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Characteristics of High School Learners
High school learners are qualitatively different than younger learners. You certainly can “teach an old dog new tricks” by understanding the cognitive and social characteristics of high school learners. Using the right instructional strategies to maximize the learning advantages and address the learning challenges of high school learners can make all the difference in their success.
High School Cognitive Development
Most high school students have achieved the formal operational stage, as described by Piaget. These students can think abstractly and need fewer concrete examples to understand complex thought patterns. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:
- Need to understand the purpose and relevance of instructional activities
- Are both internally and externally motivated
- Have self-imposed cognitive barriers due to years of academic failure and lack self-confidence
- May have “shut down” in certain cognitive areas and will need to learn how to learn and overcome these barriers to learning
- Want to establish immediate and long-term personal goals
- Want to assume individual responsibility for learning and progress toward goals
High School Social Development
High school students are experimenting with adult-like relationships. Generally speaking, most students share the following characteristics:
- Interested in co-educational activities
- Desire adult leadership roles and autonomy in planning
- Want adults to assume a chiefly support role in their education
- Developing a community consciousness
- Need opportunities for self-expression
High School Instructional Strategies
To address the special learning needs of students this age, Teaching Reading Strategies uses student goal-setting and record keeping. Students assume responsibility for their own progress monitoring. For example, the high interest animal fluency passages provide opportunities for student record keeping and progress monitoring.
High school students are still concerned about the labeling that takes place, when one is identified as a remedial reader. Labels and stereotypes are both externally imposed (by other students and, sometimes their parents), but are primarily internally imposed (by the students themselves). Years of academic failure, due to lack of reading proficiency, have damaged students’ self-esteem. Many students have lost confidence in their ability to learn. Students have developed coping mechanisms, such as reading survival skills e.g., audio books or peer/parent readers, or behavioral problems, or the “Whatever… I don’t care attitudes” to avoid the tough work of learning how to read well. High school teachers need to be extremely mindful of student self-perceptions. A few talking points may be helpful:
- “Unfortunately, some of your past reading instruction was poor; it’s not your fault that you have some skills to work on.” a.k.a. “blame someone else”
- “You can learn in this class. If you come to class willing to try everyday, you will significantly improve your reading, I promise.”
- “I know you have tried before, but this time is different.”
- “You will be able to chart your own progress and see what you are learning in this class.”
- “Some of my past students were like some of you. For example, ___________ and he passed the high school exit exam after finishing this class. For example, ___________ got caught up to grade level reading and is college right now.” Personal anecdotes provide role models and hope for high school remedial readers. Any former students who have been successful will provide “street credibility” to the teacher and the class.
- “You aren’t in this class forever. As soon as you master your missing skills, you are out.”
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