Chapter 4

Using Learning Thresholds

But what is it that we agree upon that are the cornerstone pieces of the work that we’re doing?
Brian Schultz


This chapter invites you to consider the pros and cons of using learning outcomes as a starting point for learning design. It reviews, provides examples and contrasts four things that can help teachers organise course content to prompt learning: learning outcomes, threshold concepts, learning thresholds and big ideas. This chapter is about experimenting with threshold concepts, learning thresholds and big ideas to see how they can support more inclusive learning design (and outcomes).

About the case studies

In this chapter, there are four case studies to illustrate a variety of approaches and pedagogical purposes in using learning thresholds to design and implement the curriculum: (1) to explore the hidden curriculum; (2) to support the review of a writing course; (3) as big ideas in art; and, (4) in combination with graphics, to explore the threshold concept of ‘creativity’ in care disciplines.

1. In the printed/ebook edition: In the first case study, entitled ‘Case-based small group learning invites exploration of the hidden curriculum and threshold concepts’ by Annetta Tsang (Australia), threshold concepts are used to explore tricky areas of learning and the hidden curriculum through using cases in small group discussion for students to unpack these sticky points of learning.

2. In the printed/ebook edition: In the second case study, by Heidi Estrem (USA) entitled ‘Threshold concepts and a first-year writing program curriculum redesign’, threshold concepts are the starting point to redesign a first-year writing course where the LOs are dictated by the government.

3. In the printed/ebook edition: in the third case study by Chris Francis (UK) entitled ‘Threshold concepts for the art curriculum’, demonstrates the use of threshold concepts as equivalent to the big ideas in art to inform curriculum planning and implementation.

4. Here below, the fourth case study, by Denise Mac Giolla Rí (Ireland), entitled: ‘Creativity threshold concepts—value, ownership and practice in social care education’, discusses the innovative use of ‘threshold graphics’ which are not only very creative but also support students articulate and share their learning in the most troublesome areas through a variety of media.

Creativity threshold concepts – value, ownership and practice in social care education

By Denise Mac Giolla Rí (Ireland)


Threshold concepts theory (Land and Rattray 2017) proposes the existence of troublesome concepts that, once understood, alter perspectives. Inquiry graphics theory (Lacković 2020) views the world and our reality as constructed and understood through signs. At its basic level, a sign can be anything that means something to someone. Threshold concept theory and inquiry graphics are combined to produce threshold graphics such as photographs, representing the troublesome concept of creativity in the context of social care (see the image below).

Two boxes at the top (1. Inquiry Graphics; 2. Threshold concepts) have arrows towards a central box (Threshold graphic - teaching and learning thresholds), which in turn leads to a further box below it (Photographs threshold concept: creativity)

Image: Inquiry Graphics & Threshold Concepts = Threshold Graphics. For example, photographs exploring the threshold concept of creativity in the context of social care.

Threshold graphics, used as a teaching method, offer a critical approach for often connecting abstract and language-centric conceptual knowledge to everyday embodied, material and visual experience, using static photographs or moving images as key vehicles of conceptual inquiry. A threshold graphic approach suggests learning threshold concepts may be mediated by exploring semiotic or sign relations between an abstract concept or theory and their embodied manifestations via diverse visual media, chosen or created by students and/or teachers to represent their subjective experiences (Lacković 2020). Threshold graphics help reveal knowledge gaps by linking visual media descriptions and meanings to specific or varied conceptual understandings, thereby becoming an effective gateway to significant knowledge exploration, acquisition and critical engagement.

Social care students learn to work in partnership with the most vulnerable in society to meet their potential through complex concepts arising from practice and theory. Irish social care education began in the 1970s in response to poor religious and state care and now fifteen colleges and universities offer professional courses. My research with educators, knowledge contributors, graduates and students in social care education identified threshold concepts and explored threshold graphics as a teaching and learning tool. Research results suggest threshold concepts tend to be described as either experiential/embodied/sensed or more theoretical/conceptual. For example, the concepts of abuse or violence are either deeply enmeshed with personal experiences posing difficulties of detachment or totally abstract such as political systems, without any obvious connection to students’ lives. In both cases, integration requires a focused methodological approach to identify and work through the troublesomeness and operationalise concepts as a professional social care worker as I’ll exemplify in the following case study.

My case study – creativity threshold concepts

I teach creative studies at TUS Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands and students are often surprised to discover art, drama or music are core modules in recognised programmes as they are required to ‘understand the role of, and be able to demonstrate skills in the use of creative and recreational interventions in social care work to meet the needs of the service user in a variety of contexts’ (SCWRB 2017, pp.10). Creativity was one of several TCs identified in my PhD research and the troublesomeness stemmed from conceptual misunderstandings and negative personal experiences. Students conceptually linked creativity to art culture, madness and exceptional artistic talent and therefore struggled to see its relevance in social care practice. Troublesomeness was also linked to personal experiences of art education, such as standardised artistic assessment and drawing skills resulting in emotional reactions including embarrassment and fear. 

My teaching attempts to normalise creativity as an everyday drive to negate misconceptions and build confidence. As a beginning task, students are asked to find an image, a threshold graphic that represents creativity for them. Students then unpack the image in a reflective writing piece using the Inquiry Graphics framework (Lacković 2020) described as a semiotic critical visual approach (MacGiollaRí 2020). The Inquiry Graphic framework asks the viewer to slow down and hold back the final meaning and just list the things (signs) they see (close detailed observation), then a description, followed by what elements or signs are linked to the meanings.

These steps help students to deconstruct the image and isolate specific signs that have meaning for them. Exploration of these personal signs offers opportunities for critical questioning, insight and reflection.

Questions can include:

From where do these sign meanings emerge – culture, society or personal experience?

How do sign expressions and meanings differ and converge within groups and why is this so?

How can the signs identified in the images challenge and extend what can be understood about the concept, and about myself and others?

For example, what misunderstandings or myths are carried by commonly used signs within images and how does a particular sign communicate meaning?

This critical questioning via the Inquiry Graphic framework process attempts to challenge misconceptions revealing the student’s current conceptual knowledge and gaps in understanding. 

In practice, teachers interested in using the Inquiry Graphic framework described above could do one or more of these:

1. Ask students to find an image online representing a chosen concept at the beginning and end of a module.  

2. Take a photograph of objects or of a place to represent a chosen concept.

3. Provide students with a selection of images and ask them to critically analyse them using the inquiry graphics framework.  

4. Critically analyse and discuss a photographic representation of a concept within a lecture.

5. Creating posters using identified signs to represent the concept.

6. Find an image representing: the opposite of the concept, its stereotypical presentation, how the concept was represented in the past reflecting on how it has changed and representations of the successful or negative outcome of the concept.


Creativity as a troublesome concept in social care requires reframing and reconceptualising. This results in students learning to recognise human creativity as a broad concept, valuing and exercising their creativity in a variety of forms, and seeing the endless creative possibilities, solutions and benefits of working creatively with social care service users. As one student stated:

‘I think creativity is a good means of releasing any emotions you may have repressed in the past. The use of colours and textures is a good way to just let your emotions flow. Creativity is free and can only occur if you try! I am going to keep this in mind all along and hopefully by the end of this year I will have a more honest in-depth picture of myself and how I may appear to others’.

Threshold Graphics can support students pass the ‘creativity in social care’ threshold concept.


Lacković, N. (2020). Inquiry Graphics in Higher Education. New Approaches to Knowledge, Learning and Methods with Images. London: Palgrave & Macmillian.

Land, R. and Rattray, J. (2017). Special Issue: Threshold Concepts and Conceptual Difficulty. Practice and Evidence of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 12(2), 63–80. Available at:

Land, R., Rattray, J. and Vivian, P. (2014). Learning in the liminal space: A semiotic approach to threshold concepts. Higher Education, 67(2), 199–217.

MacGiollaRí, D. (2020). Learning to Put Everyday Creativity , Semiotics and Critical Visual Literacy Using Inquiry Graphics ( IG ) Visual Analysis to Work in Social Care. Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, 20(2).

SCWRB. (2017). Social Care Workers Registration Board Standards of Proficiency for Social Care Workers. Available at:

Inclusivity note

Using art, drama or music to support non-art disciplines is in itself inclusive because it provides students with a different outlet and output mode to articulate, evidence, reflect on, and share their learning. Visuals and graphics are inclusive because they require different cognitive processing skills than linear spoken or written words, they are processed as a whole, avoiding cognitive overload, focusing attention and speeding up understanding. This is particularly supportive for neurodivergent students, non-native speakers and students who are very visual learners.

Challenges could be in the fact that the teacher might not be familiar with the use of graphics for learning and it might be unnatural to them. Although whether and how to use visuals in the way the case study describes depends on the context and cohort, it is worth integrating art in our teaching, in virtue of the powerful learning images can prompt and of their emotional impact, which would make them ideal to tackle difficult learning thresholds.

This case study illustrates how threshold concepts can be transformational, in more than one way.

First, to support students pass through an important learning threshold (creativity for social care), threshold concepts are combined with visuals (inquiry graphics) to create threshold graphics. Using creative outputs for students to evidence their engagement with this learning threshold promotes reflection and exchange at a deeper level and is indeed transformational.

Second, ‘creativity for social care’ is an interesting threshold concept for another reason: it is about challenging the usual ways of thinking and doing in the field of care (which might constitute other ‘typical’ thresholds). It is about stepping out of the usual ‘thinking like’ hat to explore other possibilities. As it disrupts the standard disciplinary ways, it is a good example of a threshold concept which rather than assimilate students, invites them to move beyond existing paradigms.