Learning barriers can feel like swallowing an elephant – there’s so much to take in, you get lost wondering where to start. Other times, they’re like watching paint dry – so boring you almost nod off. Or maybe they feel like going to the dentist – it’s uncomfortable, but it pays off in the long run.

No two students learn exactly the same way. It’s no wonder considering that we’re currently educating Gen Z students, the most diverse K-12 cohort on record. Similarly, no two students struggle in the same way, or even in the same places. 

To complicate matters further, students often face multiple barriers to learning at the same time, creating a sort of medley of challenges. Those challenges can shift and change as students progress in their education journey. 

The good news: by understanding and identifying the most common barriers, we can prevent them from getting in the way in the first place.

Understanding Learning Barriers

A learning barrier is anything that interrupts or prevents learning. It impedes the way students engage with learning, encode information, store knowledge and retrieve it during practice.

Identifying barriers to learning can be difficult because they come in all shapes and sizes, and are often particular to each student. They might be as simple as a student getting distracted checking social media during class, or as complex as socio-economic challenges that prevent a student from showing up to class well-fed and well-rested.

Learning barriers ultimately harm student outcomes. One student who says, “I’m bored” isn’t engaging or absorbing class material. Another student who says, “I can’t do this” may resist trying something new (and succeeding at it). Another student who says, “I don’t understand” will struggle with the next lesson. And student who says “I forget” may be processing too much information to take in anything new.

6 Common Learning Barriers and How They Work

Addressing learning barriers – and implementing learning enablers – in our classrooms is a key way to keep engagement high, meet standards and achieve better student outcomes.

So let’s start with the most common kinds of barriers.

Classroom barriers

These learning barriers are all about the physical structure of your classroom and the way you manage learning within it. They include things like:

  • Distractions or interruptions that prevent students from focusing
  • Classroom routines that are too rigid or lenient for students
  • Expectations that are too high for students to meet or too low to push them forward
  • Pacing that moves too quickly for students to absorb information or too slowly to keep students engaged
  • Layouts that don’t provide students the right kind of space to learn most effectively

Chalk tip: At its core, classroom management is a combination of skills and techniques teachers use to make sure classes run smoothly and that students reach their daily learning goals. You can learn more about it in our Lesson Planning ebook.

Emotional barriers

Emotion can influence how much enthusiasm students bring into the classroom, how much knowledge they take in and how much effort they put into their work. Some emotions can be productive, while others stifle learning. 

  • Fear of failure can lead to anxiety, apprehension or refusal to learn new things
  • Low self-esteem can lead students to believe they can’t learn or do something, even before they try
  • Fear of change can make students resistant to new methods, approaches or perspectives

Chalk tip: Climb that mountain one step at a time. When it comes to the scary things, start small to show students they’re not so scary after all. Work on reframing failures and setbacks as opportunities and growth.

Experiential barriers

For better or worse, every student in your classroom has a history. And you won’t necessarily know what that history is, even if hinders learning in their current classroom:

  • Ineffective teachers, disorganized courses, boring instruction and classroom drama 
  • Missing or incorrect knowledge, especially when it’s a prerequisite for your lesson
  • A history of struggling with understanding and applying a particular concept 

Chalk tip: There’s no “do-over” in education, but we can create a better “next time”. Building relationships with your students can help you understand where they’re coming from, so you can better address their needs in your curriculum and lesson planning.

Motivational barriers

Learning isn’t a passive endeavor. Students need to work at it too – and if they don’t have the desire to do so, your lessons simply won’t sink in. Students may feel unmotivated when:

  • The lesson isn’t connected to something they’re interested in or relevant to their lives
  • They don’t see a goal, reward or purpose behind learning what you’re teaching
  • They have no say in how their learning journey progresses

Chalk tip: Research shows engaged students are 2.5 times as likely to say they’re doing well in school, and 4.5 times more likely to feel hopeful about the future. Gamification, technology,and authentic learning can motivate students to get more engaged and involved.

Preferential barriers

Whether you believe in the VARK styles of learning or you’re firmly on the “debunked” side of the debate, students at least have strengths and weaknesses in how they absorb information and express themselves. Barriers happen here if:

  • Students don’t receive instruction in a media or format that makes sense to them
  • Assessments are accepted in one or two formats only, and only at a few key points throughout the year

Chalk tip: Let those strengths shine! Build variety into your lessons with the formats you choose for instruction and activity. When it comes to assessments, provide opportunities to submit work in a format that they prefer (a video over an essay, for example), and pepper in opportunities to demonstrate learning throughout the year, rather than at the end of each unit.

Accessibility barriers

This one’s a broad net to cast, because learning difficulties come in all shapes and sizes. For the most part, they’re outside the control of students and teachers alike, but that doesn’t mean they’re not addressable:

Chalk tip: Provide subtitles and closed captioning along with videos. Offer audiobooks alongside textbooks. Give more time to take tests or allow for more breaks for students who need it. Universal Design for Learning is a great place to start – plus it benefits all learners!

Learning Enablers: The Response to Learning Barriers

No lesson can be entirely barrier-free for every class. And you can’t anticipate every barrier that will pop up for your students. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive about learning barriers in your school. 

That’s where enablers – methods of overcoming learning barriers or preventing them from impeding student learning – enter the ring:

In your curriculum mapping

Working with other teachers, administrators and support staff, you ensure your curriculum is mapped in a logical, scaffolded, well-paced and aligned way to reduce barriers from the get-go. As a living, breathing document, you can continue to update your curriculum map so barriers are removed for current and future students.

In your lesson planning

Starting with clear learning objectives in mind for each lesson. Think about how you can appeal to a wide variety of student strengths in your instruction, classroom activities and assessments. You can build in opportunities for student check-ins and feedback to help identify barriers and guide future instruction.

In your reflection

Pay attention to what students say when you check in with them. They’re actually self-identifying barriers when they ask, “Do I really have to <blank>?” Notice moments when you had to give further explanation or repeat steps. Chalk provides tools that help you measure student progress as well, so you can measure course expectations against actual progress.

In your role

Teachers are role models who can show students it is okay to face barriers. They’re also guides who can help students identify learning barriers and move past them. Questions like “What do you think,” “Where do you want to go from here?” and “What knowledge and skills can you draw on?” may give your students a push to take ownership in their journey.

No matter what subject or grade level you teach, your goal is to improve student outcomes. That means knowing where they excel… and where they stumble. Like learning to walk before we run, we need to understand barriers to learning before we can address them in our classrooms. But once we do, we create better learning experiences not just for individual students, but also for every learner who enters our classroom.

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Curriculum Mapping Guide