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Threshold concepts and troublesome transitions

Matthew Dunn, Head of Programmes, Bishop Grosseteste University

I attended school in the county of Staffordshire, England, and can still clearly recall starting Sixth Form as being one of the most significant periods in my life. Transitioning from the General Certificate in Secondary Education (GCSE) to post-compulsory advanced (A-level) study was challenging enough. Doing this while coping with glandular fever, family bereavement and the shock of a huge increase in self-directed workload was an arduous experience which played a significant role in shaping my sense of identity and professional career. Fast-forward 25 years and I found myself avidly engaging in doctoral research exploring students’ experiences of this transitional journey, at a time when GCSE and A-level examinations in England were undergoing their own significant transitions (Ofqual, 2018). In the case of A-levels this has meant a significant change from modular to linear delivery and assessment, coupled with an increase in the difficulty of work (CIFE, 2018). I have written previously about the affective impact of the transitional journey from GCSE to A-level (Dunn, 2019a), highlighting the wide range of strong emotions that students might experience as a result of cognitive and affective challenges.

My recently published article in the Curriculum Journal (Dunn, 2019b) presents an illuminating and rich picture of UK school pupils’ journeys, transitioning from GCSE to A-level, through the theoretical lens of the threshold concept framework (TCF) (Meyer & Land, 2003). In the paper, I argue that encounters with threshold concepts were significant for these students, posing a level of cognitive and affective discomfort which served to exacerbate difficulties caused by increased workload and pressure. The study adopted an original longitudinal design frame based on interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), which allowed these A-level biology students to explore their lived experiences in real-time over an 18-month period, through reflective diaries and semi-structured interviews. In the article I present findings that illuminate students’ perceptions of transformed identity, highlighting perceptions of shifting membership of multiple microcommunities of practice throughout their transformative journeys to becoming A-level students and scientists. Early difficulties with troublesome language later became a key feature of community membership, through transformed scientific discourse, and the resulting tension between belonging and isolation.

The integrative nature of threshold concepts and students’ growing awareness of networks of knowledge within the subject played a key role in their transformative journeys, while grasping the interrelatedness of concepts within and across disciplinary boundaries acted as an enabler.

It was almost like a three-dimensional jigsaw … I was just putting bits together and I just realised actually that bit can go there, it goes better and I will move that bit somewhere else. It is all just like … one big jigsaw in my mind that I am putting together bit by bit and moving bits around to see where they fit. (Liam, 2nd interview). (Dunn, 2019b, p. 7)

It is this notion of threshold connections that I am exploring in a current research project, where academics and student teachers at Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, are engaging with teachers and pupils in partner schools to explore the potential of surfacing threshold concepts within the latest iteration of A-level science specifications. These threshold concepts will then form the basis of innovative pedagogical approaches to enabling students in making integrative threshold connections, while encouraging them to consciously embark on a transformative journey to become scientists.

This blog is based on the article ‘Threshold concepts and the troublesome transition from GCSE to A-level: Exploring students’ experiences in secondary school biology’ by Matthew Dunn, published in the Curriculum Journal.


Council for Independent Education [CIFE]. (2018, July 14). The new A level and GCSE exams [webpage]. Retrieved from

Dunn, M. J. (2019a). Crossing the threshold: when transition becomes troublesome for A-level students. Education and Health, 37(1), 15–21. Retrieved from

Dunn, M. J. (2019b). Threshold concepts and the troublesome transition from GCSE to A-level: Exploring students’ experiences in secondary school biology. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication.

Meyer, J., & Land, R. (2003). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practicing. Edinburgh: Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses. Retrieved from

Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation [Ofqual] (2018, January 26). Get the facts: AS and A-level reform [webpage]. Retrieved from