Using Threshold Concepts to generate a new understanding of teaching and learning Biology


  • Charlotte Taylor
  • Noel Whitaker
  • Chris Hughes
  • Pauline M Ross
  • Michelle Kofod
  • Louise Lutze-Mann


Students come to tertiary institutions with misconceptions of key concepts in the disciplines they are studying. Their misconceptions commonly relate to conceptually difficult or troublesome knowledge (Perkins 1999) and can be: incomplete, contradictory, stable and highly resistant to change and remain intact despite repeated instruction at successively higher levels, being perhaps reinforced by teachers and textbooks (Driver 1983; Driver, Guesne and Tiberghien, 1985; Gabel 1994). For sometime, we have known that a range of concepts in Biology are conceptually difficult e.g. biochemical pathways, evolution and genetics (Brown 1995; Ross and Tronson 2007, Taylor 2006, 2008), but whether these are the ‘threshold concepts’ of (Meyer and Land 1995) is a question that needs to be explored further. We propose an alternative perspective where threshold crossing can be envisaged more productively as a cognitive process with students transported across a conceptual chasm or threshold. Misconceptions may then lie with an underlying ‘cognitive threshold’ and not a ‘threshold concept’ (Ross et al 2008). This current ALTC funded collaborative project involves three Australian universities and aims to identify the cognitive processes which underlie difficult Biological concepts; develop intervention strategies to improve students’ framework of conceptual understanding, in one or more related concept areas (that is, to help the students cross a conceptual threshold); test whether students can subsequently transfer this thinking process to aid their understanding of other similarly difficult concepts (that is, to see if they have learnt how to cross unfamiliar thresholds). In this paper we present the preliminary results of a survey which asked biology academics (both nationally and internationally) to identify troublesome biological concepts in their teaching, describe the cognitive process that underlies them which may determine why they are troublesome, and to identify the links they perceive with our nominated cognitive thresholds.