Sex-Ed Classes Should Stress Subject Matter, Not Tests
Sperm swim toward an egg, a potential aftermath of teen sex. Surveys of teens reveal that sex education is more effective when teachers emphasize the importance of the material, not the tests.
Credit: stockxpert

Teachers who want to prepare students for sexual encounters in the real world may want to ditch the tests in their health classes.

New research finds emphasizing tests in high-school sex-education classes leaves students more poorly prepared to handle sexual situations than peers in classes that emphasize the importance of the material to teens' lives.

For example, the student surveys showed that respondents in the test-focused classes reported they felt less prepared to refuse unwanted sexual advances after they took the class than they had beforehand. Meanwhile, students in mastery-focused classes, where teachers emphasized the importance of the material for its own sake, said they felt better able to refuse sex after taking the course.

The students in the mastery-focused classes appeared better off than the others on a variety of measures, including their desire to wait to have sex, communication with parents about sex and knowledge about sex-related health issues. [Which States Mandate Sex Ed?]

"A focus on tests doesn't help students in health classes make healthier choices," said Eric Anderman, lead researcher and professor of educational psychology at Ohio State University. "In health education, knowledge is not the most important outcome. What we really want to do is change behaviors, and testing is not the way to achieve that."

Anderman and colleagues compared the responses from students who had enrolled in health classes they described as test-focused or extrinsically focused with those who said their health teachers encouraged them to understand the material because of its importance to their lives. 

The study, which will appear in the December 2011 issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence, is part of a five-year project studying HIV and pregnancy prevention in rural communities in Appalachia. As part of this, researchers from Ohio State, the University of Kentucky and George Mason University are collecting data from more than 5,000 students in 32 Appalachian high schools.

For the health-class study, ninth-grade students were surveyed before taking a health class, then again four weeks and six weeks after their class had ended, and then about a year later, at the end of 10th grade.

The researchers compared the responses from students who said their teachers had encouraged them to learn the material in order to prepare for a test, or if their teachers encouraged them to learn it because of its importance to their lives.

Tests cause students to focus on how they can get a good grade, not on the importance of the information taught, according to Anderman.

"Ideally, in the perfect world, I would say students shouldn't be tested in health classes. Tests are important in a lot of areas, but health is not one of them," he said.

You can follow LiveSciencesenior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.