Seven recommendations for supporting adolescent learners

By Heather King - November 2013


Anderman, E. M., Sinatra, G. M., & Gray, D. L. (2012). The challenges of teaching and learning about science in the twenty-first century: Exploring the abilities and constraints of adolescent learners. Studies in Science Education, 48(1), 89–117.

Research brief 

Science learning involves the coordination of a complex set of cognitive, affective, and motivational strategies and skills. Adolescents—defined as those in their second decade of life—are arguably more able to engage with complex and abstract concepts than are younger children. But they still need appropriate facilitation and learning environments in order to fully develop their abilities. Moreover, as prior reports have noted (NRC, 2007), the degree of cognitive development varies immensely among children of the same chronological age. In this paper, Anderman and colleagues discuss the skills adolescents need in order to learn science effectively.

To facilitate learning, educators need to understand how adolescents acquire and integrate scientific knowledge and how they overcome unsupported beliefs about scientific processes. Instructors also need to help youth to:

The NRC Board on Science Education (NRC, 2010) has identified five critical skills for adolescent scientific literacy: adaptability, complex communication/social skills, non-routine problem-solving skills, self-management/self-development, and systems thinking. The nature of these skills is largely self-evident, but some require a little explanation. Adaptability refers to the ability to consider alternative explanations, activate and use prior knowledge, and recognise the need to change one’s thinking. Systems thinking is the ability to identify emerging events and integrate information.

So how do educators create science learning environments that support the emergence of adolescents’ cognitive abilities? Anderman and colleagues make seven recommendations:

  1. Foster productive learning environments. 
    • Organise students in cooperative social groups. Give them flexibility in choosing what roles they play in the group.
  2. Promote active engagement by connecting content to students’ personal interests and goals. 
    • Individuals are more likely to engage deeply with content that they find personally relevant and that supports their identity formation. This identification is particularly important for young women and members of minority groups, who are less likely to see themselves in science roles.
  3. Develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to cultivate science literacy and to support young people in making science career choices. 
    • Support young people to acquire the skills of research (beyond “googling”), of critical reflection and presentation, and of self-regulation.
  4. Capitalise on progress in learning by revisiting earlier content in greater detail. 
    • Review content learned in one class in subsequent classes in order to support systemic and higher-order thinking.
  5. Promote inquiry and problem-based learning approaches to science instruction. 
    • The benefits of an inquiry approach have been well documented, but this recommendation reminds us of the need to support adolescent reasoning and systematic thinking.
  6. Use assessments that focus on higher-order learning. 
    • Incorporate formative assessments that encourage critical thinking and reasoning, in contrast to an emphasis on grades.
  7. Provide professional development for secondary science in-service and pre-service teachers that includes discussion of adolescent development and motivation.

Implications for Practice 

The recommendations outlined above apply both to formal school contexts and to learning and teaching in out-of-school settings. Some may be more easily achieved than others. For example, creating environments that foster cooperation and allow flexibility can be accomplished at the local level, but reducing the emphasis on final grades requires system-wide change.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of enacting the recommendations, the paper reminds us that adolescents are at a critical stage in their intellectual and emotional development. They need particular support. Simply because of their physical age—and often regardless of their emotional development—adolescents are obliged to make life-shaping decisions about which courses to take and which career paths to follow. Using educational research to guide our work with young learners will better prepare science educators in all contexts to help adolescents develop the abilities and skills they will need in the future.

Many adults also have difficulty with the skills required to attain scientific literacy, especially systems thinking and adaptability. The recommendations here are thus relevant to informal science educators who work with adults as well as with adolescents.