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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue A ::: October 2002

Learner Persistence Study

NCSALL is involved in a three-phase study of learner persistence. The term "persistence" refers to the length of time that a student remains engaged in learning. Practitioners often use the term "retention" for the same phenomenon, but this study uses persistence because it places the student in a position of control and decision-making. A student persists in learning; a program retains a student. In addition, students may persist in learning after they leave a program through self-study or by joining another program. This research study is interested in learning how to help students persist in their learning.

The project is now in its second phase. The research team is interviewing students and staff and observing the operations of five library literacy programs to gain a better understanding of the supports and barriers to persistence identified in the first phase and to develop a deeper understanding of persistence. The five literacy programs are connected to the Greensboro Public Library in North Carolina, the New York Public Library and the Queens Borough Public Library in New York City, and the Redwood City Public Library and the Oakland Public Library in California. The data for this article come from in-depth interviews with 30 adult students over a two-year period and from informal interviews and observations of students in their programs. The 30 adults include students born in the United States and immigrants, men and women, young and old. They include people who are Hispanic, African-American, Asian, African, Afro-Caribbean, and white. The project is described in I Did It for Myself (Comings et al., 2001) and the findings will be presented in two reports to be published later this year and next year.

In the first phase, the research team looked at the literature on persistence in adult education programs and interviewed 150 adult students in pre-GED programs in five New England states (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine). The interview protocol asked students to identify all of the positive and negative forces related to their persistence in learning and then to indicate the three most important positive and negative forces. This phase of the study identified the broad types of supports and barriers to persistence that are now being studied in depth. The first phase of the study was reported in Focus on Basics (Comings et al., 2000).

The goal of these first two phases of the research is the development of advice to programs and policy makers on how to increase the persistence of their students. The third phase of the project will test this advice to see if it does, in fact, lead to increased persistence. That test will begin in 2004. Researchers call the first two phases "exploratory" (an exploration of a problem that leads to a proposed solution) and the last phase "confirmatory" (the solution is tested to see how well it works). When the third phase is complete (2006), NCSALL will be able to provide research-tested advice to programs and policy makers on how to help adult students persist in their learning. The Persistence Study researchers are sharing the insights they have gained during the exploratory phase of their research because, although the advice is untested, it is based on evidence acquired through rigorous research.

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