Educational psychology and sex ed

My Ph.D. is in Educational Psychology.  My time in graduate school was relatively evenly split between researching, reading, and talking about (1) how teenagers grow and develop, particularly around issues of sex and sexuality, and (2) how people learn, and how to support their learning in the most effective ways possible.  This prepared me pretty well to be a sexuality educator.

One of the parents in one of my middle school sex ed classes recently commented on a post from last week.  The parent points out that one of my students left class with a mis-informed understanding of HIV/AIDS.  Going back over the class in my mind, I can pin-point almost exactly how and when this student (who remains anonymous in the comment, but I know who it is) integrated the mis-information into his/her cognitive structures.

(This sort of thing is fascinating to me!  I guess I’m just a learning geek.)

Here’s what happened:

We were talking about STDs.  The students brainstormed all the STDs they could think of, and I wrote them on our make-shift board as they brainstormed.  They each had an empty grid to fill out along with me.  After naming the STDs, we went through each one, listing the symptoms (far too often there are none!), the permanent damage that can be done to the body if left untreated, whether there is a cure or not, and how it is contracted (oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, and whether condoms prevent the transmission or not).

Now, when looking at how people learn, it is clear that students need to think concretely about their mental models of ideas and concepts (i.e., name their ideas or list them out) before they are able to hear the correct information and change their mental models.  If a student holds an incorrect mental model, but hasn’t acknowledged that model clearly, hearing or reading correct information generally just distorts their mental models even more, rather than correcting them.  However, if they are clearly aware of what their ideas are, when they are presented with the correct information, they are far more likely to actually change that incorrect model to the correct one.

This reality of best practices education, combined with the realities of a classroom where students tune in and out while they take notes, get distracted by another student, get a drink of water, and otherwise put their attention in so many other places (which is just a reality of learning – no person can keep their attention steady for an hour or more!), means that one student can hear another student say incorrect information when they brainstorming their initial understanding, and then miss the instructor’s correction.  This is what happened the other day with this particular student’s understanding of HIV/AIDS.

And this clear misunderstanding on the part of this one student is why it is critical that classrooms go over material more than once.  And it is also why, with a topic as critical to the healthy physical and emotional development of the human being as sex education is, students need to take more than one class.  Sex education needs to be done over and over again, and within each class, the really important information needs to be repeated over and over again.  This does not mean that the classes are being done poorly, or that students are not paying attention, rather it is the appropriate and necessary educational response to how people learn.

I will be going over HIV/AIDS again – with some good interaction, activities, movement, and anything else I feel will support the knowledge – next class.  I expect the students to learn more this time, but not to take in everything I give them.  This is simply the reality of the teacher.

Because of this reality, I encourage parents to have their kids in an intense year-long sex education program in middle school and then again in high school.  They can either provide this education themselves (along with on-going, continuous conversation before, between, and after the classes!), or they can make sure their children get the classes somewhere else (again, along side continuous conversation at home).  Sex education is just too important to do anything less.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. Fascinating.

    Do you ever find students unwilling (or unable) to articulate a mental model that they know or fear may be flawed?

    How do you know, in your classes, if you students have successfully been able to change to a correct mental model? Tests? Discussion and exercises?

  2. Yes, there are certainly students who are hesitant (or unable) to articulate a mental model. In my sex education classes, the first step to over coming this particular issue is to make the class environment particularly accepting, open, and supportive. My students of all ages enter my classroom hesitant. I offer an anonymous question jar, which is often heavily used. (Middle school students tend to continue to use it or grow more fond of it over time while older students dispense with it and just ask the questions aloud in class.) We talk on the first day about how to be supportive of their classmates (my middle and high school students sign a contract), and then over the course of the class I remind them as necessary to not interrupt, to be kind with their words, to listen to the differences between them and the other students, and to respond honestly.

    However, even with making the classroom an accepting environment to discuss a difficult topic, it is still sometimes really, really hard to help someone change their mental models. When I am teaching educational psychology to teachers or teachers-to-be, I like to show them this video (you can watch it for free). It’s about high school students’ understanding of the solar system and the reasons we have seasons (because of the earth’s tilt, not because we are any closer or further away from the sun). They ask the students for their mental models about the reason we have seasons, they show the teacher giving a lesson with the correct information, and they show the students with the exact same misconceptions. It took a particular kind of one-on-one breaking down of the concept for the students to begin to understand that their initial ideas were wrong.

    This paradigm is present in all educational contexts, not just about the seasons.

    However, making all of this even more complicated, the students in the video have misconceptions that might not have been immediately obvious on a test. The student that is shown the most probably could have gotten through on a multiple choice, and maybe even a short answer, test just fine because her misunderstanding was nuanced. To bring this home, for example, if I had asked ParentX’s student to describe the initial evidence of HIV infection, he probably could have given a fine description. If I had asked what kind of long-term complications are associated with AIDS, he could have written “death” and been correct (although I would have taken points off for lack of elaboration or evidence of clear understanding, he wouldn’t have gotten it wrong, and so probably would not have correct his misunderstanding).

    This is all to say that really good tests are hard to write. There is just so much content that is covered in a classroom and in textbooks that it is literally impossible to test everything that is important. (This mirrors the arguments around standardized testing directly, but I’ll restrain myself from going into that here!)

    Really good classroom activities can often provide a more nuanced understanding of a student’s knowledge and mental models, but are often time consuming when there is more new material that needs to be presented rather than doing activities around older material. In my not-for-credit classes I generally do not give tests, but rely on discussions and activities and exercises that the students enjoy participating in (because if they’re not learning and enjoying themselves, I have completely lost them!). In my for-credit classes I am generally required to give tests, although I would prefer to run them more like my not-for-credit classes.

    I could go on at some length about these issues (and I do in my educational psychology classes!), because cognition and effective curriculum is really my second love after sex ed. Writing sex ed curriculum is fabulously fun stuff, coupling the nuances of how people learn with the critical information and skills that high quality sex education needs to provide.

  3. I trust that Karen fully understands that I was in no way intending to malign her teaching, but that my child’s misunderstanding was a result of that child’s brain functions. This was neither good nor bad, just ineffective in this case.

    The next morning my child spoke to my spouse about this, which tells me it is in some way meaningful. But, the funny thing was that the new interpretation of the information was not quite right either. I have yet to re-address this, but knowing that Karen will, I think I’ll hold off.

    This talking with our kids in an open, honest and intelligent way is FUN!

  4. This is a wonderful discussion, relevant to training and workshops that I give to adults. I appreciate the topic, Karen! I am close to joining the ASTD, the american Society for Training and Development, to help me with these issues. I’m not up to a Ph.D, but I’m up to learning more about this, so I can be more effective.

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