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Learning theory and environments

How do young people learn? How can youth programs best facilitate learning? Researchers and practitioners have contributed to an array of knowledge about how to maximize outcomes, with positive youth development as a core philosophy.

Comments on this page? Curator: Jessica Russo, Extension educator

Youth Development Insight

Our faculty blog about research, issues and trends in the field. Join the conversation!

  • 11/16

    Cohort learning takes a 'front yard' approach

  • Amber Shanahan

    Lots of recent events have me wondering how to encourage and foster empathy. Empathy is when one person is able to understand how another person is feeling. This sense of understanding is not something we are born with, it is a skill that we learn. The ability to empathize is critical because it allows us to understand other people. Read more.

  • 11/16

    Caring adults enable summer-long experiential learning

  • Nancy Hegland

    In June, kids say goodbye to the school year and are ready for summer vacation.  For many of them, this doesn't mean a break from learning, but a chance to learn in different settings, with different teachers and mentors, and to direct their own learning to an extent. These lucky ones will learn all summer long, and may not even realize it. Read more.


See all learning theory and environments blog posts

Reports & journal articles

Academic Achievement of Youth in the 4-H Program

Produced by Extension: K. Piescher, S. Hong, Dale Blyth, Pamela Nippolt
The purpose of this study was to examine academic outcomes of youth who participated in Minnesota's 4-H program compared to those who did not, and to understand how parent engagement and duration of 4-H participation affects youth achievement and attendance trajectories over five years. (PDF) 2014.

Exploring the Dynamics of Power in Professionalizing Afterschool

Produced by Extension: Deborah Moore
Prevailing narrative in the afterschool literature is premised on the idea that becoming a profession is required to build and sustain the field. Current strategies to professionalize do not reflect the complex and diverse nature of the work. This article uses critical theory to explore the imbalance of power in current discussions. 2013.

The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction

National Institute of Mental Health
One of the ways that scientists have searched for the causes of mental illness is by studying the development of the brain from birth to adulthood. Powerful new technologies have enabled them to track the growth of the brain and to investigate the connections between brain function, development, and behavior. The research has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes taking place during the teen years. These findings have altered long-held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation. 2011.

Engagement in After-School Programs as a Predictor of Social Competence and Academic Performance

David Shernoff
Using the experience sampling method, this study examined two questions related to outcomes associated with after-school programming. First, does the quality of experience in after-school programs mediate the effect of program participation on social competence and academic performance? Second, among program participants, is the difference in quality of experience when in programs versus other settings after school related to higher social competence and academic performance?  2010.

Rings of Engagement

Produced by Extension Center for Youth Development
Research brief on youth engagement framework that includes Participation, Passion, Youth Voice, and Collective Leadership. (PDF) 2010.

The weirdest people in the world?

Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan
Behavioral and Brain Sciences
This review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. 2010.

Once we know it, we can grow it

Summary version

Produced by Extension: Joyce Walker, Cecilia Gran, Deborah Moore
A white paper on how quality matters in multiple dimensions of nonformal learning in the nonschool hours. (PDF) 2009.

Promoting Participation of Older Youth in Out-of-School Time Programs and Opportunities

Produced by Extension: Rebecca N. Saito
Research focusing attention on the need for engagement of under-represented and under-served teen-agers, 13 years of age and older, in engaging and beneficial programs and opportunities that help them thrive. (PDF) 2009.

Toward a Common Vision: Naming and Framing the Developmental Imperative

Joel Tolman and Karen Pittman
A report about meeting the developmental needs of all young people by getting a clearer picture of their lives and the opportunities and challenges that shape their experience. (PDF) 2008.

A New Day for Learning: A report from the Time, Learning, and Afterschool Task Force

A. Lewis; C. S. Mott Foundation
An article that includes five elements of a new learning system, which contends that the nation's steady progress as an economy and as a society will end unless we profoundly change our thinking and polices about how children learn and develop. (PDF) 2007.

Getting to Engagement: Building an Effective After-school Program

HighScope Youth
An article on point-of-service quality matters where most young people feel safe, want to show up, and genuine learning occurs. (PDF) 2007.

Core Principles for Engaging Young People in Community Change

Forum for Youth Investment
Includes the Continuum of Youth Engagement and Eight Principles of engaging youth in community change. (PDF) 2007.

Framing the Issue in Youth Engagement: A celebration across time and culture

Wendy Wheeler
The author discusses what it takes for youth and adults to "learn, listen, dream and work together as they unleash their collective potential to build the common good and to advocate in the community for the needs of both young and old, as defined by themselves, and address root causes through policy change." 2007.

Interest and Self-Sustained Learning as Catalysts of Development: A Learning Ecology Perspective

Brigid Barron
Human Development
Adolescents often pursue learning opportunities both in and outside school once they become interested in a topic. In this paper, a learning ecology framework and an associated empirical research agenda are described. 2006.


Our past presentations

The Importance of Youth Purpose and How to Support It

Jenni Menon Mariano, Ph.D., Elizabeth (Betsy) Levine Brown, Ph.D., and Devora Shamah, Ph.D.
Do youth today have or need a sense of purpose in life? Does it matter if they do? This webinar examines whether youth have a sense of purpose in life and what the research shows about the importance of purpose as well as the current state of efforts to support the development of purpose in all young people.  2012. Read more.

Youth Development's 100 Year Legacy: Lessons to shape future research and practice

Produced by Extension: Dale Blyth, PhD, Michelle Gambone, PhD, Reed Larson, PhD, Joyce Walker, PhD, Kate Walker, PhD
This webinar commemorates the 100th anniversary of many national youth-serving organizations with a discussion about this special issue of the Journal of Youth Development. 2012. Read more.

Engaging older youth in out-of-school time: Applying research to practice

Priscilla M. Little
In this presentation Little describes promising research-based practices in working with middle and high school youth in out-of-school time (OST) programs, examining what programs can do to support participation, engagement, and positive outcomes. The presentation also includes a discussion of the potential role of OST systems in supporting effective youth programming. 2011. Read more.

Terms of Engagement

Theresa K. Sullivan
Terri synthesizes what youth and adult practitioners, participants, and researchers say it takes to make the most of youth engagement opportunities to benefit participating youth, adults, organizations, and communities. 2008. Read more.

The Leading Edge - Exploring Youth Engagement Innovation

Wendy Wheeler
In this 90-minute video presentation, Wendy Wheeler highlights the practical elements and innovations that promote authentic youth engagement and collective leadership. 2008. Read more.

Urban Youth and Nature: Changing Lives, Transforming Communities!

Yusuf Burgess
Research shows the amount of time young people spend in the outdoors has decreased significantly. This leadership video presentation addresses disparities and provides critical insights into the importance of reconnecting urban youth with our natural environment. 2008. Read more.

Youth Engagement, Social Trust and the Future of Democracy

Constance Flanagan
Ninety-minute video presentation focusing on the role of youth engagement in nurturing social trust in and in fostering the future of democracy. 2008. Read more.

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