Supporting new teachers’ diagnosis of students’ difficulties with Tricky Topics


This was a collaborative project supporting the Open University in the development of process that would help teachers to identify the kinds of stumbling blocks that can make it difficult for students to develop an effective understanding of ‘Tricky Topics’ – i.e. important ‘threshold concepts’, particularly in science education. The Open University had previously developed an online process for setting diagnostic tests that would give teachers a clear insight into their students’ current thinking about the ‘tricky topic’ and its associated concepts. The aim of this ‘impact’ project was to explore how the process might be used with beginning teachers in particular, to help them identify the kinds of misconceptions and stumbling blocks that their students might face and to design appropriate, tightly-focused, questions that could be used within the online tool to give them an overview of understanding across their class, so that they could tailor their teaching or conduct specific interventions more effectively.



 The role of the Oxford Education Deanery was to investigate how beginning teachers – interns on the PGCE programme – could make use of the Tricky Topics process. Interns on the Science PGCE programme took part in two workshops with members of the Open University team, trying out the process and reflecting on their experience. The second workshop also included some school-based mentors and allowed the research team to explore the differences between beginning teachers and those with much more experience of pupils’ misconceptions and particular difficulties. The interns’ and mentors’ experience was used to inform the training programme developed by the Open University – and the guide to this training which is now available as an open access resource.



The main outcome of the project is the training guide and the outline of the process, shared on the Tricky Topics website, but elements of the process have now also been incorporated into the Science PGCE programme. The distinct elements in the process – which involve thinking carefully about the range of stumbling blocks that might be impeding learning, as well as very careful diagnosis of what exactly the problems are in specific cases – provide a useful framework for formative assessment and responsive planning.


Anne Adams (Open University) in collaboration with Katharine Burn (Director, Oxford Education Deanery) and the University of Oxford Science PGCE team, particularly Judith Hillier, Ann Childs and Emma Klose.


Contact information

For details about how the Tricky Topic process was built into the PGCE course, particularly in support of interns’ work for their second curriculum assignment, contact Judith Hillier (
For details of the Tricky Topics process and the training programme developed to support it, see the project website:


The project was funded by an ESRC Impact Accelerator Award.

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