The Problem Distiller Tool: Supporting Teachers in Uncovering Why Their Students Have Problems Understanding Threshold Concepts

Conference paper
Part of the Communications in Computer and Information Science book series (CCIS, volume 739)


This study explored the use of a web-based tool entitled ‘Problem Distiller’ designed to support teachers in uncovering why their students have problems understanding Threshold Concepts. Data collected involved interviews with two math teachers, invited to experiment the Problem Distiller tool and Think Aloud protocol. Content analysis was used to process and analyse the collected data. Findings show that teachers found it helpful when the information they entered through the Problem Distiller was fed back as they constructed an online diagnostic quiz. Focusing on the teachers’ understanding of why the students have problems is an effective way of tackling the barriers posed by Threshold Concepts and can be integrated with existing strategies and teaching approaches.


Threshold Concepts Tricky Topics Technology-enhanced learning Deeper understanding 



The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under grant agreement no. 317964 JUXTALEARN. We would like to thank the interviewed teachers for their valuable collaboration.


  1. 1.
    Adams, A., Rogers, Y., Coughlan, T., Van-der-Linden, J., Clough, G., Martin, E., Collins, T.: Teenager needs in technology enhanced learning. In: Workshop on Methods of Working with Teenagers in Interaction Design, CHI 2013, Paris, France (2013)Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Adams, A., Clough, G.: The E-assessment burger: supporting the before and after in E-assessment systems. Interact. Des. Archit.(s) J.-IxD&A 25, 39–57 (2015)Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Arends, R.I.: Aprender a ensinar. McGrawHill, Lisboa (2008)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Clough, G., Adams, A., Cruz, S., Lencastre, J.A., Coutinho, C.: I just don’t understand why they don’t understand: bridging the gaps in student learning. Brit. J. Educ. Technol. (2015). Submitted for evaluationGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Bardin, L., de Conteúdo, A.: Lisboa: Edições, p. 70 (2013)Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Barradell, S., Kennedy-Jones, M.: Threshold concepts, student learning and curriculum: making connections between theory and practice. Innov. Educ. Teach. Int. 52, 1–10 (2013)Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Brocardo, J., Serrazina, L.: O sentido do número no currículo de matemática. O sentido do número: Reflexões que entrecruzam teoria e prática, pp. 97–115 (2008)Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Cousin, G.: An introduction to threshold concepts. Planet, p. 17 (2006).
  9. 9.
    Cruz, S., Lencastre, J.A., Coutinho, C., Clough, G., Adams, A.: Threshold concepts vs. tricky topics - exploring the causes of student’s misunderstandings with the problem distiller tool. In: Uhomoibhi, J., Costagliola, G., Zvacek, S., McLaren, B.M. (eds.) Proceedings of CSEDU 2016, 8th International Conference on Computer Supported Education, vol. 1, pp. 205–215, Rome, IT, SCITEPRESS (2016)Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Fernandes, D.R., Martins, F.M.: Reflexão acerca do ensino do algoritmo da divisão inteira: proposta didática. Educação e Formação 9, 174–197 (2014)Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Loertscher, J., Green, D., Lewis, J.E., Lin, S., Minderhout, V.: Identification of threshold concepts for biochemistry. CBE-Life Sci. Educ. 13(3), 516–528 (2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 12.
    Machiocha, A.: Teaching research methods: threshold concept. In: 13th European Conference on Research Methods for Business and Management, pp. 260–265, London (2014)Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Mendes, F.: A aprendizagem da divisão: um olhar sobre os procedimentos usados pelos alunos. Da Investigação às Práticas 3(2), 5–30 (2013)MathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  14. 14.
    Meyer, J., Land, R.: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines. In: Rust, C. (ed.) Improving student Learning - Theory and Practice Ten Years on, pp. 412–424. Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), Oxford (2003)Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Meyer, J., Land, R.: Overcoming barriers to student understanding: threshold concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. In: Meyer, J., Land, R. (eds.) Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and Toublesome Knowledge, pp. 19–32. Routledge, London and New York (2006)Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Meyer, J.H., Knight, D.B., Callaghan, D.P., Baldock, T.E.: An empirical exploration of metacognitive assessment activities in a third-year civil engineering hydraulics course. Eur. J. Eng. Educ. 40(3), 309–327 (2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 17.
    Montague, M.: Teaching division to students with learning disabilities: a constructivist approach, exceptionality: a special. Educ. J. 11(3), 165–175 (2003)Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    National Council of Teachers of Mathematics: Princípios e Normas Para a Matemática Escolar. APM, Lisboa (2008)Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Squire, S., Bryant, P.: The influence of sharing on children’s initial concept of division. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 81, 1–43 (2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 20.
    Unlu, M., Ertekin, E.: Why do pre-service teachers pose multiplication problems instead of division problems in fractions? Procedia Soc. Behav. Sci. 46, 490–494 (2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 21.
    Van Someren, M.W., Barnard, Y., Sandberg, J.: The Think Aloud Method: A Practical Guide to Modeling Cognitive Processes. Academic Press, London (1994)Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Zhao, N., Valcke, M., Desoete, A., Burny, E., Imbo, I.: Differences between Flemish and Chinese primary students’ mastery of basic arithmetic operations. Educ. Psychol. 34(7), 818–837 (2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of EducationUniversity of MinhoBragaPortugal
  2. 2.Institute of Educational TechnologyOpen UniversityMilton KeynesUK

Personalised recommendations