Barriers to Study

When studying any subject, there are three kinds of barriers that can make learning difficult. By understanding how to recognize and handle these barriers it’s much easier to grasp what one is studying.

Below are brief descriptions and examples of these barriers.

Lack of Mass

‘Mass’ here means the physical object being studied. When a person studies a subject, they need access to the physical object in order to fully grasp that subject and how to apply what they learn.


If a person is studying to be a hair stylist, they need heads of hair to look at and practice on.

You can tell a person how to surf, but to really learn they need to get out and experience the physical sensation of the surfboard, the waves, and the wind.

What if you are studying something that you can’t easily get a hold of? Then you may need to get creative and find some kind of substitute or representation. You might looks at pictures or videos of the thing. Or you could find stories or analogies that give a better idea of the thing you’re studying.


A doctor or a physical therapist need to understand the human body and its parts, including muscles, organs, and other internal workings. Since it’s not usually very practical to see the inside of a person, there are lots of other ways to get mass. They could look in textbooks that have illustrations of different body parts. They could look at a human skeleton, which is often in anatomy classrooms. They can watch videos of surgeries. Many schools have man-made models of hearts and musculature and organs. At some point, they may dissect cadavers. All of this helps them to prepare for the real thing.

When someone goes to law school, they need to understand law. But a law isn’t a physical thing to go look at. Laws are ideas. In this case, a person could remedy their lack of mass by learning about examples of laws. Reading that a law is a rule made by a society in order to preserve human relations and protect individuals’ life and property might feel vague. But getting some examples of laws can improve one’s understanding. The professor could teach examples of codes of law like Hammurabi’s Code. In this case, the code of law is the mass. Another way a person could get mass on law would be to go to a courtroom and watch law in action.

Children need lots of mass to grasp things they are taught because they don’t have a lot of life experience. Throughout history, we have used stories to teach students valuable life lessons. The stories can act as a kind of mass to help kids wrap their heads around big ideas. Aesop’s Fables and fairy tales (e.g. Red Riding Hood teaching that it can be bad to talk to disobey your parents or talk to strangers) give substance to abstract ideas.




Too Steep a Gradient, or a Skipped Gradient

This barrier occurs when you move forward to the next step without grasping the previous step(s). Some things need to be learned in order. A skipped gradient especially applies things you do.


Roddy is taking karate. Even though his teacher gave him his yellow belt, Roddy isn’t quite comfortable and fluid with those skills yet. Now, as he tries to learn green belt skills, he’s having a tough time and just isn’t able to perform the new motions very well. He needs to go back to where he last felt secure in his knowledge and ability and come forward. He will discover there was something at the end of his blue belt training or beginning of his yellow belt training he didn’t have quite right.

Helena is studying Italian. Her first semester went really well and she was able to have some small basic conversations. But in her second semester, she got stuck. By going back to right before she started having trouble she discovers that she lost track of things when working on verb conjugations. She needs to go back and practice those conjugations until she they come natural to her. Then she’ll be able to move forward again.




Misunderstood Word

This is the most important barrier to be aware of because it can cause the most trouble for a student. When a student misses understanding a word, it can wreak havoc in their understanding of the whole subject.


Blair is learning French. When the teacher starts talking about verb conjugation, Blair gets completely lost. Because she doesn’t know the word ‘conjugation,’ and because Blair plays a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, her mind goes to ‘conjure’ and ‘conjuring.’ Now Blair is thinking the teacher is talking about some sort of verb magic, like conjuring verbs from the air or something. Obviously, Blair’s going to have a hard time if she doesn’t get that cleared up.




Each barrier can cause reactions in the student. Knowing these reactions can help you determine which of the barriers to study you need to address.

It is possible to have reactions from more than one barrier to study at a time.

Below are brief descriptions of these reactions and remedies for each barrier.

Lack of Mass Reactions & Remedies

A person with lacking mass in the subject they are studying could feel any of the below reactions. They could have more than one reaction, and they can vary in intensity.

A person could feel:

Funny Feeling Stomach


Get the student some physical mass of the thing(s) they are studying. Let the student examine the object, practice doing things with it, and become familiar with it. If you can’t get the actual thing, you may have to find substitutions of some kind. You can apply as many of the remedies as you need help the student get on track:


Look at the Thing Itself
Look at Pictures of the Thing
Watch Videos
Draw a Picture
Demonstrate the Thing with Small Objects
Use Clay to Demonstrate the Thing
For Abstract Ideas, Find Examples of the Thing (for example Aesop’s Fables give examples of morals)
Go to a Place Where the Thing Exists or is Being Used
Find a Model of the Thing





Too Steep a Gradient, or a Skipped Gradient | Reactions and Remedies

A skipped gradient relates to DOING things. The student thought he knew how to do what he was doing and went on to the next step and then started having trouble. He probably won’t realize that’s the case so he thinks his problems are coming from the new thing he’s trying to understand. So he gets stuck.

Unable to DO
Feeling Nothing is Stable


Return the student to where they were last doing well. You will find something at the end of where things last seemed good that the student doesn’t know how to DO. Remember, this barrier relates to the ability to do something.

When learning a skill there are layers of skills that are dependent upon one another in order to be able to do something.

Let’s take an example. If Josephine is learning to play the flute, there are a lot of things for her to learn to DO. She has an assignment to play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ but she’s feeling really confused and can’t do it. It’s time to play detective and find out what skills she is missing or didn’t learn well enough.

Does Josephine know how to hold her flute. Maybe she’s not closing the keys all the way so sound doesn’t come out properly. Or maybe she isn’t able to count out the rhythm. Or maybe she doesn’t have her mouth in the right shape and position to blow air into the instrument.

Ideally you would ask her, “Josephine, where were you last doing well playing the flute?” She could consider it and then tell you the first few weeks of class went fine. So you dig in and find out what she was learning then. You’ll discover there was something she either didn’t learn (maybe it wasn’t even covered in class) or that she didn’t learn how to do well enough. Go back and have her DO the thing she thinks she last did well and you’ll find something about it she actually can’t do. Now you can help her learn to do that thing properly. She should be able to come forward from there successfully.

If she’s still having trouble, look a little earlier to find something else she didn’t quite master. And have her improve that skill.




Misunderstood Word Reactions & Remedies

This third barrier is the most important one. It causes the most trouble for a student and can make him very upset and make him decide to leave the subject altogether. Some of the reactions from going past misunderstood words or symbols are:


Blank feeling
Not-there feeling
Inability to Understand
Sleepiness, may fall asleep while studying
Gets upset toward the subject and things related to it
Decides to quit the subject


Ask the student where they last felt good about the material. Go to the end of where they felt things were good and look for a word or symbol they didn’t understand.

The student may be able to discover the misunderstood word or symbol by looking. But sometimes they are tough to recognize. Or the student may be too upset to determine what they don’t understand.

The student may even have gone past more than one word or symbol they didn’t get. So be prepared to find and clear up as many misunderstoods as you need to.

Once you find a word or symbol the student didn’t understand, it’s time to find a definition that fits. Many words have multiple definitions, so finding the right definition for the material is important. You can use dictionaries, online dictionaries, encyclopedias, special dictionaries that relate to the subject the student is studying, etc.

Most of the time you can find the definition you need in an easy-to-access dictionary. Occasionally you may need to get creative and try other avenues. Some possibilities include asking a librarian for help, consulting an expert in the subject being studied, looking in atlases or other reference books, looking in older versions of dictionaries for definitions you can’t find in current ones, and so on.

Once the student gets their misunderstood words or symbols cleared up, they will brighten up and feel better about the subject and their ability to understand it. Be sure to restudy any materials that contained the words or symbols you cleared up.