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Know more, remember more: Overcome barriers to learning

Know more, remember more: How to overcome barriers to learning

5 min read
  • The science of learning

As educators, we aim to equip our students with knowledge and skills for personal and academic development. But this task can be very challenging.

Studies have revealed that teaching a piece of information to students does not guarantee that they will actually learn it – that is, integrate it into their knowledge and retain it in their memory. This means that we need to find ways to minimise the greatest learning barriers to ultimately ensure that our students can know more and remember more.

Here’s what we mean…

What are the greatest barriers to learning?

There are many factors that negatively affect a student’s ability to learn and retain information. However, some of the most common obstacles include:

Cognitive overload 

Cognitive Load Theory states that giving students too much information to process at once can overload their working memory. This can slow down and even stop their learning as it negatively impacts the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory. 

A famous psychological experiment confirmed the working memory’s limited capacity, showing that when participants were presented with a series of numbers one at a time on a screen, they could only accurately recall a sequence of 7 +/- 2 items. Even worse: more recent research suggests that this number may be even lower.

Lack of motivation

It is no surprise that a lack of motivation is one of the biggest obstacles to learning. When students lack motivation, they may struggle to engage in academic activities and pay attention in class. This can make it difficult for them to absorb and retain new information in their memory. 

Without a strong desire to learn, students may also fail to ask questions or actively seek help when encountering challenges, further impeding their progress and resulting in poor academic performance.

Poor study habits 

When learning, students often opt for learning strategies that require less effort. The path of least resistance leads them to settle for ineffective revision strategies. A recent study reported that 55% of students use re-reading their notes as their number one revision technique, despite numerous studies proving that it does not aid learning or retention.

Students also often choose to do their homework and revision while listening to music. Whilst many students insist that listening to their favourite songs helps them study, research has found that students who revise listening to music that had lyrics perform 60% worse than their peers who don’t. This is because it offers a distraction that compromises their ability to focus on the material they need to learn and remember. 

Help your staff understand how their students’ memory works, and how to adapt their teaching strategies to it.

How to overcome the key barriers to learning

Now that we have identified the most prominent obstacles to learning, we can find ways to target them directly to ensure that our students succeed academically and beyond. With that said, the following strategies have been proven effective in helping you achieve this…

Break down long tasks with shorter deadlines 

When a task takes too long to complete, students may feel overwhelmed and unsure of where to start or how to tackle the task. This may result in cognitive overload, hindering the learning process.

If a task is going to take a long time to complete, it can be very useful to break it down into shorter deadlines. Setting smaller goals is a great way to ensure that students have a clearer direction and don’t get overwhelmed.

As an added benefit, setting frequent but small deadlines has been found to help students manage their time and energy over the course of the academic year. This makes them less likely to cram their work at the last minute, which in turn helps them improve their grades. 

Be explicit about what helps your students’ learning 

One reason students use ineffective study strategies is that they require less effort. Another is that they are unaware of the most effective ways to study. For example, research has shown that students tend to overestimate the effectiveness of re-reading while underestimating the value of Retrieval Practice for long-term learning and retention. 

To help your students succeed academically, it’s crucial to educate them on what study strategies are the most effective. Introducing consistently proven techniques such as Retrieval PracticeSpacing and Elaborative Interrogation is a great starting point. However, teaching them how to integrate these strategies into their studies is also essential. Our guide to effective study skills can help. 

You should also inform your students about the distracting effects of listening to music while studying. Ultimately, they are responsible for their own approach to learning, but providing them with accurate information and guidance enables them to make better decisions for their studies.

Motivate your students using Self-Determination Theory 

Self-Determination Theory argues that motivation is derived from a sense of autonomy, competence, and belonging. This means that boosting these three components in your students will increase their motivation to learn. Here are three strategies that can help you do this:

  • Build in success – One of Rosenshine’s Principle of Instruction emphasises the importance of a high success rate to enhance student self-efficacy. Being able to refer to a bank of previous positive outcomes can boost students’ confidence and motivation, particularly when struggling with a task. This positive reinforcement helps to improve their self-perception of competency levels.
  • Encourage a sense of belonging – It may be a good idea to try and strengthen the relationship between your students through team-building activities such as group projects and collaborative learning activities. This helps foster a sense of community within the classroom, allowing students to find a sense of belonging.
  • Give students (some) choices – Consider giving students choices within their learning journey. You can do this in many ways, such as letting them choose their own topics for assignments or giving them options for how they demonstrate their understanding of a concept. However, make sure you don’t give them too much autonomy, as we know they aren’t great predictors of what helps them learn best. 

Final thoughts

Learning is a complex process that can be influenced by a range of factors, including motivation, cognition, study strategies and learning environment. Fortunately, advances in educational psychology have led to the development of effective strategies to help students overcome the key barriers to learning. By implementing the tips discussed above, you can help your students to know more and remember more in the long run. 


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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