Signature Pedagogy & Treshold Concepts

Executive Summary for Select Annotated Bibliography

The present select annotated bibliography lists general and discipline-specific literature concerned with signature pedagogies and threshold concepts. The purpose of this summary is to outline both concepts and to point to the their value to those interested in evaluating teaching and learning and/or designing curricula.

Signature pedagogies, according to Shulman, are types of teaching that organize the fundamental ways of educating future practitioners, and are used to transfer skills of how to think, to perform and to act with integrity in their professional work.[1]

Although discipline specific, signature pedagogies share three key characteristics. First, they have a surface structure which entails the concrete acts of teaching and learning. Second, they are based in a deep structure of assumptions about how best to impart a certain canon of knowledge. Third, they have an implicit structure, which is related to the moral values and beliefs about professional attitudes and dispositions. In this connection, it is crucial to appreciate that signature pedagogies necessarily involve making choices of selecting certain approaches to teaching and learning while, usually unintentionally, disregarding others.

Moreover, signature pedagogies share a set of common features. First, they embody and demarcate teaching frameworks that are persuasive and routinized. Routines, of course, are not without problems; yet enable a focus on complex subject matters, which, in turn, develop habits of mind around various affective, cognitive and psychomotor learning. Second, they involve student performance; emphasizing their role as visible, active and accountable learners. Finally, signature pedagogies are pedagogies of uncertainty; rendering the classroom a space that may be unpredictable and surprising. This latter aspect raises the emotional stakes for both the teacher and learner, leading to the need for teachers to balance her teaching to decrease anxiety and enhance learning outcomes.

Threshold concepts, according to Meyer and Land, are certain concepts that are central to master a given subject. They can be described as ‘threshold’ because they share a set of common features across disciplines.[2] First, grasping a threshold concept is transformative and involves ontological and conceptual shifts for the learner. Second, they are, once grasped, (often) irreversible and unlikely to be forgotten by the learner. Third, they are integrative and help uncover the relationship of larger phenomenon and allow the learner to make deeper connections. Fourth, they entail troublesome knowledge in so far as they challenge intuitive and previously held understandings and assumptions.

As such, threshold concepts involve students’ entering a liminal space during the process of mastering a threshold concept. This often entails practices of mimicry by the learner; reiterating instead of integrating threshold concepts before they transform their own understanding. In short, there so no clear avenue in learning a threshold concept; integrating such concepts are better viewed as part of a recursive process which often involves advances and regressions before learners will break through a threshold concept.

Signature pedagogies and threshold concepts carry value to evaluate teaching and learning and to design curricula. They can be used as a diagnostic for teaching and learning approaches, highlight areas in need of adjustment and refinement, and point to avenues for potential change to specific course design as well as larger curricula development.

[1] Lee S. Shulman. “Signature pedagogies in the professions” (Daedalus Summer: 2005).

[2] J.H.F Meyer and R. Land. “Threshold Concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practicing, in C. Rust (ed.). Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On. (Oxford: 2003).

Signature Pedagogy

“Signature pedagogy is a central form of instruction and learning to socialize students to perform the role of practitioner— it contains pedagogical norms with which to connect and integrate theory and practice.” Familiar examples include the Socratic method of case analysis in law, clinical rounds in medicine, student teaching in education, and studio pedagogy in architecture. Signature pedagogies also “nearly always entail public student performance” through presentations and/or group projects. 

Threshold Concepts

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.”

Key Texts

Lee S. Shulman. 2005. “Signature pedagogies in the professions

  • An introductory article to signature pedagogies and its relation to and across different professions.

Regan A. R. Gurung, Nancy L. Chick, Aeron Haynie 2009. “Exploring Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind

  • An edited volume exploring signature pedagogies in the humanities, fine arts, social sciences and natural sciences.

Nancy L. Chick, A. Haynie and R. Gurung. 2012. “Exploring More Signature Pedagogies: Approaches to Teaching Disciplinary Habits of Mind

  • An edited volume exploring signature pedagogies in the liberal arts with a focus on the humanities and fine arts including communication, art and design, political science, economics and interdisciplinary programs amongst others.

Nancy L. Chick. Book Chapter. “Unpacking a signature pedagogy in literary studies

  • Chick evaluates the literary studies and related fields.

Jill A. Perry & David G. Imig. 2008. “A Stewardship of Practice in Education

  • This survey article provides an analysis of how to prepare education graduates to become “leading practioners.”

Kelly S. Terry. 2009-2010. “Externships: A Signature Pedagogy for the Apprenticeship of Professional Identity and Purpose

  • An interesting survey on the role of law education in preparing future legal professionals.

Annetta K.L. Tsang. 2011. “Students as Evolving Professionals: Turning the hidden curriculum around through the threshold concept pedagogy

  • Students in professional training programs enter their program knowing what they will be trained “to become” (e.g. training in medicine to become a doctor). Many different “signature pedagogies,” such as clinical teaching, case-based discussion, have been advocated to teach professional education. Yet,graduates of professional training programs are often deemed ill-prepared for the real world, despite possessing exceptional knowledge and technical fineness. This paper aims to explore the connections between the hidden curriculum, threshold concepts and students as evolving professionals, and propose a multi-perspective approach for the transformation of students into work-ready professionals. The proposed approach encourages the development of professionals who not only “perform” like professionals as an end product of professional education, but who are professional –distinguished in their “ways of thinking and being,” an evolving professional during training and a professional who continuously evolves in pursue of excellence upon graduation.

June Youatt, Kim Wilcox. 2008. “Intentional and Integrated Learning in a New Cognitive Age: A Signature Pedagogy for Undergraduate Education in the Twenty-First Century

  • From its very start, the land-grant approach to higher education focused on intentional and integrated learning in ways that distinguished itself from previous models of higher education. Students needed different skills to solve die real problems facing real people in real communities. And they needed those skills quickly. They needed practical knowledge accompanied by hands-on training. The land-grant university was built around those needs, with a new curriculum and a new pedagogy that were intentionally coordinated to integrate knowing with doing, in ways that mattered to those typically disenfranchised from higher education.

Meyer, Jan H.F. 2008. Threshold concepts within the disciplines.

  • Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines brings together leading writers from various disciplines and national contexts in an important and readable volume for all those concerned with teaching and learning in higher education. The foundational principle of threshold concepts is that there are, in each discipline, ‘conceptual gateways’ or ‘portals’ that must be negotiated to arrive at important new understandings. In crossing the portal, transformation occurs, both in knowledge and subjectivity. Such transformation involves troublesome knowledge, a key concern for contributors to this book, who identify threshold concepts in their own fields and suggest how to deal with them.

Jan Meyer, Ray Land, 2006. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Treshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge

  • It has long been a matter of concern to teachers in higher education why certain students ‘get stuck’ at particular points in the curriculum whilst others grasp concepts with comparative ease. What accounts for this variation in student performance and, more importantly, how can teachers change their teaching and courses to help students overcome such barriers?

Glynis Counsin. 2010. Neither teacher-centred nor student-centred: threshold concepts and research partnerships

  • n this paper I argue that pedagogic research organised around the investigation of threshold concepts offers a fresh way of thinking about research collaboration with students, academics and educational developers. I will first introduce the basic ideas about threshold concepts, briefly contrasting it with the phenomenographic tradition. I suggest that threshold concept inquiry effects a turn from this tradition by: a) encouraging partnerships with educationalists, students and subject specialists; and b) by a focus on the difficulty of the subject rather than on general education theory.

Darrell P. Rowbottom. 2007 Demystifying Threshold Concepts

  • This paper shows that so-called ‘threshold concepts’ have been defined in a way that makes it impossible, even in principle, to empirically isolate them. It continues by proposing an alternative theoretical framework, and argues: (1) that concepts are not reducible to abilities; (2) that acquisition of a given concept can be necessary, but not sufficient, for the possession of an ability; and (3) that being ‘threshold’ is an extrinsic property, such that what is threshold for one person is not for another. It closes by outlining two resultant problems for related empirical research. First, how is it possible to test for concepts, rather than abilities? Second, how can we tell if there is more than one possible conceptual route to the same ability?



  • This paper advocates teaching disciplinary thinking to undergraduate anthropology students. That means training them to think and act like anthropologists. Ethnographic fieldwork is distinctive to the discipline of anthropology. It is what makes it unique from other disciplines and it is their particular way of training students at doctoral level. It is anthropology‘s ̳signature pedagogy‘. Ethnographic fieldwork should be the core method of teaching anthropology at undergraduate level.

Patrick Carmichael. 2012. Tribes, Territories and Treshold Concepts: Educational materialism at work in higher education

  • The idea of transformative and troublesome ‘threshold concepts’ has been popular and influential in higher education. This article reports how teachers with different disciplinary affiliations responded to the ‘concept of thresholds’ in the course of a cross-disciplinary research project. It describes how the idea was territorialised and enacted through established materialising discourses in different disciplinary settings and enacted through pedagogical practice, technology and assessment. This has implications for professional development and pedagogical practice and endeavours to create ‘self-organising classrooms’ along Deleuzian lines.

Sociology Psychology

Jay R. Howard. 2015. “North Central Sociological Association 2014 Teaching Address: The John F. Schnabel Lecture—Sociology’s Special Pedagogical Challenge

· Instructors and students must overcome a course’s special pedagogical challenge in order for meaningful and important learning to occur. While some suggest that the special pedagogical problem varies by course, I contend that the special pedagogical problem is likely to be shared across a discipline’s curriculum, rather than being unique to each course. After reviewing a three-part typology of learning outcomes for sociology, I argue that the development of students’ sociological imaginations is sociology’s special pedagogical challenge; I then offer some general guidelines for teaching strategies to enhance the students’ success in developing a sociological imagination


·       The article focuses and evaluates field education as the signature pedagogy of social work programs.

Art History, Visual Art and Theory (formerly Fine Arts)

Christina Hong, Linda Essig and Ruth Bridgstock. 2012. “The enterprising artist and the arts entrepreneur : Emergent pedagogies for new disciplinary habits of mind

·       Traditional pedagogies in the arts in higher education focus largely on the studio experience in which a novice artist studies under one or more master teachers (e.g., Don, Garvey, & Sadeghpour, 2009). In more recent times, however, a shift in higher education curriculum and pedagogy in the arts has expanded this traditional conservatory model of training to include, among other components, career self-management and enterprise creation—in a word, entrepreneurship.This chapter examines the developing field of arts enterprise and arts entrepreneurship in higher education in a multinational context. The field is contextualized within the broader landscape of the creative industries and the consequential development of knowledge, skills, and the habits of mind necessary for artistic venture creation, sustainability, and success. Whereas the discourse about learning and teaching for business entrepreneurship is well established (e.g., Fiet, 2001), equivalent conversations about arts enterprise and entrepreneurship have only recently begun (Beckman, 2007, 2011; Essig, 2009). This chapter will address the contested definitions of key terms and concepts and also the question of how arts educators, although mindful of the pedagogic traditions of the arts school, are also drawing on the pedagogies of business entrepreneurship and cognitive theories of entrepreneurship to create innovative new transdisciplinary signature pedagogies for creative enterprise and entrepreneurship education in the arts.

Allison Shree, Ellen Sims and Paul Trowler. 2009. “A kind of exchange’: learning from art and design teaching

·       This paper analyses pedagogic practices in four fields in art and design higher education. Its purpose is to identify the characteristics that might be called signature pedagogies in these subjects and to identify their role in student centred learning. In a time of growing economic pressure on higher education and in the face of tendencies for normative practices brought about through mechanisms such as quality assurance procedures the authors seek to articulate and recognise the issues relating to spaces and pedagogies from this discipline that might be made to wider debates about learning in the sector.

Libby Gordon Cohen. “Learning, Assessment and Signature Pedagogies in the Visual Arts”

  • This chapter explores the dynamic intersection of three conceptual frameworks:(a) making learning visible (e.g., Project Zero2001; Seidel et al.2001);(b) assessment in the visual arts (Eisner 1999,2002,2003, 2005,2007); and(c) signature pedagogies(Shulman2005,2008), within the context of a vibrant pre-tertiary arts school in the Republic of Singapore. Connections with priorresearch and related literature are used as lenses for examining learning, assessment and pedagogies. Two pedagogies, consultation and critique, emerge for consider-ation as signature pedagogies in the visual arts. The chapter closes with an insightful response written by Susan Wright, who extends the discussion through an emphasis on dynamic processes of meaning-making and ways in which artistic processes are co-created through the interactions of students and teachers

Ellen Sims and Alison Shreeve. “Signature Pedagogies in Art and Design” in Exploring More Signature Pegagogies.

Wuetherick, E. Loeffler. Thereshold concepts and decoding the humanities: A case study of a threshold concept in art history.

Theatre and Film

Pat Thomas. 2015. “Using film to show not tell

  • Many educational researchers want to do research which has an influence on practice. Much educational research is driven by a commitment to making a difference for children and youngpeople, rather than simply making a contribution to scholarly knowledge(Griffths, 1998). Such contributions can be, for example,analysis of what happens in educational settings and why, evaluation of interventions and innovations, testing new approaches to teaching or new ways to understand educational practices. Thischapter addresses another possibility –the development, through research,of websites and film intended to support teachers’learning.

Asian Studies; Central, Eastern, and Northern European Studies

Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies

Lee S. Shulman. 2006. “From Hermeneutic to Homiletic: The ProfessionalFormation of Clergy”

Lee S. Shulman. 2008. “Pedagogies of Interpretation, Argumentation, and Formation: From Understanding to Identity in Jewish Education

  • The author summarizes current thinking about signature pedagogies in “learning to profess” and explores the extent to which these ideas apply to Jewish education. Three signature pedagogies for Jewish education are proposed: the d’var Torah, chevruta, and pedagogies of argumentation (machloket).

Lee S. Shulman. 2005. “The Signature Pedagogies of the Professions of Law, Medicine, Engineering, and the Clergy: Potential Lessons for the Education of Teachers

  • A more specific introduction of signature pedagogies and its relations to professions in law, medicine and engineering.

English Linguistics
Nancy L. Chick. Book Chapter. “Unpacking a signature pedagogy in literary studies

Ray Land, Julie Rattray and Peter Vivian. Learning in the liminal space: a semiotic approach to threshold concepts

  • The threshold concepts approach to student learning and curriculum design now informs an empirical research base comprising over 170 disciplinary and professional contexts. It draws extensively on the notion of troublesomeness in a ‘liminal’ space of learning. The latter is a transformative state in the process of learning in which there is a reformulation of the learner’s meaning frame and an accompanying shift in the learner’s ontology or subjectivity. Within the extensive literature on threshold concepts, however,the notion of liminal space has remained relatively ill-defined. This paper explores this spatial metaphor to help clarify the difficulties that some teachers observe in the classroom regard to their students’ understanding. It employs a novel and distinctive approach drawn from semiotic theory to provide some explanatory insight into learning within the liminal space and render it more open to analysis. The paper develops its argument through four distinct phases. Firstly it explores the spatial metaphor of liminality to gain further purchase on the nature of this transformative space. The second section introduces semiotic theory and indicates how this will be used through a series of graphical and visual devices to render the liminal space more open to analysis. The third section then employ semiotic analysis to nine dimensions of pedagogical content knowledge to gain further insight into what may characterize student conceptual difficulty within the liminal state.The fourth and concluding section emphasizes the role of context in conceptual discrimination before advocating a transactional curriculum inquiry approach to future research in this field.

French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies

Catriona Cunningham. 2014. “Teaching and learning French – A tale of desire in the humanities

  • This article considers the way we talk about learning and teaching the humanities in higher education in the UK. By using the tools of the arts and humanities within the scholarship of learning and teaching, and examining a personal perspective, the author explores the transformational impact of French language learning and teaching. Close textual analysis of literary language learning memoirs highlight the sensual and physical effects of language learning that can remain muted in our everyday conversations. As a result, the author suggests that rather than lament the death of the humanities in 21st century higher education, learning and teaching a language offers a pedagogy of desire that embodies the transformation aspect of our disciplines, as we deal with the business of being human.

Rina Benmayor. 2012. “Digital Testimonio as a Signature Pedagogy for Latin@ Studies

·       This article proposes the curricular integration of digital testimonies as a “signature” pedagogy in Latin@ Studies. The testimonial tradition of urgent narratives and the creative multimedia languages of digital storytelling—text, voice, image, and sound—invite historically marginalized subjects, especially younger generations, to author and inscribe their own social and cultural truths. Taking inspiration from Latina writings, undergraduate students script, record, produce, publish, and theorize their own testimonies, building new knowledge from personal and collective experience. In this process, they construct historical and theoretical understandings of identity and belonging, reproducing and reinforcing the testimonial nexus between individual and collective story. For cyberspace generations, the digital multimedia format facilitates coming to voice. The claim for “signature” pedagogy is based on my 10-year experience with the digital storytelling genre, facilitating the creation of approximately 300 digital testimonies and their accompanying reflections.

Maria Luisa Parra. “Strengthening our Teacher Community: Consolidating a ‘Signature Pedagogy’ for the Teaching of Spanish as Heritage Language

  • A book chapter in Rethinking Heritage Language education with a particular focus on Spanish language teaching.


Rachel Spronken-Smith. 2013. “Toward securing a future for geography graduates”

  • Geography graduates face an uncertain future. To help students think and practice as a geographer, we must teach disciplinary knowledge – particularly threshold concepts – as well as skills and attributes. We must role model and articulate our geographical reasoning using signature pedagogies and promote high-impact and signature learning experiences. Through such experiences, students will be empowered to cope with being in an uncertain world. Geography has a history of innovation in pedagogy and a concern for a holistic education, so our discipline is well placed to rise to the challenge of securing a future for our graduates.

Erin. H. Fouberg. 2013. “The World in no longer flat to me”: student perceptions of threshold concepts in world regional geography

  • Through qualitative analysis of 80 student essays, the author examines geographic concepts students describe as holding traits of threshold concepts. With a group of 11 Honors students, the author employs metacognition, asking students to analyze their own learning to discover their threshold concepts. Recognizing the role of liminality, this study suggests combining metacognition and geographic concepts to enable students to recognize their preconceptions, build or reconstruct their schemata and transform their understanding of a discipline.


Joel. M Sipress and David J. Voelker in Exploring Signature Pedagogies…see above.

Lendol Calder. 2006. “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey

·       Calder survey’s the implementation and outcomes of innovative signature pedagogies with a particular focus on teaching history.

Linda Adler-Kassner, Damian Kshnick, John Majewski. 2012. The Value of Troublesome Knowledge: Transfer and Threshold Concepts in Writing and History

  • Using “threshold concepts” (Meyer and Land) as a lens, this article examines several issues related to learning within and across two general education courses–one in writing and one in history–in which students were concurrently enrolled. Analysis of data from students and instructors (of the history course) suggests threshold concepts that are shared among history and writing courses; however, the data also indicate that the extent to which these shared concepts are enacted through instruction is somewhat inconsistent. The article ultimately suggests that threshold concepts might prove a productive frame through which to consider questions related to writing and transfer, and also to general education more broadly.


Daniel C. Dennett 2006. “Higher-order truths about chmess”

A short and fun read that travels across disciplines. Abstract

  • Many projects in contemporary philosophy are artifactual puzzles of no abiding significance, but itis treacherously easy for graduate students to be luredinto devoting their careers to them, so advice is proffered on how to avoid this trap.

Jennifer Booth. 2006. On the mastery of philosophical concepts.

Political Science

Mary C. Murphy, Theresa Reidy, 2006. “Exploring Political Science’s Signature Pedagogy

  • The international political science community has demonstrated a reluctance to engage with the discourse of education. Academics tend to be concerned chiefly with political science as an academic discipline and not with political science as a form of education. This article explores the similarities and differences in the signature pedagogy of political science across a number of countries. It outlines the emergence and resilience of the pedagogy, its impact on student learning and its future evolution.

Clodagh Harris 2012. “Expanding Political Science’s Signature Pedagogy: The Case for Service Learning

  • Applying Schulman’s definition of signature pedagogies to political science, this article notes that as an academic discipline it does not seek to train students for a specific profession. It also recognizes that political science’s signature pedagogy is similar to those traditionally associated with the social sciences and humanities: mass lectures, small tutorials and private study. In recent times, newer pedagogies such as problem-based learning, experiential learning, and service learning have been introduced in political science programs to marry theory and practice and promote critical thinking and independent learning. This article focuses on one such approach, service learning, assessing the contribution it can make to teaching in political science with reference to an analysis of its effects in a postgraduate module on democratic civic education in University College Cork, Ireland.