The Complete Teacher


Understanding learning barriers

Posted by Hlengiwe Zwane on 19 January 2023, 10:50 SAST
Hlengiwe Zwane photo

When there is so much to take in, learning barriers can feel like swallowing an elephant. It's easy to get lost, wondering where to begin. Understand that students learn in different ways, just as they struggle differently.

This worsens when students face multiple barriers to learning at once, thus creating more difficulties. These challenges can shift and change as students progress in their education journey. It is only by understanding and identifying the common barriers we can prevent them from getting in the way in the first place.

A learning barrier is anything that interrupts or prevents the learning process. It interferes with how students engage with learning, break down information, store knowledge and retrieve it during application.

Identifying barriers to learning can be difficult because they come in all shapes and sizes and are often particular to a student. They may be as simple as a student getting distracted by checking social media during class or as complex as socio-economic challenges that prevent a student from showing up to class. Learning barriers ultimately harm student outcomes. Below are the most common kinds of barriers. 

Classroom environment
These learning barriers are all about the physical structure of the classroom and the way you manage learning in it. These could  include things such as; 

  • Distractions or interruptions that prevent focusing

  • A rigid routine in the classroom

  • High expectations for students to meet or too low to push them forward

  • Fast pacing that moves too quickly for students to absorb information or too slowly to keep students engaged

  • Layouts that don’t provide students with the right kind of space to learn effectively

Emotional state
Emotion can influence how much enthusiasm students bring into the classroom, how much they take in and how much effort they put into their work. 

  • Fear of failure can lead to anxiety 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 approaches or perspective

Every student in your classroom has a history, even if it hinders learning in their current classroom:

  • Ineffective teachers, disorganised courses and boring instruction

  • Missing or incorrect knowledge, especially when it’s a prerequisite for a lesson

  • Battling with understanding and applying a particular concept 

Learning is not a passive endeavour. Students need to work at it, too, and if they don’t have the desire to do so, your lessons won’t sink in. No lesson can be entirely barrier-free. You can’t anticipate every barrier that will arise for your students. But that doesn’t mean you can not be proactive about learning barriers in your school.

Starting with clear learning objectives and working with other teachers can help manage these barriers and drive solutions to overcome these barriers.


Source: Chalk, 2022

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