Observing Threshold Concepts in the Classroom

Threshold concepts serve as a way to look at learning. The idea is that when we encounter new ideas,  new environments, new goals, or new knowledge we are unfamiliar with there is a kind of struggle that takes place as our previous knowledge transforms given the encounter we have had with a new situation.  A threshold is a kind of metaphorical doorway that one must successfully pass through in order to understand their new knowledge.

People often encounter threshold concepts even if they don’t really understand that they have done so. As an example, when I first started blogging a long time ago when Live Journal was very popular with everyone the idea was new to me. I treated that blog as if it were a diary or journal and wrote some really personal and embarrassing melodramatic stuff. The threshold, that I think many people who grew up around the same time as me went through, was realizing that blogs were in fact public spaces and there are rhetorical rules about what is appropriate to post and what isn’t.

The reason why I bring threshold concepts up is because they are a significant piece of our research in one of my current composition courses. What we’re interested in mostly is writing for transfer and how it’s handled across academic disciplines, but threshold concepts give us a way to look at what is being learned.

The question is: What practices of teaching writing can we observe in classrooms outside of the discipline of composition which seem to address threshold concepts tied to learning to write as we understand them in composition studies.

There are five thresholds concepts of writing that we are focusing on for this study.

  1. Writing is a social and rhetorical activity
  2. Writing speaks to situations through recognizable forms
  3. Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies
  4. All writers have more to learn
  5. Writing is (also always) a cognitive activity

It’s probably outside of the scope of this blog post to go into these threshold concepts specifically and to define them. Instead, I want to talk about how we might observe these thresholds being enacted in a writing intensive classroom that is not in the Composition discipline.

I’ll write specifically about one threshold here. The second one up there: Writing speaks to situations through recognizable forms. We use a term differently in Composition than we might use it in most other situations and that term is genre. A genre is the shape a type of writing might take.

For instance, A journal entry is a genre. A journal entry often begins with the date at the top of the page. If a writer is going to route of treating it as a diary, it might begin “Dear Diary”. Journal entries tend to be stream of consciousness type writing reflecting on the events of a day or an emotional state.

What we’d be looking for in classrooms across the disciplines is instances of this threshold concept being addressed. If a professor offers the class a style guide for the way they need to write a report or a case study we would be able to code that as an instance of threshold concepts being addressed in the classroom.

I’ll do one more dealing with concept: Writing enacts and creates identities and ideologies. This threshold might be observed in a professor telling students who they are writing as. In a biology course, if the professor mentions to a classroom that they are being asked to “write as researchers” that points students to this threshold. They might also be told something about tone. Often in scientific writing writers are expected to be objective. This tone creates an ideology of neutrality which students are expected to adhere.

I personally think that threshold concepts offer a great way to code writing taking place in classrooms outside of the composition discipline. While it might seem abstract, there have been studies on these threshold concepts and it seems that it might be possible that classes that teach with threshold concepts in mind are more successful at giving students the tools to transfer their knowledge from one writing environment to the next.


Ed Adler-Kassner, Linda; Wardle, Elizabeth. Naming What we Know. Utah State University Press. 2015.


Meta-cognitive Awareness of the Social and Rhetorical Aspects of Writing

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this here before, but I am a Composition and Rhetoric major at Sacramento State University. I’ve been asked by an instructor to update a blog of my responses to readings (articles, studies, etc). I figured I might as well make those blog updates here. This blog title is “Geek Intellectualtist” So I might as well have something on here that is intellectual, right?

The class is focused on Writing for Transfer which as a concept is kind of addressing what is sometimes perceived as a problem with the discipline of Composition. In a standard Composition classroom, we are often having students do a lot of writing, but the kind of writing they are doing is often not writing that they will be doing again later on in their careers.

Take for example the personal narrative.

This writing assignment usually requires a student to tell an instructor a story about their lives. Often they are given a goal that the story is meant to achieve. For example, a personal narrative prompt might instruct a student to tell a story that makes an argument about a value that is important to the writer. A really popular prompt is to ask students to write a personal narrative about a time they had struggled with writing and to reflect on what they learned from that struggle. (There are reasons for this that as I study more and more composition theory I think I can understand and explain, but that’s a subject for a different blog post.)

These kind of writing assignments are not assignments that students are going to be asked to reproduced if their plan is to move on into say Engineering as their college discipline. Yet we teach FYC to all students because often enough the concern from other disciplines or the workforce is that college students or graduates often aren’t seen as capable of writing within’ those disciplines.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but the question for the discipline of Composition is: How do we teach writing so that students and young professionals are capable of transferring writing skills and knowledge from our composition classrooms to their new disciplines or fields?

One way we can do this is to get student writers to think about writing as more than just a simple action that produces a product. Writing is both a social and rhetorical activity and understanding this concept is important for understanding how to write in new environments.

An example I quite like, and is easy to follow, is one introduced by Kevin Roozen in a short article called, funnily enough, Writing is both a Social and Rhetorical Activity. Roozen uses the example of a father writing a birthday card message to his daughter. It seems like a simple enough action, and one whose purpose is easy to understand.

Why do we write birthday card messages anyway? Well, one reason is that it’s a social practice that we all have in common. When you give someone a birthday gift often there is an expectation that there will be some kind of birthday card. Generally, it isn’t really considered enough that there is a birthday card given, a birthday card must include a kind of personal note that addresses the person receiving the gift.

Roozen expresses that the “father’s purpose in writing up a birthday card is to communicate his love for his daughter.” This is the intended goal that the father might go about achieving in different ways. He might write of a fond memory, or about the gift and why he picked it out, but all of these choices are intended for that one purpose: to express fondness for his daughter. This is the rhetorical part of the action. Part of this rhetorical action is accomplished by invoking an audience in mind. The father imagines his daughter as the audience for the piece of writing and will choose what to write based on that imagined audience.

Second, Roozen explains the way that writing the birthday card is social. It’s certainly social because it’s part of the social relationship that the father shares with the daughter, but it’s also social in another way. All writers, no matter if it’s unconsciously or consciously draw on previous experiences with writing in order to produce new writing. The father might think back to birthday cards that he has received, or he might have seen what another person has written on a birthday card to their daughter, and that influences the way that he chooses to write his message. He might think about what a birthday card message is supposed to look like. He’ll likely sign his name at the bottom of the message he puts in the card or sign it off as “Love Dad” because his previous experiences with greeting cards have taught him, most likely unconsciously, that that is the correct way to write it.

This is a simple example, but we can look at that example we can extrapolate to other situations. For example, A person writing a report for work, or typing up an e-mail to a customer or co-worker. A writer can look at what the rhetorical and social aspects of those writing goals and in understanding those goals can call upon skills and prior knowledge that assist with them. The goal for us is to get our students to always think about writing this way. This meta-cognitive awareness of writing is what we want to instill in student writers because it will enable them to navigate new writing situations with the right thinking tools and perhaps lead them to more successful writing in new situations.


  1. Anson, Chris M., & Moore, Jessie L. (Eds.). (2016). Critical Transitions: Writing and the Question of Transfer. Perspectives on Writing. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/ansonmoore/
  2. Roozen, Kevin. “Writing is a Social and Rhetorical Activity”. Naming What We Know. Edited by Adler-Kassner, Linda; Wardle, Elizabeth, Utah State University Press, 2015, 17 -19.