Human sexuality: knowledge or skills based?

On Tuesday I wrote about my community college students and their developing understanding of rape and how to prevent it.  I ended with this:

I am sure that this class changed how many of the students think about sexuality – they’ve told me as much themselves.  But I’m not as sure that it has influenced their choices or actions to nearly the same degree.  And this is always the ultimate challenge for a teacher: How to influence not only the in-class response, but also the out-of-class actions and thought processes?  This is, of course, a particularly fascinating and poignant dilemma for a sex education teacher.

And I’m still ruminating about it. There are a number of issues here, including the goal of a community college class in human sexuality, the appropriateness of a variety of educational techniques in human sexuality, and essentially how to change human behavior.

I have realized this semester that human sexuality class was attempting to reach two goals: (1) to provide the students with an academic understanding of the dynamics in play in human sexuality and (2) to provide the students with tools and skills to enhance their personal and social sexual activities and decision making.  My students were (mostly) far more interested in the second goal, and so the class tended to drift in that direction.  But finding a way to evaluate and assess students on those criteria is incredibly tricky, so I ended up assessing the students on primarily the first goal.

This question goes beyond the borders of this specific class.  Should we teach sex ed more like we teach a standard Algebra I class, or should we teach it more like a Ballet class?  Is it primarily knowledge or primarily skills we are focusing on?  Of course the answer is that it is a mix of the two.  But where is the focus?  What, exactly, are our goals?

Once we have clarified the goals of a sex ed class, I want to move on to educational techniques.  In my off-campus classes for teenagers and parents, I utilize a lot of role playing, art, and other non-standard educational techniques that make the class more fun and less information-based.  But I find them highly useful for improving skills.  In the typical human sexuality on-campus classroom, however, there is often more reliance on PowerPoint, lecture, and remaining one step removed from the content even when discussing issues like communication skills.  This makes the class more information-based and less skills-based.  But is it appropriate to have the students in a college classroom bring as much of themselves into the class as role-playing does?  Or is it appropriate to project a list of ways to prevent rape onto a screen and talk about them one-by-one?  These activities seem too personal and too cold by turns.

And now to my essential issue: All education is about changing or influencing the students’ actions or thought process.  Human sexuality is no different.  So what is the best way, where is the balance between too close and too much distance that will allow the students to grow as much as they are able to in a given 16-week class?

I’ll be grappling with all of these questions over the next month or so as I revise and revisit my human sexuality syllabus for next semester, and I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and reactions, so send me your comments!  I am waiting with baited breath for your fabulous input!

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. Having recently become aware of “Sex Signals” as an education tool for college and military settings, your post is interesting. Sex Signals is an improv, humerous approach to teaching about date rape and sexual harrassment on the job. It seems to be effective. Could some approach like this be used appropriately in a class setting as well as a one time presentation? I don’t know, but if anyone could do it, I bet you could. Good luck in your revision work.

  2. Most current educational theory says that most adults as well as children learn best when active teaching strategies are used.

  3. Lone Star Ma – Agreed, but there’s much more to it than that. Often active teaching strategies encourage people to really dig in and do what’s being learned. That’s great when you’re learning about math by using a subway system as a number line, but how appropriate is it in a college sex ed class?

  4. There would definitely have to be some limits(:

  5. I’m inclined towards the need to teach skills. Sometime ago, I would have tilted towards knowledge instead. But I think I’ve gotten tired of watching knowledge put to so little use that it fails to change outcomes. So maybe a good compromise is to focus on teaching skills, but with enough knowledge as background that the students can universalize their skills and apply them to new situations?

    Excellent post, by the way.

  6. I think I agree with you here, Paul. And thanks!

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