date accepted:14 September 2020
Date deposited:14 October 2020
Date of first online publication:03 October 2020
Date first made open access:14 October 2020

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