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Learning barriers can be physical, mental, emotional, cultural, or social elements that obstruct a student from achieving their learning goals. Here's how to solve them.

Free Guide: How to Address Barriers to Learning: Download Now

You’re about to embark on an exciting new journey — online course creation. Congrats! You’ve made the first of many important decisions. But now, it’s time to think about the next critical aspect — your learners.

As complex human beings, we all respond to different types of learning. No matter if it’s the information itself, how it’s presented, or where we are consuming it, we all have preferences that, if left unconsidered, can cause serious barriers to learning.

Skip ahead:

For a quick look before we dive in, below summarizes the most common barriers to learning and examples:

School barriersElements that can impact a student’s ability to learn at school.
Workplace barriersElements that can impact an employee’s ability to learn at work.
Emotional barriersFears, motivation, and other emotions preventing a student from having the confidence to fully immerse themselves in a new learning environment.
Environmental barriersPhysical elements, such as workplace distractions, impacting the student’s ability to succeed within their learning environment.
Conditions that make learning more challenging for students, such as dyslexia, autism, or ADD/ADHD.


What are barriers to learning?

Learning barriers are the social, personal, or cognitive obstacles that prevent students from learning optimally and achieving their goals. 

Barriers to learning aren’t segmented to certain places or locations. They can pop up almost anywhere a student is attempting to learn or do something new.

They affect everyone, too. Whether you’re a fresher or skilled professional, we all face challenges that can impede our learning process if not well-managed. 

Exploring common learning barriers

Learning barriers can be intrinsic or extrinsic. 

  1. Extrinsic barriers to learning

These are external factors that affect learning. The major one is your socio-economic background. 

Generally, the better your socio-economic background, the more access you have to learning resources.

For example, students from high-income families can afford the latest technology required for learning. They have access to the internet and can purchase smart devices and laptops for online learning. They can also afford extra lessons after class to brush up on their skills. 

Low-income students, on the other hand, are strapped for learning resources. For example, they have to make do with in-person, instructor-led classes because they cannot afford online learning tools. This restricts them to one learning style that might not be the best for them. 

Your physical environment also affects learning. If your learning environment is noisy and full of distractions, you’ll find it hard to concentrate on online classes and complete assignments on time. 

  1. Intrinsic barriers to learning

Intrinsic barriers are the internal factors that negatively affect how one learns: 

  1. Cognitive barriers

Sometimes, one’s socioeconomic environment is conducive to learning. But, they might be facing cognitive challenges that affect how well they acquire, process, and retain new information and skills.

For example, people with learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD learn differently than those who do not have these challenges. A person with ADHD, for instance, might find it harder to pay attention to details and participate in class activities. Similarly, a dyslexic learner might struggle to ask and respond to questions in class. 

  1. Emotional learning barriers 

Being afraid of failing, past insecurities, or fear of change can ignite uncomfortable emotional states that prevent students from taking full advantage of the learning opportunities in front of them.

For example, a student struggled with group presentations in the past. Now, they have to complete one as part of the requirements of their new course. Chances are they’ll be too anxious to do it right because they’re afraid of failing again. 

Lack of motivation is a problem, too. At one point or another, we all hit that 2:30 motivation drag. And depending on your environment or corporate culture, it can be challenging to drum up the energy to learn when you don’t have the right support.

  1. Personal barriers

Personal barriers are the past or current challenges that make it difficult for a person to learn at the same pace as their peers. 

Say you’re working a high-stress job; you might be too tired to complete assessments on time or pay attention to instructor-led classes. 

Other personal learning barriers include: 

  • Lack of previous knowledge: If you have a college degree, you likely had to take pre-requisite courses before launching into some of your more specific classes. That’s because you can’t snap your fingers to become a master chef without learning the basics of various cooking methods, utensils, and ingredients.

So, when a new student takes your course without having access to the base knowledge beforehand, it can deter them from engaging in or completing the session entirely.

  • Language barriers: For individuals who do not have a strong command of the language of instruction, whether it’s their first language or a second language, language barriers can impede understanding and communication, making it difficult to engage with educational content.

Say English is your first language, and you’re taking a course in German; you might struggle with it if you aren’t fluent in the language. 

What barriers are there in online learning? 

While online learning offers flexibility and convenience and solves the problem of location-restricted education, it comes with its own challenges: 

  1. Internet connectivity issues 

Poor internet connection breaks learner focus, making it harder for them to keep up with the class. 

If this happens during an instructor-led class, you’ll miss important information and struggle to catch up when your device reconnects. If it’s a self-paced class, you’ll need to rewind the lesson, which can be frustrating. 

  1. Lack of motivation

Put a finger down if you registered for an online course only to abandon it a few days later. You’re not alone — only 5–15% of people complete online courses. 

In traditional classroom settings, students often have in-person accountability to instructors and peers. But this goes away with online learning. 

Since there’s no teacher or coursemates to hold you accountable physically, you can easily skip assignments, stretch course modules for too long, or abandon things altogether. 

  1. Online distractions 

It’s so easy to get distracted when you’re learning online — no thanks to the many social platforms vying for your attention. 

Picture this: You log into your online course dashboard. A few minutes in, a Twitter notification pops up, and you decide to check it out. Before you know it, you’ve spent an hour doomscrolling through your timeline, engaging in a pointless argument, and reacting to strangers’ opinions. 

  1. Distractions at home

Many homes aren’t conducive to learning. For example, you could be trying to complete an assessment while your neighbor fells their garden trees or mows the lawn. 

On top of that, you’ll also struggle with frequent interruptions from family members and a bunch of personal entertainment options, like your cable TV and streaming apps. Want to watch a Netflix series instead of completing a course module? Sure, no one is stopping you. You can always complete it later.

These distractions divert your attention away from your coursework and undermine your motivation to study effectively.

  1. Communication barriers 

Online learning reduces face-to-face interactions between students and instructors. This causes a communication gap that can become a bigger problem if not managed properly. 

When you’re learning online, especially for a self-paced course, you’re pretty much on your own. You cannot go over to a course mate’s desk to ask questions. Or raise your hand to let your instructor know you’re struggling with a quiz. 

You might send a question to the teacher via chat and get a response a couple of hours later — which stalls learning. 

These things add up if they are not addressed and reduce your motivation over time. 

We covered more online learning barriers in our article about online education challenges

Tips for overcoming learning barriers 

There are many ways to support your students to overcome common learning barriers and enjoy a better experience with your online course. Let’s discuss some practical tips. 

  1. How to overcome socioeconomic barriers 

Offer scaled pricing to support students from lower-income levels. If you can’t offer pricing tiers, let students pay in installments to spead out your course costs.

Scaled pricing means pricing tiers for your online course. For example, you can have a basic tier that gives students access to only the course, while higher tiers come with additional benefits like one-on-one coaching, certification, and the like. 

Thinkific creator, Kat Lee, has three pricing tiers for her Business Alchemist Mentorship program to make it more accessible to her students. Each tier has a description of its ideal target audience to guide people to make the right choice. Students can pay in installments, regardless of the tier. 

Speaking of how she comes up with the right pricing for each tier, Kat says, “I play with the numbers until I feel that my students will honor my time and wisdom and are not stretching themselves to invest.” 

If you’re implementing scaled pricing for the first time, you’ll need a more systematic approach: 

  • Add up your production costs to know how much you invested in course creation
  • Conduct audience survey to know the lowest and highest amounts your audience is willing to pay
  • Decide on the number of tiers you’ll offer and what differentiates each one

Learn more: How to price your online course.

  1. How to overcome motivational barriers 

It’s hard for students to stay motivated when they’re learning in isolation. To help them, integrate communities into your online course where students meet with each other, discuss challenges, and ask questions in real time. 

In Kat’s words, “I find that there’s a disconnect when folks are just given material; there’s a lack of integration that happens, which is why I feel like customized support is so important.”

She actively creates opportunities for face-to-face interactions for all her online courses. For example, the Business Alchemist Mentorship has six-person group cohorts plus a one-on-one coaching option. 

If you’re offering self-paced courses, create online communities — like Slack channels and Facebook groups — to foster networking and real-time interactions among students. Anyone struggling with a part of your course can drop a question on Slack and get immediate help instead of dealing with it alone. 

Learn more: How to build an online community.

  1. How to overcome learning challenges

Be aware and remove obstacles that can prevent your students from engaging fully. Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) best practices to level the playing field for all learners.  For example:

  • Make sure any recordings or videos are accessible with subtitles, closed captions, or text-based alternatives for those with hearing impairments and learning challenges.
  • Some learning challenges may require more personal interaction, providing audiobooks, and typing on a computer or tablet instead of writing.
  • Include clear, step-by-step instructions and offer multi-sensory options for learners to self-select a method that works well for them.
  1. How to overcome learning experience barrier

When it comes to learning, oftentimes, the experience outweighs the content itself. For example, listening to an instructor with limited interaction will not be the right experience for you if you’re a hands-on learner. The same applies to the information itself — highly complex topics are better communicated through dynamic visuals than text-based materials.

As a result, learning barriers can quickly come up if the overall experience doesn’t meet the students’ needs.

To optimize this, apply learning experience design to your online courses. Learning experience design combines the concepts of instructional design and user experience design to create a user-centric approach that helps students achieve their goals as quickly as possible. With learning experience design, you can create a unique experience with social engagement, multimedia, and hands-on learning that keeps students coming back.

  1. How to overcome lack of previous knowledge barrier

Be clear on the level of knowledge students need to have in the subject matter before enrolling for your course. That way, students are clear on what they need to know to be able to understand the course content. 

You can add a quick “best for” description to your course page to guide pre-enrollers — like Kristina Azarenko, founder of Marketing Syrup Academy, does. 

Or you can go all-in and provide a detailed breakdown of what students need to know to be successful in the course, plus the topics that won’t be covered. Amanda Natividad, VP of Marketing at SparkToro, does this well in her Content Marketing 201 course

In addition, design your course with a learning path in mind, and use learning sequences. With learning sequence, you are essentially designing your courses in reverse order. So, you’re starting with your end goal and mapping out the pre-requisite concepts your students need to become familiar with to achieve that objective.

However, you can only do so much as a course creator. Your students must put in the work to bridge any knowledge gaps and bring themselves up to speed on the course material. 

Take Kat Norton, for example. She didn’t have any statistics knowledge when she enrolled for a Data Analytics major. But she dedicated 110% to learning the basics, especially how to create Excel Spreadsheets. That knowledge helped her finish top of her class and eventually build a six-figure creator-educator career as Miss Excel.

  1. How to optimize your course for different learning styles 

There is no universal way of teaching that appeals to every single student. Some learn more easily with visual cues, whereas others respond better to symbols, auditory repetition, or music.

That’s why you need to build content for different learning styles. Not sure how to pull this off? Check out Adam Enfroy’s Thinkific Academy course. Each module includes text summaries and overviews, recorded videos, and a workbook for students to put their learning into action. Consider including whiteboard presentations and slides to illustrate important concepts so it’s easier for your students to understand them. 

Also, break down your course into bite-sized modules to prevent information overload. Instead of having a two-hour course, break it down into six 20-minute-long videos. It’s easier for your students that way. 

On average, students cannot hold more than seven bits of new information in their working memory at a time — so keep this in mind as you design your course content. 

Related: How to design your course visually and structurally

  1. How to overcome emotional barriers to learning

Having a postive attitude to learning can help students overcome any emotional barriers like fear of failure and imposter syndrome. Encourage your students to: 

  • Embrace failures and setbacks: Flunked an assessment? Don’t dwell on it. Instead, see it as an opportunity to deepen your knowledge in the subject and try again. Learn, grow and try again.

Course creators can quickly win over uneasy learners by rewarding their efforts through    gamification capabilities or completion certificates that celebrate their success.

  • Practice positive affirmations: Use positive affirmations to challenge and replace negative self-talk. Repeat affirmations like “I am capable,” and “I can handle challenges” to rewire your thinking.
  • Embrace self-compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer a friend. Don’t be too hard on yourself when things go wrong, and remember that it’s okay to make mistakes.

Here’s how Kiaundra Jackson encourages students and creators in her community to overcome emotional issues and develop a positive mindset. 

“If you’re an expert in something—either from schooling or personal experience—I believe that you already have everything you need inside of you,” Jackson adds. “The world is just waiting for you to share your knowledge, expertise, and lived experience in a way that’s digestible for others.”

  1. How to optimize the learning experience

When it comes to learning, oftentimes, the experience outweighs the content itself. For example, listening to an instructor with limited interaction will not be the right experience for you if you’re a hands-on learner. The same applies to the information itself – highly complex topics are better communicated through dynamic visuals than text-based materials.

As a result, learning barriers can quickly come up if the overall experience doesn’t meet the students’ needs.

How to optimize this: apply learning experience design to your online courses. Learning experience design combines the concepts of instructional design and user experience design to create a user-centric approach that helps students achieve their goals as quickly as possible. With learning experience design, you can create a unique experience with social engagement, multimedia, and hands-on learning that keeps students coming back.

Pro tip: It also helps to brush up on cognitive load theory to understand how things like dense content, bulky packaging, and lazy processing can impact your students’ learning experiences. 

Let your students guide your online course creation process

When starting your online course development, it is essential to start by understanding your most important audience – the students themselves. Knowing who they are, how they learn best, and what they need to excel will help you break down common barriers to learning and create a memorable learning experience for everyone. 

Barriers to learning FAQs

Find answers to frequently asked questions about online learning barriers. 

  1. What are the common barriers to online learning?

Poor internet connection, online and offline distractions and lack of motivation are some of the barriers affecting how well people learn online. 

  1. How can teachers support students to overcome online learning barriers?

Find out what challenges your students are facing with online learning and work with them to solve it. Say they’re struggling with commiting to timelines; set up an accountable system for tracking their activities and nudging them to complete assignments on time. 

  1. Are there specific resources available to help overcome online learning barriers?

Thinkific shares lots of online learning resources to help you overcome learning barriers and enjoy the best experience with your online courses. Check out our blog for free and helpful online learning content. 

  1. What are the main barriers to learning?

Extrinsic factors like socioeconomic environment and intrinsic barriers like lack of motivation and cognitive limitations are the main barriers affect learning inside and outside of the classroom.

This blog was originally published in July 2021, it has since been updated in November 2023.