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.


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