Getting Unstuck: Dealing with Bottlenecks and Threshold Concepts

Where do your students get stuck?

Every course has them: those places where students who’ve been cruising pretty comfortably through the material suddenly stop in their tracks. Maybe there’s a session you keep tweaking because, no matter what you do, students struggle at this one particular spot. Maybe there’s one assignment that students regularly bomb. Maybe there’s a certain kind of question you always get in response to the same concept. Or maybe there are certain topics and materials that students balk at not for cognitive reasons but because the work in front of them is so emotionally challenging or unsettling. Whatever it is, you’ve hit a learning bottleneck.

Sometimes those bottlenecks happen because you’re dealing with a threshold concept in your discipline: an idea or skill that’s central to how your area of study works, without which one cannot progress in the field. These thresholds often require a qualitative shift in thinking, so students will struggle with them. The even tougher thing about threshold concepts—and, in fact, many bottlenecks—is that you, as an expert, often don’t even realize how tricky these concepts are, because you mastered them so long ago. They’ve become second nature to you, and you may have trouble remembering what a novice needs in order to learn.

Luckily, you’re not the first teacher to ever hit these trouble spots. There are things you can do to get past them. First of all, if you’d like some help figuring out where your students are getting stuck, feel free to reach out to us; we’d be happy to visit your class and have a completely confidential conversation with your students through our Mid-Semester Group Feedback (MSGF) sessions. (Click here for more information on MSGF.) To get ideas on how to push through these bottlenecks and how to help students grasp threshold concepts, check out our Bottlenecks & Thresholds page on the Teaching Commons. And, as always, if there’s anything we can do to help, we’ll be glad to do it. Just reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu!