Primary Sources: Making Sex Ed Lessons Stick

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Photograph of smiling and interested young people.

Classroom Goal Structures and HIV and Pregnancy Prevention Education in Rural High School Health Classrooms” (abstract). Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(4), 904–922 (December 2011).

What it’s about: Researchers surveyed 5,000 rural high school students to find out what kind of classroom environment helps students learn more about sexual health and then put that learning to use. Should teachers stress the material’s importance or emphasize getting good grades? Students answered the survey before the class began and then three months and one year after the class ended.

Why read it: We know there are a number of good curricula for teaching teens about sexual health. We also know that students do better in traditional subjects like English, math and science when teachers emphasize learning for learning’s sake. This study looks into whether that philosophy matters when it comes to health studies classes.

Biggest takeaways for youth workers: Learning for learning’s sake does indeed help young people master sexual health topics and retain their knowledge for a longer period of time, the researchers say. Students who thought their teacher emphasized the importance of what they were learning were more likely to say they knew how to use a condom and how to say no to sex, even a year after the class, compared to students who thought grades were stressed.

Young people who thought their teacher really wanted them to know the material also reported more positive attitudes about waiting to have sex and better communication with their parents. Fewer of them intended to have sex. Again, the effects remained a year after the class was over.

The key takeaway for teachers, the authors say, is to convey that they support students’ learning and truly want students to understand the material.

Additional reference: ANSWER, at Rutgers University, offers online and in-person training for sexual health educators.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of these and other publications.)

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