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What are the Most Common Barriers to Learning in School?

The ability of a school student to learn in the classroom isn’t simply a question of motivation. Research suggests that almost 1 in 5 pupils in the UK leave school before taking their A-levels – a relatively high number compared with the rest of Europe.

Here, we look at the various social, cultural and emotional barriers to learning, and link to some of the many practical resources on the Success at School site which will help you tackle them.

1. Motivation or "availability to learn"

A student’s availability to learn depends largely on their motivation. Our personal desire to achieve results and improve our knowledge, regardless

Maslow's hierarchy of school needs diagram
Image by Steve Guditus via http://sguditus.blogspot.co.uk/

of the material being studied, is one of the most important factors in our ability to learn.


Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of school needs, we see that self-actualization comes top of the list in the essential ‘needs’ that we require to learn. A lack of motivation is a major barrier to student’s learning and without the desire to achieve; students often end up doing the bare minimum amount of work in the classroom, enough to get by but not enough to really enhance their learning. A lack of motivation to study typically results in students going through the motions of learning and not retaining information.


2. Social and cultural barriers

Students learning
A student's ability to interact with others greatly impacts their

A child’s ability to interact socially with their peers has a significant impact on how they progress in the classroom.The very act of learning in a classroom environment involves interacting with other students, talking through problems and finding solutions.

Why interaction is important

In today’s classroom with an average of 17.8 pupils per teacher (14.5 elsewhere in Europe according to statistical agency Eurostat), peer to peer learning in schools is important now more than ever.

Discussing lessons with other students helps pupils realise their own strengths and weaknesses and enables them to improve their knowledge gaps, learning directly from their classmates.

School students who have poor social skills often fall behind in their learning as they aren’t able to communicate as effectively as others. Of course, not all types of learning requires students to be social, but in the early years in particular, the ability to listen, respond and empathise with other people are all important learning skills.

How environment can shape social skills

The culture in which a child grows up can also have a bearing on their ability to learn. Looking at Maslow’s table, ‘belonging’ is one of the most essential learning needs. The relationships that we form with our parents, friends and teachers all feed into our ability to learn.

As humans, we are hugely influenced by the people around us and during our first 5 years, our principal influencers are our parents or guardians. The beliefs that our parents hold and the cultures that they embrace can heavily influence how we learn as students. For example, if a student has grown up in a household where mathematical subjects are given more weight that languages, that student may have a cultural barrier when it comes to learning subjects like English.

3. Emotional factors that affect learning

Students' self-esteem
A student's self-esteem plays an important role in their ability
to learn

The encouragement that we receive from our teachers, parents and friends plays an important role in our emotional learning. If a student adopts a mindset of ‘always trying their best’ and learning from past failures, they’ll generally have a positive outlook on their ability to learn. On the other hand, if a student’s internal voice is always telling them that they’re not good enough or that there’s no point in even trying, they’re more likely to underachieve in school.

A student’s emotional wellbeing majorly impacts their ability to do well at school. Students who lack confidence and are afraid to take educated guesses could have emotional issues that are affecting their learning. There can be a number of emotional factors at play in a student’s learning including fear of embarrassment, doubt and inadequacy, all of which can lead to self-sabotaging emotional states.

Generally speaking, negative emotions can be reduced by setting expectations, focusing on the positives and setting goals for the future.


4. Personal issues that can affect learning

On an individual level, students often have personal issues that affect their learning. For example, students with diagnosed learning difficulties like autism or Asperger’s syndrome will find certain elements of learning more challenging than others. Similarly, students with learning impairments like dyslexia may find that their personal barriers hinder their progress at times.

On a practical level, factors such as transport, location, language and access to resources can all present blocks to learning for some students. For example, school pupils who don’t speak English as their first language may find following instructions more difficult than native English speakers. Or students who live in remote locations may find that a lack of access to resources like the internet plays a big part in their ability to learn.

What we can do

For more practical advice on reducing learning barriers, check out this useful video:


Having an awareness of some of these learning roadblocks can help us as teachers, careers advisors and parents understand the individual needs of our students or children.

Learning barriers affect students differently and there’s no ‘right’ way to reduce them. Generally speaking, a collective effort form friends, family and teachers in supporting students to overcome any obstacles is a good starting point.

Key resources: Removing barriers to learning

Success at School is packed with resources to help students succeed in their studiesplan their careers, find work experience, apply for jobs and much more. Here, we have brought together articles to help you remove barriers to learning in your school. Most of our content is written for students in language they will understand, so you can refer them directly to the site, or use these pieces as the starting point for a conversation:

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