Communicating about Sexual Issues: Challenges and Opportunities in the Classroom

Weisfeld, Carol C., Emilia Shinne, and Linda H. Slowik

Many studies have documented the efficacy of role-playing (or active simulation) as a classroom technique for teaching a variety of learning outcomes, including decision-making skills for nurses (Gropelli, 2010), clinical skills for psychotherapists (Fernandez-Liria, et al., 2010), and communication skills related to sexual issues for adolescents (Crepaz, et al., 2009; Gurdin, et al., 2008). This study investigated two questions related to college students at a small, private, religiously-affiliated university:
1) Do students find sexual topics more difficult to talk about face-to-face than other topics?
2) If students are assigned role-playing tasks related to sexual issues, in small-group discussions over a semester, will their self-perceived comfort levels improve?
   Seventy-four undergrad students enrolled in two sections of a basic psychology course on human sexuality
were assessed on the first day of class (pre-test) and last day of class (post-test). Eight questions asked about their comfort level when talking face-to-face about sports, relationship problems, sexual problems, sexual orentation, sexually transmitted infections (STI's), sex education, jealousy and music. During the semester students participated in four small-group discussions in class, in which they took turns role-playing in response to a relevant scenario (e.g., "You have herpes. You have a new relationship. How do you tell your partner?" Small-group discussions were followed by whole-class reviews of what the optimal responses were, and why. Results were the following: 1) Initially students were less comfortable discussing sexual problems, STI's, sex education, relationship problems, and jealousy. At end of term, significant growth in self-perceived comfort was seen for discussing STI's, sex education, sexual problems, and jealousy (p < .05). Conclusion: Because one's sexual life is typically lived face-to-face with other people, enhancing communication skills by using role-playing in classroom groups may be an effective teaching approach.