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How to Break Down Barriers to Learning With UDL

By Allison Posey, MEd, CAST, Inc.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

When you plan a road trip, you know you might run into detours or roadblocks that get in the way of reaching your destination. Some of those barriers are predictable, like traffic, road work, or bad weather. Knowing and anticipating those barriers can help you plan your trip so you can still get to your destination. 

Classroom lessons are no different. There will be barriers that prevent students from reaching the intended learning goals. Just like with a road trip, some of those barriers are predictable and can be reduced by careful planning and design. Identifying barriers in curricular goals, assessments, methods, and materials will help students gain the skills they need to become expert learners

What Are Barriers to Learning?

Barriers to learning are where students “get stuck” in a lesson or activity. For each student, barriers can differ from subject to subject and from activity to activity. A core tenet of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is to anticipate and address those barriers up front. You can do that by designing flexible lessons and learning environments rather than trying to “fix” or change a student.

Here are some examples of barriers:

  • Not having enough background knowledge or the required skills for a lesson

  • Not knowing the next steps or not receiving feedback about their progress, which can be difficult for many students, especially those who struggle with executive function

  • Not knowing key vocabulary terms, which can be challenging for many students, including  

  • Facing social-emotional challenges or feeling that a lesson isn’t culturally relevant or academically interesting

How Can I Identify and Reduce Barriers?

The first step is to clarify the goal (or the “destination”) of your lesson. If lessons are overpacked with goals, it can be overwhelming to identify all of the barriers. 

So for each part of a lesson, identify the primary goal: What do you really want students to know, do, or care about for that part of the lesson? Then, reflect on the different pathways or options students have to achieve that goal. That flexibility helps reduce barriers and increases meaningful learning opportunities. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where might there be a barrier to students achieving the goal in this lesson? 

  • What is one tool, resource, or strategy I can include in my lesson to help reduce this barrier so that students can achieve the learning goal? 

  • How can I make this strategy available to all students from the start of the lesson?

In addition to these questions, there are three more ways you can identify and reduce barriers in your lessons: reflect on where you need to re-teach; ask students to give you feedback; and proactively identify barriers.

1. Reflect on reteaching.

After a lesson, ask yourself, “When did I need to repeat directions?” “When did I have to show students how to do something I already taught?” or “When was a student not able to be fully included in the lesson?” The answers will help you identify the barrier in your lesson. With the barrier in mind, you can then make plans to reduce that barrier by adding an additional support or scaffold into the learning environment. 

For example, imagine that after you model how to solve a word problem, some students struggle to remember the process for solving this kind of problem. The barrier is that the lesson requires students to process and work with a lot of information at once. To reduce the barrier, you could create a short video highlighting the key steps of the process. Or you could provide a graphic organizer outlining the steps. 

Adding those resources to your lesson and making them available for all students to reference as needed reduces the barrier. Those resources will also help all students develop expert learning skills and make progress. That, in turn, empowers students to better understand what they need to be more independent in their learning. 

2. Ask for feedback.

Whether they know it or not, students are very good at giving feedback about barriers. Think about when students ask, “Do I have to…?” That question often signals that the student is facing a barrier to learning. For example, a student who asks, “Do I have to work with a partner?” is expressing concern that working with a partner is going to get in the way of learning.

Before responding to the question, you can think through whether partner collaboration is an important part of the lesson goal. If it is an important part of the lesson, you might reduce the barrier by suggesting a few sentence starters to foster collaboration between partners. If partner work is not critical to the lesson goal, you could make working with a partner optional. 

You can also use exit tickets to gather student feedback. Ask students where they were frustrated or disengaged during a lesson. Read more from Reading Rockets about how to use and create exit tickets.

Using tools like exit tickets can help you build routines to better understand the experiences your students are having in the classroom. At the same time, these routines can also build students’ self-awareness and self-advocacy skills so they can recognize and address their own barriers.

3. Be proactive.

You can also proactively identify barriers using CAST’s UDL Guidelines. I t’s a powerful tool to help you think about potential barriers to learning before delivering a lesson. With UDL, barriers can be identified in terms of:

  • How does this lesson design spark students’ excitement and curiosity for learning? (recruiting interest)

  • How does this lesson design tackle potential challenges with focus and determination? (effort and persistence) 

  • How does this lesson design harness the power of students’ emotions and motivation in learning? (self-regulation)

  • How are students able to interact with the content in ways that don’t depend on a single sense? (perception)

  • How are students able to participate regardless of their background knowledge or facility with language, text, mathematical notations, or symbols? (language and symbols) 

  • How are students able to construct meaning and generate new understanding of information? (comprehension)

  • How does the lesson have accessible materials and tools for students to interact with? (physical action)

  • How are there multiple ways and tools for students to construct, communicate, and share ideas? (expression and communication)

  • How does the learning environment provide support for students to strategize, plan, and get the most out of the lesson? (executive functions)

Will Reducing Barriers Make Learning Too “Easy”? 

It’s natural to worry that offering strategies or scaffolds could lead students to take the “easy” route. And sometimes, you may want students to grapple with a concept or encounter a productive struggle. Productive struggle is about students experiencing desirable difficulty, like struggling with how to apply a particular problem-solving strategy. (It’s not about being stuck while trying to read the text that explains the strategy.)

So how do you balance these concerns with reducing barriers? Here are some considerations: 

  • A strategy that may be “easy” for one student may not be easy for another.

  • When you set meaningful, challenging goals in lessons, there isn’t an “easy” route. 

  • When you give flexible options and resources, you can deepen classroom discussions about the learning process. Students can build their metacognitive muscles by talking about what worked and what didn’t work in their own learning.

Without scaffolds, students may not gain the foundational skills and tools necessary to develop expert learning. Keep in mind that most scaffolds aren’t meant to be permanent, but are phased out as students build expertise. If students continue to use a scaffold longer than needed, it’s a good chance to encourage them to take a risk and not use the scaffold anymore.

Why Does It Matter?

No lesson will ever be completely barrier-free. Each year and in each lesson, there will be different barriers for different students.

But identifying and reducing those barriers is important. Without flexible tools and resources for all students, gaps in learning outcomes will persist. This is especially true of students who come to lessons without the expected requisite background or skills.

When you reduce barriers and set challenging, meaningful learning goals, you will develop more equitable teaching practices for all students. You will have designed learning to anticipate and value student variability in your class.

To get started with finding and breaking down barriers, print or download a one-page chart that includes the three UDL principles adapted from CAST. The chart includes some questions to consider and examples of the principles in action. Keep the chart on hand when you set out to reduce barriers to learning in your next lesson or activity.

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