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Supporting and Motivating Adolescent Thinking and Learning

by Dr. Beamon


Understanding the adolescent as learner ultimately means understanding how and under what conditions learning best occurs (Lambert and McCombs 1998). Learning is believed to be a natural, ongoing, and active process of constructing meaning from information and experience. It is an intuitive and universal human capacity that enables, from an early age, the mastery of symbolic systems such as language, music, and mathematics (Gardner 1991). Learning is an internally mediated process that is controlled primarily by the learner and is affected by his or her motivation, perceptions, skills, and knowledge. Learning is an intellectual process highly influenced by social interaction and situational context, in addition to personal beliefs, dispositions, and emotions (see Figure 1.1).

The Adolescent Perspective diagram

For adolescent learning to occur, a few things generally happen. First, adolescents are able to connect what they are trying to learn with what they already know, understand, or have personally experienced. Secondly, they are favorably inclined, or motivated, to put forth the necessary effort and time. Adolescent learning, however, is not merely about building on prior knowledge, getting students excited about a topic, reassuring them that they are capable of the work, or keeping them on-task (Perkins 1992; Sizer 1996). Adolescent learning involves interactive, purposeful, and meaningful engagement. It happens best under the following circumstances:

  • Adolescents "do something" that makes sense in a larger context, such as confronting real-life issues and problems. For example, the complexity of citizens' rights is better understood when students follow legislative debates over gun control and discuss continuing problems of school violence.
  • Their personal initiative and energy are moved into action through meaningful involvement with relevant and current content. For example, health issues take on new meaning when students conduct a research awareness campaign on the life-threatening impact of cigarette smoking and discuss the ethics of juvenile-targeted advertisement.
  • Their cognitive and affective capabilities are challenged, such as when connections are made between difficult content and its application to personal experiences. For example, physics gains relevance when adolescents observe the movement of playground equipment at the neighborhood park.
  • They can draw upon a variety of resources in the learning environment, including personal experience, the local community, and the Internet. For example, the principles of economics become less mysterious when classes enter into a collaborative enterprise with an area radio station to record and market a CD.
  • Their knowledge and understanding are substantively broadened or deepened. For example, neuroscience becomes less abstract when students use digital imagery to view the workings of the human brain.

Adolescent learning is a complex endeavor, yet current research is clear about the conditions that support it (APA 1997, Lambert and McCombs 1998; McCombs and Whisler 1997; Resnick 1987; 1991, 1999b). Figure 1.2 provides a summary of several broad premises that facilitate adolescent learning.

Conditions That Support Adolescent Learning list

The current literature on learning and learner-centered practices confirms that many personal, intellectual, and social variables interact within the classroom setting and affect adolescent learning (APA 1997; Bransford et al. 1999; Lambert and McCombs 1998). The broad principles that support an adolescent-centered perspective represent a synthesis of research and theory on teaching and learning (see Figure 1.3).

Adolescent-Centered Teaching diagram


Rachel Kessler (2000) in her book, The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School, described the need for students to feel cared about and connected, to be creative and joyful, to have a sense of purpose, and to believe they can exceed the expectations of others. The personal dimension of adolescent learning encompasses these complex and individualized needs, beliefs, and emotions. Adolescent perceptions about personal ability and effectiveness impact their level of motivation and persistence with new learning tasks. Certain favorable mental "attitudes," such as open-mindedness, tolerance, empathy, and intellectual curiosity, help adolescent thinking to expand and develop at a higher cognitive level. Their learning is enhanced when individual differences are acknowledged, respected, and accommodated; when students are motivated through challenge, relevance, choice, and a sense of accomplishment; and when they feel comfortable to express, create, explore, experiment, take risks, and make mistakes.

Adolescents' social and emotional well-being is closely linked to what they believe about other peoples' perceptions. Adolescents are inclined to be more conscious of the opinions of those around them, especially their peers. Elkind (1981) referred to the tendency to be preoccupied with what others think as the "imaginary audience" phenomenon. Many adolescents believe that in social situations, all attention is focused on them. As a consequence, they may be overly sensitive. They may react emotionally to kidding, for example, and often hold on to personal feelings of anger or embarrassment. Although students become more socially oriented during the period of adolescence, their perspectives remain predominantly "me centered" and limited.

From Teaching With Adolescent Learning in Mind by Glenda Ward Beamon. ©2001 SkyLight Training and Publishing Inc. Reprinted by permission of SkyLight Professional Development.