Difficulty in understanding threshold concepts may leave the learner in a state of ‘liminality’, a suspended state of partial understanding, or ‘stuck place’, in which understanding approximates to a kind of ‘mimicry’ or lack of authenticity. Insights gained by learners as they cross thresholds can be exhilarating but might also be unsettling, requiring an uncomfortable shift in identity, or, paradoxically, a sense of loss. A further complication might be the operation of an ‘underlying game’ which requires the learner to comprehend the often tacit games of enquiry or ways of thinking and practising inherent within specific disciplinary
                                                                                              Land, Meyer and Baillie (2010)
Liminal states: This space is likened to that which adolescents inhabit: - not yet adults; not quite children. It is an unstable space in which the learner may oscillate between old and emergent understandings just as adolescents often move between adult-like and child-like responses to their transitional status. But once a learner enters this liminal space, she is engaged with the project of mastery unlike the learner who remains in a state of pre-liminality in which understandings are at best vague. The idea that learners enter into a liminal state in their attempts to grasp certain concepts in their subjects presents a powerful way of remembering that learning is both affective and cognitive and that it involves identity shifts which can entail troublesome, unsafe journeys. Often students construct their own conditions of safety through the practice of mimicry. In our research, we came across teachers who lamented this tendency among students to substitute mimicry for mastery (Cousin, 2006b, p.139).
                                                                                              Cousin (2006a)
If viewed as a journey through preliminal, liminal and postliminal states, the features that characterise threshold concepts can now be represented relationally:

liminality diagram

We would not, however, wish to imply that this relational view has an overly rigid sequential nature. It has been emphasised elsewhere (Land et al, 2005) that the acquisition of threshold concepts often involves a degree of recursiveness, and of oscillation, which would need to be layered across this simple diagram [move the cursor across the above figure].
                                                                                              Land, Meyer and Baillie (2010)
In short, there is no simple passage in learning from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’; mastery of a threshold concept often involves messy journeys back, forth and across conceptual terrain
                                                                                              Cousin (2006a)

lia fail picture        References

Cousin, G. (2006a), An introduction to threshold concepts,
Planet No 17, December 2006, pp 4-5.
[   last accessed 25 June 2008]

Cousin, G. (2006b) Threshold concepts, troublesome knowledge and and emotional capital: an exploraton into learning about others
in: Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge, edited by Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land, Routledge - Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, pp 134-147   [book details].

Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Baillie, C. (2010) Editors’ Preface: Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning,
in: Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, Land, R., Meyer, J.H.F. and Baillie, C., (eds), Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, pp. ix-xlii,   [book details].

Land, R., Cousin, G., Meyer, J.H.F. and Davies, P. (2005), Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (3): implications for course design and evaluation,
In: C. Rust (ed.), Improving Student Learning - diversity and inclusivity, Proceedings of the 12th Improving Student Learning Conference. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), pp 53-64.
[   last accessed 10 August 2009]

Click here for the list of all the papers that are included in this bibliography and have liminal or liminality in the title.

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