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Persistence Among Adult Basic Education Students in Pre-GED Classes

John P. Comings, Andrea Parrella, and Lisa Soricone
Harvard Graduate School of Education 

December 1999

A key difference between adult and child learners is that adults choose to participate in educational programs while children participate because of legal mandates and strong social and cultural forces that identify schooling as the proper “work” of childhood.  Adults must make active decisions to participate in each class session and often must overcome significant barriers to attend classes.   Every adult education program should help adult students persist in their learning until they reach their educational goals.

NCSALL is engaged in an ongoing study designed to: 

1) develop and test advice for adult basic education practitioners on how to help adult learners persist in their studies; and

2) develop and test advice for policy makers on how to structure funding and accountability systems in ways that will support learner persistence. 

In the first phase of the study, four key supports to persistence were identified:

The first support is management of the positive and negative forces that help and hinder persistence. Understanding the forces, identifying which are strongest, and deciding which are most amenable to manipulation provides an indication of how to help someone reach an educational goal.  Any intervention meant to increase persistence must help adults strengthen the positive forces and lessen the negative forces.  The first step is to identify all the forces that are acting upon an individual.  The next step is to identify which forces can have a significant effect on an individual’s path.  Of these strong forces, a determination must be made as to which ones can actually be managed or, rather, which positive forces can be made stronger and which negative forces can be made weaker.

The second support is self-efficacy.  The educational program must help adult students build self-efficacy about reaching their goals.  The term self-confidence is used more often in adult education literature, but self-efficacy is a more useful term to describe this support.  Self-confidence is a global feeling of being able to accomplish most tasks.  Self-efficacy is focused on a specific task and represents the feeling of being able to accomplish that task, which here is successful learning in ABE, ESOL, or ASE programs. 

The third support to persistence is the establishment of a goal by the student.  This process begins before an adult enters a program.  Adults who could be classified as potential ABE, ESOL, or ASE students experience events that cause them to enter educational programs.  The events might be dramatic or subtle.  They provide potential adult students with goals they hope to accomplish by entering an ABE, ESOL, or ASE program.  The staff of educational programs must help the potential adult students define their goals and help them understand the many instructional objectives that must be accomplished to meet the goals.  Teachers must then use those student goals as the context for instruction, and the goals should be continuously revisited since they may change over time.

The fourth support is progress toward reaching a goal.  Adult students must make progress toward reaching their educational goals, and they must be able to measure that progress.  Programs must provide services of sufficient quality that students make progress, and programs must have assessment procedures that allow students to measure their own progress.

Policy Support to Persistence.  Aspects of the four supports presented here already exist in some programs,  but a combination of the four may provide a more supportive environment to persistence.  These supports are more likely to be built if persistence becomes a more important measure in program accountability, and if funding agencies provide the technical assistance and training needed for programs to put these supports in place.  Policy makers should then hold programs accountable for the quality of the intake, orientation, instruction, and program approaches that support persistence.  They should use an expanded definition of persistence: adults staying in programs for as long as they can, engaging in self-directed study when they must drop out of their programs, and returning to programs as soon as the demands of their lives allow. Using only attendance in class or in tutoring sessions as a measure of persistence undervalues effective learning activities that should be encouraged.  The wider definition of persistence would allow practitioners to focus on helping adults become persistent learners who use episodes of program participation as critical parts of a comprehensive learning strategy that employs other forms of learning.

Study Findings.  This study found that the many ways in which we can classify adult students (by gender, ethnicity, age, employment status, number and age of children, previous school experience, and educational background of other adults in their lives) do not tell us much about how to help them persist in their education.

The only significant findings were that immigrants, those over the age of 30, and parents of teenage or grown children were more likely to persist than others in the study. The greater likelihood of persistence by immigrant students in ESOL classes is well documented, and the findings of this study suggest that this effect continues as immigrants learn English and move on to ABE and GED programs.  Grown children might encourage their parents to join and persist in a program.  On the other hand, adults who are over 30 are more likely to have teenage or grown children than those under 30.  These findings might point to older students persisting longer because they benefit from the maturity that comes with age and they no longer have the responsibilities of caring for small children.

Two aspects of educational experience were also associated with persistence.  Adults who had been involved in previous efforts at basic skills education, self-study, or vocational skill training were more likely to persist than those who had not.  The strongest relationship was with those who had undertaken self-study.  Adults who, when asked why they had entered a program, mentioned a specific goal (such as ‘help my children or ‘get a better job’) were more likely to persist than those who either mentioned no goal or said they were doing it for themselves.  These findings suggest that experience with education may increase an adult’s self-confidence about learning and that motivation, especially as demonstrated by undertaking self-study or by being clear about the goal for attendance, is a support to persistence.

Full Report Available

To receive a copy of the full report, send a request indicating the report number or title
along with a check or money order in the amount of $10, payable to World Education, to:

Caye Caplan
NCSALL Reports
World Education
44 Farnsworth Street
Boston, MA 02210
or call: (617) 482-9485