Personal & Social Barriers to Learning

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Personal and social barriers to learning are related and can be addressed together in the classroom. Many of these barriers can be found in all ages of students, including adults. The first step in overcoming a barrier to learning is to identify it. It may not be immediately obvious to the teacher that a student has a barrier; the student may appear irrational or stubborn, when in fact there is an underlying cause to this behaviour. When the barrier is identified, addressing it often requires adaptation and one-on-one teacher to student time.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to a student's personal desire to learn the material, regardless of external stimuli or rewards. Lack of intrinsic motivation is a major personal barrier to learning. Without the desire to learn, students will often do the minimum tasks required, without processing or understanding the information, and they may not even try at all. Establishing intrinsic motivation is very difficult, but research suggests several strategies. First, make the material relevant to the student in some immediate, personal way. Even college-age students have trouble being motivated by events in the distant future. Telling these students that what they are learning now will be used 15 years later, will likely not establish intrinsic motivation. Second, try to make the material as engaging as possible to grab the student's attention. Remember that intrinsic motivation must come from the student, and while you, the teacher, can encourage it, you cannot force the students to care.


Self-esteem is a person's perceived ability to meet a certain goal. Low self-esteem often causes students to give up even before trying. However, students with too high self-esteem may become overconfident and not give the task their full attention and actually perform worse than the students with low self-esteem. A student's self-esteem is established in several ways, the strongest is past experience. If a student has met similar goals in the past, their self-esteem to achieve the new goal will be high. This creates a type of self-fulfilling prophecy where students with success in a subject area will be confident and motivated to continue to succeed, which reinforces their positive self-esteem. Conversely, students who fail to reach a goal will be less confidant and less motivated to achieve similar goals in the future, encouraging their continued failure. A way to counteract this cycle is with verbal persuasion. Encouraging students and giving positive reinforcement along the way can override the influence of past failures. Another way to encourage positive self-esteem is if the student sees someone else reach the goal, particularly if this someone else is a person they admire and identify with (like a friend).

Social Skills

Social skills are important to learning as learning itself is largely a social activity. It is by discussing and comparing our ideas with others that we begin to understand what we know. Therefore, students with poor social skills may fall behind on their learning. Skills such as being able to listen effectively to others, speak clearly, and empathise all effect the student's ability to learn from social situations. This may be overtly prevalent in team-oriented situations, but even one-on-one interactions with the teacher can be negatively influenced.


One's culture plays a critical role in determining ones worldview. If a student's culture (including subcultures) does not place a high emphasis on learning, or learning a particular subject, the student may not have the intrinsic motivation to learn. It is very difficult to change someone's worldview when it is based on culture. Therefore, a strategy may be to show students how the material to be learnt fits in with and supports their culture.

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