The social environment of a classroom can significantly impact a student’s attendance and participation, and their overall learning from peers, lecture, class activities, and course material.

Below, we identify some common social barriers:

  • Classroom Attendance;
  • Classroom Participation;
  • Fitting In and Belonging; and
  • Equity and Inclusion.

Strategies for mediating these barriers to enhance accessibility and inclusion follow in the next section.

Classroom Attendance Disabled students in particular, but non-disabled students as well, can face many barriers to class attendance and to effectively learning in a classroom environment.


Some examples include:

  • Difficulty concentrating or staying alert/awake due to pain, sleep issues, sedative medications, trauma, fatigue, or nervousness;
  • Struggling to cognitively follow the speed or structure of lectures; and
  • Barriers related to the physical classroom environment, as discussed above, that impact a student’s ability to access, negotiate, and/or effectively learn in the classroom.
Classroom Participation Disabled students and students from other equity-seeking groups can experience great difficulty navigating high-stakes and high-pressure social environments like a classroom.


They may be:

  • Nervous about speaking in public;
  • Worry over how peers will respond to what they say;
  • Experience discomfort with disclosing personal information; or
  • Struggle with confidence.

This can result in discouraged and decreased participation, and, for some students, decreased attendance as well (McMaster Students Union, 2014; Paul, 2015; Price, 2011).


Other students may experience barriers in regulating their participation or ensuring the way they participate fits the academic conventions expected in the classroom.

These struggles may manifest as “talking too much” or sharing ideas that are seen to be “off topic” (Price, 2011).

Continue Your Learning Icon

Continue Your Learning

  • Listen to students with disabilities in this film clip as they discuss barriers that get in the way of classroom attendance and participation.

  • Read Timile Brown’s (2008) story of undergraduate life with depression, including the impact this had on her participation in class.



Fitting In and Belonging Disabled and non-traditional students find fitting in and integrating into postsecondary life difficult, which has been found to negatively impact their sense of belonging and academic performance (Paul, 2015).


According to the Pan-Canadian Study of First Year College Students:

  • 25% of disabled students found it difficult to make friends with their student peers (compared to 16% of non-disabled peers); and


This is especially important to keep in mind when incorporating class activities like group work or peer feedback, where some students may feel less similar or like a peer to their classmates than others.

Equity and Inclusion Particular forms of inequity and exclusion can enter our classrooms through our course material and lecture content, as explored in Module 4. Exclusion can also occur during class discussions.


For example:

  • Overt and covert forms of ableism, ageism, classism, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, or other forms of oppression, which may appear as slurs or exclusionary jargon, idioms or metaphors;
  • Discussions of Canada that ignore the history of First Nations and Indigenous people, or that privilege a Eurocentric worldview that marginalizes the experiences of those who do not share or are not included in this perspective;
  • Conversations that expect students or students’ parents to have access to financial resources; and
  • Singling out a student to speak on behalf of their perceived social group (e.g. a student with a visible disability asked to speak on behalf of disabled people, or a visibly-identified Muslim student asked to speak for all Muslims).



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Forward with FLEXibility Copyright © 2017 by McMaster University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book