top of page

A toolkit for developing locally agreed threshold concepts in entrepreneurial thinking

Our toolkit is for enterprise and entrepreneurship educators who:

  • Want to help their students develop a better understanding of entrepreneurial thinking.

  • Want to engage colleagues and stakeholders in discussion about what is taught, learnt, and assessed, and why.

  • Want to build both consensus within an educator team and differentiation from other disciplines or domains of practice by aligning, rationalising, and demarcating what is meant by  entrepreneurial thinking.

It is based on original practice-based research into synthesising locally agreed threshold concepts by Dave Jarman (University of Bristol, Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) and Dr Lucy Hatt (Newcastle University Business School) at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CfIE) which in turn builds on Dr Lucy Hatt’s doctoral research. The CfIE threshold concepts research was funded by Enterprise Educators UK (EEUK) as part of their Enterprise Education Research Development Fund (EERDF) in 2020-2021.

Within this toolkit you will find:


  • Why might locally-agreed threshold concepts for entrepreneurial thinking be of value and for who?

  • What threshold concepts are (and are not).

  • A walkthrough of the process used with CfIE staff, students, and external experts.

  • Lessons learned from the CfIE experience.

  • 3 different approaches for using this work in your own context:

    • Short: use the CfIE threshold concepts to spark discussion about or conduct a review of your existing teaching, learning, and assessment.

    • Medium: run a facilitated activity with colleagues and stakeholders to identify and very preliminary set of locally-agreed threshold concepts. We provide a card-sort activity to structure this session.

    • Long: run something akin to the CfIE transactional curriculum enquiry model in which several rounds of surveys and focus groups gradually refine a set of locally-agreed threshold concepts.

  • Examples of documents used within the CfIE process:

    • introduce the idea to colleagues (CfIE Briefing)

    • collated surveys and supplementary documents (Surveys A-D, Concepts List #1…)

    • emails to elicit responses

    • ethical approval forms

    • share findings and suggest methods for adoption.

  • Adopting the threshold concepts you’ve identified

  • Conducting a ‘concept-mapping’ activity with students as a means of evaluating their understanding of the threshold concepts embodied in their curriculum.

You could use this toolkit to explore threshold concepts in other domains of knowledge or practice, but we have focused on entrepreneurial thinking.

Why might locally agreed threshold concepts for entrepreneurial thinking be of value and for who?

According to the QAA (2018: 7), enterprise is “the generation and application of ideas, which are set within practical situations during a project or undertaking”.  They define entrepreneurship as “the application of enterprise behaviours, attributes and competencies into the creation of cultural, social or economic value.”  There is, however, a general lack of consensus regarding what entrepreneurship education in higher education really means (Pittaway and Cope, 2007), what needs to be learnt, whether it can be learnt,  where it is best learnt, how to learn it, and how to measure if it has been learnt.  There is a concern that the emergence and growth in entrepreneurship education has been faster than educators’ understanding of what should be taught, and how outcomes might be assessed (Neck and Corbett, 2018).  

There appear to be three main themes evident in the literature when identifying the purpose and impact of entrepreneurship education.  These are increasing the number and success of new ventures; enhancing the employability of graduates and increasing their value in the job market; and preparing students for an uncertain future.  Arguably they are equally important, but all are difficult to measure and connect directly with any specific educational intervention.  Disparate purposes of entrepreneurship education inhibit effective curricula development and a more conceptual approach is called for.

Identifying threshold concepts in entrepreneurship could be useful for entrepreneurship educators in several respects; to avoid an overstuffed curriculum; to unblock student learning and facilitate curriculum development; to find consensus on approach between colleagues, and to demarcate the discipline from adjacent domains.  

Identifying some concepts as ‘threshold’ offers a way of differentiating between core learning goals which enable the learner to see things in a different way and other learning goals which, though important, do not have the same significantly enabling and transformative effect. This allows the educator to focus on the conceptual understandings that enable a fuller understanding of the subject, and foster integration of knowledge, avoiding an over-crowded curriculum. 

Failure to understand, view or interpret a threshold concept will stop the progression of learning.  The threshold concept framework addresses the kind of complicated learner transitions learners undergo (Cousin, 2008). Recognising threshold concepts and the different ways individual learners approach them will enable educators to make the curriculum more effective and efficient and to unlock learner progress.  

The significance of the framework provided by threshold concepts lies in its explanatory potential to locate troublesome aspects of disciplinary knowledge within transitions across conceptual thresholds, and hence to assist teachers in identifying appropriate ways of modifying or redesigning curricula to enable their students to negotiate such transitions more successfully. 

(Land et al., 2006: 205)

As such, threshold concepts are particularly relevant to curricular educators teaching enterprise and entrepreneurship content both within dedicated programmes and modules or embedded in other units where entrepreneurial thinking is useful to understand and demonstrate. It should be stressed that not all those who teach enterprise and entrepreneurship sit within a business school, teach a dedicated unit, nor even identify as enterprise and entrepreneurship educators; nonetheless, we believe that there is great value to be gained by thinking about the threshold concepts of entrepreneurial thinking and embedding them in your teaching, learning, and assessment practice.

  • Threshold Concepts might help a team of Business School academics rationalise a wealth of important concepts in a dense curriculum into a smaller set of threshold concepts which are embedded into programme design and help connect and distinguish specific modules or units and prevent both unhelpful repetition and dissonance.

  • Threshold Concepts might help a History/Science/Engineering/Theatre academic identify, contextualise, and embed entrepreneurial thinking practices into their teaching that support impact-creation or value-creation activities for their students now or in the future without having to negotiate a wider body of entrepreneurship content.

  • Threshold Concepts might help diverse curricular and extra-curricular staff teams supporting student entrepreneurs find common ground and adopt a shared language, and also demarcate where and with who (and at what stage of a process) each is working.

  • Threshold Concepts might help entrepreneurship educators engage both their students and important external stakeholders in a collaborative discussion about what it means to think entrepreneurially and build credibility with both camps.

‘Threshold’ as opposed to ‘Important’ concepts

As described above, threshold concepts are both transformational in aspect and fundamentally distinctive to the subject under discussion. Throughout the CfIE research process we discussed a much bigger range of potential concepts which were ultimately either incorporated as major or minor elements of the final set or removed because they did not meet the transformational or distinctive standard.

One of the other defining characteristics of threshold concepts is that they are bounded.  A threshold concept will likely delineate a particular conceptual space and serve a specific and limited purpose.  We are particularly interested in this characteristic, as it allows us to distinguish entrepreneurial thinking, and stops it getting mixed up with other important areas such as employability and graduateness.

For example, concepts such as financial acumen are indisputably important but not regarded as transformational. Concepts like teamwork are likewise important but were subsumed (in the CfiE threshold concepts) into both ‘Your Context is Your Opportunity’ and ‘Taking Action’ from the purview of connecting and engaging with diverse (human) resources to spot and act on opportunities which felt more distinctive to entrepreneurial thinking.

Ideas such as responsible innovation and moving from extractive to sustainable and regenerative practices were also highlighted by CfIE colleagues as highly desirable practice and potentially transformative for an individual but not necessarily transformative in establishing entrepreneurial thinking. Nonetheless these might be adopted into curriculum for the purposes of working towards a motivating and/or differentiating mission for an educator team.

It is also worth mentioning that we feel threshold concepts in entrepreneurial thinking come as a cluster or web, they are interdependent.  Each one needs all the others to make sense.

Lessons learned

Assume it will take longer than expected.

We were somewhat sabotaged by the workload CfIE colleagues were under in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021. In a team of largely teaching-focused colleagues we were all under considerable pressure to move previously in-person teaching online, often on a week-by-week basis, and both the researchers and the participants found it hard to make the time for what felt like a somewhat philosophical research inquiry. Despite colleagues’ professed interest in the project they frequently struggled to respond in a timely fashion to surveys and we extended deadlines on multiple occasions. The researchers similarly struggled to find time to produce the synthesis.

This was, in the end, no bad thing. The research went on throughout a somewhat stressful year, was a regular point of discussion with colleagues, and was likely richer for processing alongside a Strategic Review that questioned our role in the University, how we sat with an emerging Business School, and how best to deliver a transformative curriculum online.


The CfIE teaching team is a mix of disciplines; within the ‘entrepreneurship’ group we have serial entrepreneurs, ex-corporate innovation professionals, business advisors, and career academics; within the ‘design thinking’ group we have service design consultants, hardware developers, interaction designers, graphic communications specialists, and sustainable fashion entrepreneurs… initially a lot of the design thinking colleagues didn’t feel like they could or should contribute:

“Morning… I’ve tried to complete your survey and I can’t do it. I don’t teach entrepreneurship and I have problems with the [word] ‘entrepreneur’ so I can’t give you anything valuable. I’m Sorry.”

This was a not untypical first response. We compounded the problem with the first question on the first survey which asked for a ‘favourite definition of entrepreneurship’, which rather assumed they had more than one to pick from and had thought about it. Further questions again rather assumed the participant was happy with the idea they were delivering entrepreneurial education, which was not true. This led to the CfIE TCs – Language document which was used both in a succession of later emails to colleagues to invite them back into the process – and as the basis for several in-person and online conversations with colleagues to explain what we were trying to do. Ultimately it led to moving away from ‘Entrepreneurship’ in favour of ‘Entrepreneurial Thinking’.

bottom of page