Faculty Evaluation and Coaching Department
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Working With High School Students in the Arts Experience Program

Part 1: Understanding our high school students

High school students bring a unique set of characteristics to the classroom. Much of this is due to the fact that they are experiencing many physical and psychological changes:

  • Increased hormones
  • peer pressure
  • fitting in
  • anxiety about their increasing responsibilities
  • growing independence from (and conflict with) their family
  • the search for “who they really are”
  • insecurity
  • academic stress

While some students handle these changes well and manage to navigate through high school with

determined focus, many feel overwhelmed, distracted or disengaged. Mark Pennington, educational

author and teacher, states that understanding the cognitive and social characteristics of high school

learners can inform instructors how to best work with them in the classroom. The following

characteristics are taken from his article, Characteristics of High School Learners (11/2/2008).


High school cognitive development

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 a lack of self-confidence or past failures
  • 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


Pennington states that by understanding these characteristics and using the right instructional strategies, instructors can maximize the learning advantages and address the learning challenges of high school learners. This can make all the difference in their success.

Part 2: Strategies for Engaging and Motivating High School Students

Most students perform better and enjoy their classes more when they are engaged and motivated. Try using the following techniques with your high school students to keep them interested and focused.

Display a positive attitude towards the course, the students and teaching.

  • Show them your passion for the subject and the course. If you show excitement about the topics you're teaching, this will come across and motivate your students.
  • Believe your students want to and can learn. Ask them what they want to get out of the course. Keep in mind that you can learn from them, too.
  • Be understanding and encourage them. Remember, being a teenager is tough.
  • Share your enthusiasm about teaching. You are an expert in your field and you have chosen to take on one of the most challenging and rewarding jobs: to teach students the skills they need to succeed in your industry. Express that enthusiasm.


Inspire a positive attitude from the students.

  • Get students to buy into the course the first class. Who are you and why should they listen to you?
  • Articulate your outcomes. What are they? Why are students here?
  • Connect it to students’ lives. Why is it valuable? How will they benefit?
  • Show them some of the fun things they will be able to do once they finish the course.
  • Involve the students. Ask them what they want to get out of the course (guide the conversation to what they will in fact learn).
  • Ask them to predict challenges they may have and solutions.
  • Learn their names and use them often.


Foster an active and positive learning environment.

  • Set challenging yet attainable expectations (learning outcomes) and communicate them constantly in class, on the board, on assignment sheets, etc.
  • Vary your teaching methods. (Use the white board to list the most important points from a discussion, offer many opportunities for ungraded practice and revision, do demos, invite guest speakers, organize field trips, have the students teach you, etc.)
  • Use active and cooperative learning strategies. (Have students work in pairs or groups, get students moving around the classroom, have students do their own demos, build in opportunities to apply knowledge in real-world situations, have students brainstorm, problem solve, predict, use discovery techniques, etc.)
  • Provide clear, frequent, timely and consistent feedback for your students. (Write criteria on the board and explain how to successfully meet them, use grading sheets or rubrics that specifically explain the criteria you are looking for, talk to students individually about their work, do critiques.)
  • Allow students to draw on their own interests and build activities around them. (Take a survey of their likes, interests, and ideas and incorporate them.)
  • Give students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that appeals to their strengths. (Allow them to do a demonstration, write an article, draw an illustration, make a recording, shoot a film clip, act out a skit, etc.)
  • Give them choices but no more than 3. (One of the main reasons high school students “check-out” is because they want to rebel against authority and establish independence. Give them a choice of whether to do Project A or Project B. This gives them a sense of autonomy and control over their learning.)
  • Ask for feedback from your students about what is working and not working and adjust your teaching.