Disciplinary and interdisciplinary

Published January 2022

Students will develop deep roots in their discipline, learning how to think, act, talk, write and be a scholar in a field. Students will learn more about their discipline through boundary-crossing into other discipline areas. Our broad liberal education will develop questioning mindsets, increase their access to society’s conversations, and help them to succeed in the world of work.

Research into ‘Threshold concepts’ (Meyer and Land, 2003) is helpful when designing curricula that engages student in a deep way with their discipline. The idea of threshold concepts is based on the view that all higher education programmes of study should be transformative in nature and will involve students passing through gateways or portals of learning to arrive at, and develop, new ways of ‘knowing’, ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ or ‘practising’:

‘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 learning cannot progress.’ (Meyer and Land, 2003, p. 412)

Research into interdisciplinary learning concludes that through making connections between concepts across different disciplines students are able to articulate their own disciplinary understanding in deep ways and engage with tackling complex societal problems (Lyall et al., 2015). Rhodes defines interdisciplinary study as:

“an understanding and a disposition that a student builds across the curriculum and cocurriculum, from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations within and beyond the campus” (Rhodes, 2010)

What this means for curriculum design

The threshold concepts approach to curriculum design places core disciplinary ways of ‘knowing’, of ‘thinking’ and of ‘doing or practising’ at the heart of curriculum design, rather than a bottom-up content-led approach. Curriculum design involves looking across a programme to consider how the disciplinary skills of critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, application, and understanding are developed and built on across the programme and each level. What content and knowledge should be included is then decided as part of this process.

Articulating the ‘big ideas’ helps identify core programme-level threshold concepts which, in turn, indicate the threads or themes that programmes will benefit from developing across all levels of study. In this way, programme teams can ensure the different topics, skills, evidence, and ideas that make up their programme are not discrete blocks of learning for their students, but together form a coherent narrative that support students in navigating the core transformative thresholds of learning successfully.  A few key steps you may take include:

  • Identifying, as a programme team, a handful of high-level programme ‘big ideas’ which encapsulate the core ideas and ways of knowing, thinking and practising that lie at the heart of your discipline, and consider their distinctiveness at Bristol
  • Exploring (with students) what appear to be the threshold concepts in need of mastery in their discipline (Cousin 2015)
  • Demonstrating to students that confusion and mistakes are part of the learning process and are to be expected and celebrated (Cousin 2015)
  • Becoming comfortable with the idea that taking a threshold concepts approach to your curriculum design might be ‘messy’ – acknowledging that mastery of threshold concepts is not a linear process and may require revisiting
  • Integrating interdisciplinary insights on complex problems and engaging students in theme-based, problem-based, or question-based activities which seek to solve them (Repko, Szostak and Phillips, 2019; Klein 2005)

What does this look like in practice?

Disciplinary and interdisciplinary case studies

Threshold concepts and disciplinary ways of knowing

Aerospace Engineering
Prof. Lucy Berthoud
Threshold concept:  developing students understanding of astrodynamics – a topic challenging due to its 3D nature
How is the concept taught? By developing simulations that allow students to test ideas, develop their skills and gain immediate feedback. The simulations use orbit modelling software General Mission Analysis Tool (GMAT) allowing students to display trajectories in space, plot parameters against one another, and address misconceptions.
Berthoud, L. and Walsh, J., 2020. Using visualisations to develop skills in astrodynamics. European Journal of Engineering Education45(6), pp.900-916.
Sociology and Politics
Dr Torsten Michel
Threshold concept: Coping with uncertainty, where there isn’t always a correct answer: “Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability” (Sir William Osler)
How is the concept taught? By introducing a number of theoretical frameworks to support students in critically engaging with their inherent political and social-linguistic foundations when analysing empirical examples. By critically analysing the outcomes of theory application in relation to empirical circumstances, students become sensitised to the situatedness of theory development and application and the concomitant effects on explanation and action.
Health Sciences
Prof. Sheena Warman and colleagues
Threshold concept: Coping with uncertainty, where there isn’t always a correct answer: “Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability” (Sir William Osler)
How is the concept taught? Through facilitated case-based learning, where students work in teams to identify and source the information required to address a specific clinical problem, and where students are encouraged to embrace uncertainty, and consider the multiple different factors that influence every clinical decision.  They come to understand that the process by which a problem is addressed is as important as the knowledge required to fully understand that problem.
How is the concept taught? Through early exposure to and responsibility for treating their own patients in an authentic dental environment, dental students are quickly exposed to the inherent uncertainty and complexity of professional practice.  Clinical supervisors from a wide range of dental backgrounds provide differing guidance, perspectives and share their own professional experiences during clinical sessions. 
Neve, H., Wearn, A. and Collett, T., 2016. What are threshold concepts and how can they inform medical education? Medical teacher38(8), pp.850-853.
Simpkin, A.L. and Schwartzstein, R.M., 2016. Tolerating uncertainty—the next medical revolution? New England Journal of Medicine375(18).
Health Sciences
Prof. Sheena Warman and colleagues
Threshold concept: It isn’t always about cure or making things better; death is not a failure
How is the concept taught? Through the early introduction of case-based learning involving death and dying which engage students with: what patient- (or client-) related goals approaching end of life might be; references to end-of-life care being important and rewarding work; and relating this to student and clinician wellbeing.
Wearn, A., O’Callaghan, A. and Barrow, M., 2016. Becoming a different doctor: Identifying threshold concepts when doctors in training spend six months with a hospital palliative care team. In Threshold concepts in practice (pp. 223-238). Brill Sense.


Cousin, G. (2015) ‘An Introduction to Threshold Concepts,’ Planet, 17(1), pp.4-5. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.11120/plan.2006.00170004 (accessed 22 September 2021).

Klein, J. (2005) ‘Integrative learning and interdisciplinary studies’, Peer review, 7(4), pp. 8–10. Available at: www.aacu.org/peerreview (Accessed: 4 May 2021).

Lyall, C. et al. (2015) Interdisciplinary provision in higher education Current and future challenges. Available at: https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets.creode.advancehe-document-manager/documents/hea/private/interdisciplinary_provision_in_he_1568037335.pdf (Accessed: 4 May 2021).

Meyer, J. and Land, R. (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines. Edinburgh.

Repko, A. F., Szostak, R. and Phillips, M. (2019) Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies. SAGE. Available at: https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/introduction-to-interdisciplinary-studies/book269113 (Accessed: 27 May 2021).

Rhodes, T. (2010) Assessing outcomes and improving achievement: Tips and tools for using rubrics, Association of American Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC. Available at: https://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/integrative-learning (Accessed: 4 May 2021).