Improving learning by focusing on threshold concepts

By Jenny Loertscher, Ph.D. and Vicky Minderhout, Ph.D., Seattle University

In the midst of these turbulent times in higher education, we have taken a “back to basics” approach that focuses on improving deep learning in biochemistry. As a discipline, biochemistry has a set of concepts that biochemists agree are essential for undergraduates studying biochemistry to master, regardless of their disciplinary home department. Yet we know from classroom experience that many students fail to master these concepts. One barrier to achieving mastery of these concepts is the fact that students bring incomplete ideas from their prior experience to biochemistry classrooms. Another is the fact that many of these incomplete ideas relate to threshold concepts in the discipline. Threshold concepts are concepts that, when mastered, represent a transformed understanding of a discipline, and without which the learner cannot progress. They are therefore crucial in learning in a discipline (1-3). By focusing on student understanding of threshold concepts in biochemistry, instructors can maximize the impact of classroom instruction toward learning achievement.

We recently received NSF funding to use a systematic approach to improve student learning in undergraduate biochemistry courses nationwide. Working together with a community of biochemists, biologists and chemists, we will identify and confirm concepts that are critical for learning in biochemistry, design classroom activities to target these concepts, measure changes in student learning and disseminate classroom activities and assessment tools. All of these goals will be accomplished in collaboration with a group of faculty experts, a process that will maximize input from diverse perspectives and simultaneously build a community of biochemistry faculty who are able to make sustained changes in their classroom instruction to improve student learning.

Although input from faculty and students will be the driving force that defines threshold concepts in biochemistry, the existing literature indicates that threshold concepts in biochemistry are likely to relate to the following themes: 1) macroscopic versus microscopic scale, 2) purposeful versus random events (including emergent properties resulting from random events), and 3) integrating across contexts and disciplines (4-7). Specific threshold concepts could include equilibrium and biochemical processes, the role of randomness in directing biochemical events and energy transformations in biochemistry (8-10).

Identification of threshold concepts for biochemistry must be a community effort involving faculty and students. In summer 2013, we will be hosting a workshop that will use a community-based approach to identify and refine threshold concepts for biochemistry. If you are interested in attending or participating in this effort in other ways, please contact us at or


1. Meyer JHF & Land R (2003) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On, ed Rust C (Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford), pp 412-424.
2. Cousin G (2009) Transactional curriculum inquiry researching threshold concepts. Researching Learning in Higher Education, ed Cousin G (Routledge, New York), pp 201-212.
3. Kinchin IM (2011) Visualising knowledge structures in biology: discipline, curriculum and student understanding. Journal of Biological Education 45 (4): 183-189.
4. Ross PM, Taylor CE, Hughes C, Kofod M, Whitaker N, Lutze-Mann L, Tzioumis V (2010) Threshold concepts: Challenging the way we think, teach and learn in biology. Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, eds Meyer JHF, Land R, Baillie C (Sense Publishers, Rotterdam), pp 165-177.
5. Ross PM, Taylor CE, Hughes C, Whitaker N, Lutze-Mann L, Kofod M, Tzioumis V (2010) Threshold concepts in learning biology evolution. Biology International 47: 47-52.
6. Kinchin I (2010) Solving Cordelia’s Dilemma: Threshold concepts within a punctuated model of learning. Journal of Biological Education 44:53-57.
7. Taylor CE (2008) Threshold concepts, troublesome knowledge and ways of thinking and practising, can we tell the difference in biology? Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines, eds Land R, Meyer JHF, & Smith J (Sense Publishers, Rotterdam), pp 185-195.
8. Garvin-Doxas K & Klymkowsky M (2008) Understanding randomness and its impact on student learning: Lessons learned from building the biology concept inventory (BCI). CBE-Life Science Education 7:227-233.
9. Rowland SL, Smith CA, Gillam EMA, Wright T (2011) The concept lens diagram: A new mechanism for presenting biochemistry content in terms of “big ideas”. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 39(4):267-279.
10. Sears DW, Thompson SE, Saxon SR (2007) Reversible ligand binding reactions: Why do biochemistry students have trouble connecting the dots?. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 35(2):105-118.

2 thoughts on “Improving learning by focusing on threshold concepts

  1. Pingback: Threshold Concepts: Education as Rite of Passage - Learning Laboratory

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