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Tricky Topics Teacher Training

This project aims to produce Open Educational Resources (OERs) to support teacher-training in schools, colleges, universities and other sectors throughout the UK. The project builds on the EU-funded Juxtalearn project which introduced the term ‘tricky topics’ to refer to difficult knowledge that causes barriers to students’ understanding (a practical application of Threshold Concept theory). The OERs being developed aim to help teachers to identify, capture and assess that difficult knowledge.

In collaboration with Oxford University, we have worked with teachers, technology enhanced learning developers and academic pedagogical experts, to produce OERs which guide teachers through a collaborative ‘tricky topics’ process, helping them to identify the topics their students find tricky and to break those topics down into assessable parts. The online tools help teachers to understand why their students find these topics tricky, create interventions which enhance students’ deeper learning to overcome the difficulties, and develop questions to fully assess the students’ understanding across the topic. 

Extending the project’s initial aims, the tricky topics process is being adapted to different contexts such as organizational learning and learning design of work-based innovations. The process is being embedded into OU learning design methodologies and additional activities are being pursued with Oxfam (organisational learning) and the College of Policing (simulation-based learning design).

Engagement with, and evaluation of, the OERs is being generated through a dedicated website, by exhibiting at the BETT show and through social media (@tricky_topics).

Key research questions

  • Why are some topics so troublesome?
  • What are the difficulties that students have in answering tricky exam questions?
  • How do teachers teach to overcome these difficulties?
  • What helps teachers to enable their students to develop deeper learning?

Why this research is important

Internationally, learning progression for low ability students is a significant problem, especially in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. This leads to poor subject uptake beyond compulsory education, resulting in skills shortages across many sectors. One reason learners fail to progress with difficult to learn subjects is the challenges involved in learning the troublesome knowledge that produce barriers to students’ understanding. Overcoming these barriers can be transformative. These resources guide teachers through a process which helps them to enhance students’ deeper understanding, improving exam results and progression in STEM subjects.

Additional impact is being developed through extending the project into learning design and organisational learning contexts, with activities being coordinated for input to OU science and mathematics modules that span the four nations, supporting thousands of students.

Project team members

Open University team: Anne Adams, Anne Pike, Kevin McCleod, Peter Devine, Ola Fadoju, Tom Olney, Nick Freer, Popi Anastasiou, Elizabeth Fitzgerald

Oxford University team: Katharine Burn, Ann Childs, Judith Hillier, Emma Klose

Contact name and email address: Dr Anne Adams, or

Research & Innovation