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Adult Student Persistence

Adults choose to enroll in ABE, ESOL, and ASE classes with goals that require lengthy time commitments. Due to the complexity of adult learners’ lives, many factors can either support or prevent students from persisting in ABE programs until they reach their goals. NCSALL’s adult student persistence research explores the factors that contribute to and hinder adult student persistence and offers insights into how improved retention may be fostered.

NCSALL has a variety of materials that can be used to learn more about recent research on adult student persistence.


NCSALL and Goodling Institute Study Circle Guide: Rethinking Instruction and Participation for Adult Basic Education. R. Jones, July 2005.
This guide addresses issues around organizing learning services for students in ways that make sense for them, and what the research says about it. The focus is on the structure and organization of instruction and how we can broaden the range of options that students have so that classes aren’t the only option. This guide provides all the necessary materials and clear instructions to plan and facilitate a three-session study circle (with an option for a fourth). Each session lasts three hours.

Program Administrators' Sourcebook: A Resource on NCSALL's Research for Adult Education Administrators. Jackie Taylor, Cristine Smith, and Beth Bingman with Margaret Bott, Kim Gass, Bethany Lay, Douglas Ann Taylor, and Kristin Tiedeman, December 2005.
This sourcebook presents NCSALL's research findings in short sections related to key challenges that program administrators face in their work as managers of adult education programs. It also presents the implications of these research findings for program structure and services, as well as some strategies for implementing change based on these implications.

Study Circle Guide: Adult Student Persistence. May 2006.
This guide provides comprehensive instructions for facilitating a 10½-hour study circle that explores what the research says about adult student persistence and ideas for how to apply what is learned in classrooms and programs. The guide is based on a review of the NCSALL research on adult student persistence conducted by John Comings and others, summarized in an article entitled “Supporting the Persistence of Adult Basic Education Students” and other studies on student motivation and retention. It includes articles, resources, and action research reports to help practitioners consider strategies for increasing adult student persistence. This guide provides all the necessary materials and clear instructions to plan and facilitate a three-session study circle with an option for a fourth. Each session lasts three-and-a-half hours.

Seminar Guide: Helping Adults Persist.
This 3 ½-hour seminar introduces adult education practitioners to the research on adult student persistence, focusing on the positive and negative forces that help and hinder persistence.

Seminar Guide: Suppots and Barriers to Persistence.
In this 4-hour seminar, participants explore reasons why students leave programs and ways to support students, including sponsorship.

Seminar Guide: Self-efficacy in Persistence.
This 3 ½-hour seminar introduces adult education practitioners to the four supports to adult student persistence identified in the research study.



“I've Come a Long Way”: Learner-identified Outcomes of Participation in Adult Literacy Programs. Mary Beth Bingman and Olga Ebert, NCSALL Report #13, February 2000.
The Assessment of Outcomes Study brings learners' perspectives to the outcomes of participation in adult literacy education. This study, using a life history methodology, engages in an in-depth analysis of the experiences of ten adult learners in Tennessee. Detailed accounts, using participants' quotations, of adult learners' life histories, experiences in adult education programs, and the effects of participation on their lives, support the analysis. While new literacy practices and a stronger sense of self are primary outcomes, learners' experiences are diverse, complex, and determined by individual life situations. This research identifies implications for instruction and assessment, and challenges many misconceptions about adult learners.

“One Day I Will Make It”: A Study of Adult Student Persistence in Library Literacy Programs. (Link will open in a new window.)
Kristin E. Porter, Sondra Cuban, and John P. Comings with Valerie Chase, MDRC, January 2005.
This final report from the Literacy in Libraries Across America (LILAA) persistence study offers lessons on the challenge of addressing factors that undermine adult student persistence. The implementation research suggests why improving student persistence is so difficult and reveals the kinds of supports that adult learners need in order to persist. The LILAA programs are more successful in making programmatic improvements than in offering social services. The programmatic changes are of degree rather than kind, and they have less potential than social supports for improving student persistence.

Persistence Among Adult Basic Education Students in Pre-GED Classes. John P. Comings, Andrea Parrella, and Lisa Soricone, NCSALL Report #12, December 1999.
Because pre-GED students usually enroll in programs with goals that require lengthy time commitments, researchers in the first phase of NCSALL's Adult Student Persistence Study investigate factors that promote learner retention by reviewing existing research on learner persistence and motivation, interviewing 150 adult students in New England, and considering practitioner reports on efforts to support learner persistence. In the study, persistence is defined as adults staying in programs for as long as possible, engaging in self-directed study when it is necessary to leave the programs, and returning to programs when possible. The study identifies four primary measures of support—management of positive and negative forces that help or hinder persistence, self-efficacy for reaching goals, establishment of goals by the student, and support for progress toward reaching a goal. The report provides useful information for practitioners who would like to learn more about how to support learner persistence and for policy makers concerned with structuring funding and accountability requirements to support persistence. The study also challenges researchers to develop reliable tools for measuring persistence and to identify program and instructional factors that support retention. This comprehensive report includes samples of questionnaires used with learners.



“Adult Learning and Literacy in the United Kingdom.” Mary Hamilton and Juliet Merrifield, The Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Volume 1, Chapter 7.
This comprehensive article describes adult literacy and learning systems in the United Kingdom (UK) and compares and contrasts aspects of this system to ABE in the United States (US). The authors explore issues of retention and the complex factors that cause learners to leave programs. They describe a portfolio system used by learners and funders in the UK to track intermediate credentials students attain as they work towards a GED and suggest that the US could benefit from a similar system that combines flexibility and individual choice with national standards and reporting guidelines.

"Assistive Technology and Adult Literacy: Access and Benefits." Heidi Silver-Pacuilla Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Volume 7, Chapter 4.
Heidi Silver-Pacuilla of American Institutes of Research discusses the role of assistive technology and how it might be used to help adult students improve their reading and writing skills. She described the categories of assistive technology and reviews the research about the use of technology, including computer software, in helping K-12 students with learning disabilities improve their basic skills. She provides examples of how such technologies as text enhancement software have been helpful to ABE students working on their vocabulary and writing development, and the effect such technologies have on increasing adult students' motivation to persist in their studies.

“Beyond the Scope of the Teachers: Deciding to Employ a Social Worker.” Nikki Merritt, Miriam Spencer, and Lori Withers, Focus on Basics, Volume 6, Issue A, October 2002.
In response to the complexity and seriousness of issues facing their students, this program hired a full-time social worker to help individuals, families, groups, and communities increase their personal, interpersonal, socioeconomic, and political strength through an empowerment approach. As individual learners and small groups worked with the social worker to set educational, career, and personal goals, improved attendance was noted.

“Build Motivation by Building Learner Participation” Barbara Garner, Focus onBasics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
This article describes the many ways in which student participation is promoted in one ABE program. Students have leadership opportunities, including making classroom and administrative decisions (such as identifying courses that should be offered and students to teach these classes), engage in peer tutoring, participate in a student council, produce a program newsletter, and discuss issues (while sharing facilitation duties) at all-school meetings. Students and practitioners in the program assert that this model has a positive effect on learner motivation and persistence.

“A Comprehensive Professional Development Process Produces Radical Results.” Betsy Topper and Mary Beth Gordon, Focus on Basics, Volume 7, Issue A, June 2004.
This article documents the systematic professional development of teachers who learned how to implement the Youth Cultural Competence (YCC) model into General Educational Development (GED) classes that have large percentages of young adult learners. The authors note that by adopting the YCC model, programs achieved positive outcomes in retention and increased GED graduation rates.

“A Conversation with FOB…The Best of Both Worlds: Using Individualized and Group Instruction.” Focus on Basics, Volume 7, Issue C, March 2005.
This learning center tried a few models before settling on a combination of individualized and group instruction. The instructional staff describe the changes the program made and its impact on instruction and student retention when they discontinued the learning lab model.

“A Conversation with FOB…Counseling in ESOL Programs.” Focus on Basics, Volume 6, Issue A, October 2002.
This article addresses how English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instructors often take on counseling roles in the course of their teaching. It argues that teachers perform mental health work with ESOL learners as they assume advocacy roles and provide learner referrals.

“Distance Learning as a Backup.” Lauri McLellan Schoneck, Focus on Basics, Volume 8, Issue C, November 2006.
Lauri McLellan Schoneck describes Seminole Community College's home study program, started and continuously refined since 1985 in Florida.

“The Effects of Continuing Goal-setting on Persistence in a Math Classroom.” Pamela Meader, Focus on Basics, Volume 4, Issue A, March 2000.
Through practitioner research the author considered the effect of continual goal-setting on learner persistence in a math class. Study results revealed that students are able to identify their specific goals and some psychological and academic barriers to reaching those goals. Meader finds that goal-setting is important for some students and determines that, to be effective, goal-setting must be continual.

“The First Three Weeks: A Critical Time for Motivation.” B. Allan Quigley, Focus on Basics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
The article identifies situational, institutional, and dispositional factors as three types of barriers to learner enrollment and persistence. Quigley considers how learners' expectations and perceptions of the value of the program interact with dispositional barriers and argues that it is important to identify those students most at risk for dropping out in the first weeks of participation. The author argues that research supports groupings within classes or small classes, mentoring, and the use of volunteer tutors as promising strategies for promoting the retention of at-risk students.

“Focus on Research…Research Factors That Shape Engagement.” Barbara Garner, Focus on Basics, Volume 7, Issue C, March 2005.
The author describes a NCSALL study that explores what factors shape whether ABE students engage in instruction and the relationship between engagement and learner persistence.

“The GED via TV” Molly K. Robertson, Focus on Basics, Volume 8, Issue C, November 2006.
Indiana 's Molly K. Robertson describes GED on TV, a program that provides additional support to Indiana learners who are studying for the GED by watching a television series that helps viewers build the skills they need.

“Getting into Groups.” Michael Pritza, Focus on Basics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
The author describes how a shift from individualized instruction to organized classes and small-group discussions increased student retention and participation in his program. Although many factors that influence retention and motivation cannot be controlled, Pritza suggests that programs focus on those issues that can be addressed and advises that programs must be willing to try new approaches to address the specific needs of the student group.

“Helping Adults Persist: Four Supports.” John Comings, Andrea Parrella, and Lisa Soricon, Focus on Basics, Volume 4, Issue A, March 2000.
This article provides a summary of NCSALL's Adult Student Persistence Study in which researchers interviewed 150 Pre-GED students in New England at the beginning of their participation in ABE programs and again after four months of study. In this study, persistence is defined as adults staying in programs as long as possible, engaging in self-directed study when they are not able to attend class, and returning to the program when possible. Researchers identify four supports to persistence—awareness of and management of positive or negative forces that help or hinder persistence, self-efficacy, establishment of goals by students, and progress toward reaching a goal. The authors argue that it is necessary to reconceptualize adult learners as long-term clients who use a wide range of services including, but not limited to, ABE programs.

“Implementation Isn't Easy.” Janet Geary, Focus on Basics, Volume 7, Issue A, June 2004.
The director of a GED program with a large percentage of students under 25 years of age describes her program's efforts to improve retention and the challenges encountered. Through group instruction, individual instruction, project-based learning, and a Youth Cultural Competence model, the author observes how the program evolved into a learning community with improved retention.

“The K-12 School Experiences of High School Dropouts.” Stephen Reder and Clare Strawn, Focus on Basics, Volume 4, Issue D, April 2001.
The authors write that data gathered as part of NCSALL's Longitudinal Study of Adult Learners indicate that “school resisters” may be a minority of participants in ABE programs. They explain that most adult students have positive prior school experiences. A majority of the research participants who are currently enrolled in ABE programs reported boredom and a sense of not belonging as primary reasons for leaving high school. The authors suggest that these findings may have implications for program design and instruction in ABE.

“A Learner's Story.” Marvin Lewis, Focus on Basics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
A former ABE student describes how assuming a program leadership role can foster motivation and persistence in adult learners.

“Literacy, Health, and Health Literacy: State Policy Considerations.” Marcia Drew Hohn, Focus on Basics, Volume 5, Issue C, February 2002.
This article provides an overview of five promising strategies for integrating health issues with literacy instruction. The author argues for the importance of this focus in ABE, calls for financial support and a long-term commitment to literacy and health education, and raises questions for further research into this important issue.

“Look Before You Leap: Helping Perspective Learners Make Informed Educational Choices.” Marti Giese, Focus on Basics, Volume 4, Issue A, March 2000.
The author argues that students need to be more active in making decisions as to which high-school-completion option (GED, Adult Diploma, External Diploma) is best suited to their needs and goals. The article describes how, by working together in small groups to gather information and make comparisons about their options, adult learners become motivated to take responsibility for their learning. Giese determines that the sense of community that develops during this orientation process contributes to learner motivation and retention.

“Low Self-Esteem: Myth or Reality?” Anastasiya Lipnevich, Focus on Basics, Volume 8, Issue B, May 2006.
The author investigates whether or not the self-esteem levels of adult literacy students differs from those of graduate students. The comparisons show no differences for global and academic self-esteem levels.

“A Mind/Body/Learning Approach to Counseling: Helping Students Handle Stress.” Marjorie Jacobs, Focus on Basics, Volume 6, Issue A, October 2002.
This article describes how one program addresses student counseling and academic needs in an ongoing classroom setting. The instructor describes how she incorporates reading, writing, speaking, listening, critical thinking, study skills, and health science content, as well as aerobic exercise, stretching, yoga, meditation, and cognitive restructuring into a “health education class.” Jacobs observes improved retention and motivation among learners.

“More Curriculum Structure: A Response to "Turbulence".” John Strucker, Focus on Basics, Volume 8, Issue C, November 2006.
Although adult basic education (ABE) students often have sporadic attendance, their interest in learning doesn't waiver. If we provide more structured curriculum, Strucker suggests, students will be able to continue to study at home when they cannot come to class, and to pick up more easily when they return.

“Persistence: Helping Adult Education Students Reach Their Goals.” John Comings, Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Volume 7, Chapter 2.
John P. Comings, NCSALL Director, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, reviews the literature and recent research on adult student peristence, including his own studies, to understand what factors affect and support student persistence in adult education. Comings argues that, in addition to providing supports to students that help them persist in coming to classes, we need to restructure program participation "in ways that make it easier for adults to pursue episodes of program participation and self-study to achieve their learning goals."

“Power, Literacy, and Motivation.” Greg Hart, Focus on Basics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
The author argues that linking literacy education with civic participation transforms the motivation of educators and learners. Hart describes his program's efforts to achieve this goal.

“Program Participation and Self-Directed Learning to Improve Basic Skills.” Stephen Reder and Clare Strawn, Focus on Basics, Volume 4, Issue D, April 2001.
Data from NCSALL's Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning indicate that self-study is prevalent among high school dropouts. The authors assert that informal, self-directed learning may be an important aspect of adult literacy development and that this is a component largely overlooked by researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. They argue that turnover in programs may be part of a broader process of skill development over time and that it is important to examine learner participation from a student rather than administrative perspective in order to gain a more accurate understanding of students' experiences.

“Reflections on the Women, Violence, and Adult Education Project.” Elizabeth Morrish, Focus on Basics, Volume 5, Issue C, February 2002.
The author describes the Women, Violence, and Adult Education Project, a program designed to help practitioners explore issues of violence in society and to incorporate their understanding of the effects of violence on learning into their teaching. In this project, personal experiences with violence were not necessarily disclosed nor directly addressed in the curriculum; however, participation and attendance improved as students gained confidence by assuming leadership roles in their programs.

“Self-Study: Broadening the Concepts of Participation and Program Support.” Stephen Reder and Clare Strawn, Focus on Basics, Volume 8, Issue C, November 2006.
In this article, the authors share findings from the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning, which, since 1998, has tracked Portland-area adults who dropped out of high school. Many of these adults engaged in self-study to increase their academic skills. Reder and Strawn suggest that as adult educators we should recast our thinking about our students, and redesign our policies and programs to support learners' self-study efforts.

“Separate Yet Happy.” Barbara Garner, Focus on Basics, Volume 7, Issue A, June 2004.
This account describes how a community-college-based GED program designed a separate class for learners 16–21 years of age. The class integrates activities based on Adult Multiple Intelligences theory with positive results.

“Sponsors and Sponsorship: Initial Findings from the Second Phase of the NCSALL Persistence Study.” John Comings and Sondra Cuban, Focus on Basics, Volume 6, Issue A, October 2002.
In their research on how personal relationships help and/or hinder persistence, the authors identified personal, official, and intermediate sponsors as important supports for learner persistence. The authors propose that programs systematically identify students' sponsors and develop strategies for engaging sponsors to help learners persist.

“Staying in a Literacy Program.” Archie Willard, Focus on Basics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
An adult learner details his motivation for entering an ABE program and the factors that helped him to persist.

“Stopping Out, Not Dropping Out.” Alisa Belzer, Focus on Basics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
The author suggests that students and teachers may have different perceptions of what it means when adult learners leave programs. When interviewing students who have left ABE programs, Belzer found that those students who left planned to return and none expressed a sense of personal failure when leaving. The study revealed that various obstacles and supports create different outcomes for individuals and, while there is no single answer to the issue of retention, peer contact outside of class and the use of self-study materials may encourage lifelong learning.

“Study Circles Challenge the Intellect and Strengthen the Professional Community.” Tom Smith, Focus on Basics, Volume 5, Issue D, June 2002.
The author describes the experience of practitioners in Vermont engaged in study circles to learn how to help students identify goals and barriers to progress and how students who live with oppression may experience the ABE classroom. This program's experience revealed the importance of approaching goal-setting as an ongoing process and as an evolving skill that is learned through practice. Practitioners also became aware of how teachers' and students' stereotypes could undermine learner participation. This article provides an example of how one program adapted an existing study circle format to their specific needs and interests.

“Sudan to South Dakota: Helping Youth Make the Transition.” Lara Ann Frey and Yvonne Lerew, Focus on Basics, Volume 7, Issue A, June 2004.
The author describes how one program integrates immigrant learners of all ages into English classes. The program also offers an additional Young Adult Orientation class to meet the acculturation needs of their younger adult students, many of whom are refugees who fled the war-torn Sudan.

“Supports and Hindrances: A Force-Field Analysis.” Andrea Parrella, Focus on Basics, Volume 4, Issue A, March 2000.
The author describes a process designed to guide groups of learners through an examination of the forces that hinder and support their efforts to achieve educational goals.

“Where Attendance Is Not a Problem.” Moira Lucy, Focus on Basics, Volume 2, Issue A, March 1998.
The author considers why retention rates in ESOL are higher than ABE and adult secondary education (ASE) and examines the sources of motivation for adults to attend ESOL classes, including attainment of language and literacy skills and cultural information.

“Youth Cultural Competence: A Pathway for Achieving Outcomes with Youth.” Josh Weber, Focus on Basics, Volume 7, Issue A, June 2004.
The author argues that ABE programs must consider the specific needs of young adult learners in order to improve retention and describes the Youth Cultural Competence (YCC) model as a viable approach for working with youth. YCC involves a series of programmatic strategies targeted at helping programs retain, engage, and educate youth. Three major components of the program, youth involvement, positive peer influence, and youth popular culture, are integrated into instruction that recognizes the distinct developmental needs of young adults.


Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL