Threshold Concepts and Teaching Ancient Religion (or: what has educational development ever done for us?) (Jason Davies, UCL)

Senate House, London. September 23rd 2015


Educational developers are the Euripidean oistros of teaching in higher education, pushing for small changes that could accumulate into a transformation. But this does not always appear to pose intellectual challenges within a discipline so it becomes “teaching, not research”. One framework in this area is ‘threshold concepts’ which, instead of smoothing out the learning journey, emphasises its initiatory aspects. It hovers inquisitively around the perplexity and intellectual transformation that we are seeking to induce as teachers of ancient religion, and invites the kind of reconceptualisation that blurs distinctions like ‘teaching’ and ‘research’.


To open the session I presented the people with a slide that read:

3+4 = 8

Then asked them ‘what’s wrong with this?’

There were some extremely imaginative answers ranging from invisible rounding up and down processes (i.e. 3.4 +4.4) to the suggestion that this was not a mathematical statement at all – i.e. we were speaking a different language.

This was really just a warmup so that people could experience what it was like being the wrong side of a threshold concept. Threshold concepts generally have the following characteristics:

  • Transformative
  • Troublesome
  • Irreversible
  • Integrative
  • Bounded
  • Discursive
  • Reconstitutive
  • Liminal (recursive)

Returning to the slide, I pointed out that the = dictated that what was on the left was the same as what was on the right: that is actually quite a radical statement if you’re not used to it. This is, I suggest, a threshold concept that is mastered early on in life. What is interesting about this experiment (which I’ve done a few times now in different groups) is that nobody questions whether the equals sign is the specific problem in a statement like 3+4 = 8. It is generally the numbers that people think are misleading and not the notation: we are so accustomed to he power of the equals sign that we do not even see it or remember how much its meaning is acquired.

So this was a useful reminder what it is like for a student who has not grasped some of the fundamental concepts being used by a teacher or a book (etc) but also a way of driving home the point that it is almost impossible to remember what it’s like not to understand a threshold concept once you have grasped it.
The implications of building a curriculum around threshold concepts include the following:

  • An increased focus on getting key concepts across

  • The possibility of detaching the essential context from the specific threshold concept, at least initially, so that they can get started on thinking about it

  • Not just an increased tolerance for students struggling but a much greater interest in where these moments occur, and different kinds of support

  • Expecting a zigzag of learning rather than elegant smooth curve of progression.

So we considered a threefold cycle for teaching threshold concepts.

  • Introducing them

  • Creating a space for struggle, articulation, experimentation, creation

  • An opportunity to review and discuss them, preferably linked to formative assessments with students had actually done something that could be commented on and discussed.

Workshop section

We came up with several candidates for threshold concepts in teaching and learning ancient religion.

  • Myth

  • Religion

  • Social and political aspects

  • Sophistication and empathy (i.e. they weren’t stupid)

  • Responsible citizenship, decision-making

  • All-pervasiveness


We decided to experiment a bit with ‘all-pervasiveness’ in ancient religion.

Introduction of the concept

Electricity emerged as handy way to have students think about this idea. It’s ubiquitous enough, mysterious enough and familiar enough. The way that it is present in so many ways and yet is not (e.g. effectively invisible most of the time) seemed promising. How do we deal with, think about, ignore (etc) the all-pervasiveness of electricity? What did people do about it? How much do people actually know about it? Does one ‘believe’ in electricity?

Struggling with the concept

At this point we thought it would be interesting to show students different translations of sections of the Sicilian expedition story, to suppress or reduce divine aspects, and then to really bring emphasise them in a different version.

The idea of multiple readings might also be a useful springboard for thinking about myth and different versions of stories in different contexts.

Then, introducing the notion of sacrifice through images, texts, other media would allow us to expose them to all kinds of material from the ancient world. Students had started thinking imaginatively about all pervasiveness and could build on that to explore the ancient materials.


The process of review and consolidation could for instance involve creation of an artefact with commentary. The artefact itself could be unassessed as long as there was one for the commentary to work with, and more nuanced assessment could be applied to the commentary describing how the artefact evoked the all pervasiveness of the gods. The artefact could be a poem, a virtual artefacts such as temple built in Minecraft, a physical artefact etc.

This could then firstly allow students to play to their strengths and being creative without the prescriptiveness of a potentially restrictive marking scheme but also set them up nicely for essays and exams when it comes to summative assessment.

That’s my take on it as the person who led the session. There was interest in running a workshop in the spring where we build on this and extend the thinking to produce an outline curriculum and even possibly think about resources that could be shared.