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Focus On Basics

Volume 4, Issue A ::: March 2000

Look Before You Leap: Helping Prospective Learners Make Informed Educational Choices

by Marti Giese
I work in a high school completion program in Fairfax County, VA, a densely populated county adjacent to Washington, D.C. Our program offers three different options for adults interested in finishing their secondary education. One option is our adult high school, where learners can finish the courses required for a diploma or can choose from several options of independent study to complete their coursework. A second option is our General Educational Development (GED) program, which offers monthly testing and free preparation through our network of learning centers throughout the county. These open-entry learning centers offer assessment and self-paced study to adults who wish to improve their skills in reading, writing, math, social studies, and language arts. A third option is our external diploma program, which allows adults over 21 to earn a diploma through demonstration of competencies based on life skills. In this program adult learners meet first with advisors who identify the competencies needed and then with assessors who evaluate the competencies learned. The meetings continue as long as necessary. Each of the three options is designed to meet different learning preferences, time lines, and lifestyles.

Understanding the differences between options and determining which will best suit one's needs requires careful analysis.

Over the past few years I have noticed that many learners enroll in an option without making a thorough comparison of the programs to understand which would be best for them. Mismatches often occur between adult learners and the programs in which they choose to enroll. As a result, learners lose motivation and sometimes drop out. For example, many adult learners choose the well-known GED program without taking a closer look at the other two options. Some of these enrollees have only a couple of courses to take and could more quickly and easily attain their goal by enrolling in our adult high school. Some do not like to take tests. They tend to put off taking the GED test and lose the motivation to complete the program. Others lose motivation because they are unable to focus for the eight-hour GED exam, as it is most commonly offered in our county. These learners find themselves taking the test several times with disappointing results. Others choose to join one of our learning centers to prepare for the GED test, and eventually lose interest because their work schedules and childcare issues do not allow them to attend with enough regularity to make progress. Over time, they too, stop coming.

I believed that these adult learners needed to become more active in their decisionmaking about how to complete their high school education. If they asked more personal questions about each of the options, they could gather enough information to make a program choice based on their specific needs. I wondered how I could motivate prospective students to do this.

A workshop on discovery learning led by Ed Vitale, a consultant and curriculum specialist for Virginia's Workforce Improvement Network, interested me in the motivating power of group research. I did some background reading, including Ira Shor's Empowering Education - Critical Teaching for Social Change (1992) and Michael Pritza's "Getting Into Groups" (1998). This strengthened my belief that working together in small groups to gather information and make comparisons would help motivate prospective students to ask more questions to get the information they needed for their individual circumstances. I also hoped it would encourage them to discuss and evaluate what might and might not work for them.

A few months later I joined The Virginia Adult Education Research Network, which is coordinated by Ronna Spacone. In this program, groups of teachers, tutors, and administrators from around the state learn about qualitative inquiry methods so they can explore issues from their practice. After doing some reading about qualitative research (see boxed bibliography) and participating in some discussions, I formulated the following research question: What happens when adult students engage in group learning to research high school completion options?

Project Design

I knew an orientation to our programs would have to accommodate an extremely diverse group of people, from those who could read and write little English to those near readiness to qualify for an American high school diploma. Since our orientations are given in a variety of locations, the procedure would have to appeal to learners in a jail, in a community development program, and in our community learning centers as well. These orientation activities would have to be nonthreatening enough to engage the timid and the confident alike.

Colleague Donna Chambers and I designed and developed a three-session, six-hour orientation workshop that led small groups of adult learners through a series of research activities intended to promote the skills involved in asking questions. Our workshop provided a process: a progression of group activities intended to enable the group to do research and discover the information about each option for itself. We ran the three-session orientation workshop six times in all, totaling 60 participants. Four of the orientations were held in our community learning centers, some during the day and some during the evening, where a mix of new and continuing enrollees attends. Almost all of these students were preparing initially to take the GED test. We ran a fifth orientation at the Pre-Release Center, a program of Fairfax County Detention Center. These participants were also preparing for the GED test. We offered the sixth orientation at a community development program where mostly non-native speakers of English, who are not involved in our high school completion program, come to learn about resources available to them in our community.

In session one of each of the orientation workshops, ten adults got to know each other, talked about their reasons for pursuing an education, and came up with a list of questions against which to compare the three high school completion options. At the end of the session, we organized them randomly into three research teams, gave each team a research topic - one of the program options - and offered the teams an array of printed materials about the programs. The participants were free to select and read any or all of the materials we offered.

During the second session we met in a computer lab to explore the Internet as a tool for researching each of the three high school completion program options. We gave the participants the Fairfax County Public Schools web site as a point of origin. We then explained the use of sidebars and tool bar buttons so they could locate information about each of the high school completion programs. Participants were encouraged to use the telephone in the computer lab to call the program offices for information they were unable to locate on the Internet or in the pamphlets and brochures they had chosen.

In the third session each research team reported on what it had learned about its assigned high school completion option to the other two teams and the facilitators. Each presentation was followed by questions from the audience about how the program option described would suit specific personal needs.

During the weeks of the orientation workshops, my colleague and I kept journals in which we made a simple division between observations and reflections. We gave forms with these headings to teachers, tutors, and administrators who watched the process as well. After each session we collected the forms. We consulted the adult learners in the workshop by asking a series of questions at the end of each session that focused on what they had learned and how they felt about the activities in which they had participated. At the end of the orientation, we asked the learners to fill out forms evaluating the effect of the entire workshop.


Because our approach focused on process and relied on the learners to discover the information they needed, each of the six orientation workshops produced slightly different results. All of the groups, however, came away with an understanding of the differences between program options. During the orientation for students from the jail, for example, participants focused on which program would best support them in the future, when they were no longer incarcerated. The mothers in the community development project discussed how they could juggle family responsibilities with pursuing an education. In the orientations at the community learning centers, participants talked about the content from the perspective of future employment and possible entry into a community college. The participants explored and discussed the information of personal interest and concern; each prospective student was able to learn what he or she needed. The facilitators did not take responsibility for figuring out who needed what.

The workshop activities provided an avenue for participants to engage in their research with enthusiasm. One observing administrator was surprised that a mother recently arrived in this country was willing to leave her two preschoolers with a woman she scarcely knew so that she could continue to attend our sessions. An inmate from the jail volunteered that he regretted having missed the first session. Several people from the community learning centers asked why they had not been given this workshop before. By the second session, learners took ownership of their research. By making phone calls and going to the local library to use the Internet, some students voluntarily continued their research outside of class. One man remarked, "I feel responsible because you are making me do the work."

In all the locations where we held the orientation workshops, a sense of commitment to the research groups developed. A teacher at the jail said, "There was a sense of responsibility and 'connectedness' in the group...In fact, one of the members had a terrible migraine headache, yet he stayed for the session because he didn't want to let his group down." At the community development program office an observing administrator remarked that it was wonderful to see a second-year learner take responsibility for a newcomer. At one of the community learning centers, participants left the room after the third session with reluctance. Each stopped outside the door to wait for the rest of the group to emerge. The whole group stayed together, talking and laughing all the way down the hall.

When we provided the orientation at our existing learning centers, participants began to interact more and different pattern of classroom relationships began to emerge. One observer of the process summed it up: "One of the more boisterous students became more subdued ...he was not the center of attention that he normally likes to be. The circle arrangement and group participation took away his power ...and there was participation by those who usually feel shy, withdrawn or intimidated by the more vocal students." Instead of looking to the facilitator for help, group members looked to each other for support. In this way, everybody became a teacher, and everybody learned.

Other patterns of thinking and acting changed as well. One very shy and withdrawn learner who came from a social center surprised us all by participating enthusiastically. Another quiet young man beamed about his accomplishment of making a phone call to gather information. He said people usually hang up on him when he uses the phone because they become impatient with his stuttering. One inmate remarked, "Since last week I learned that being a full time college student isn't such a bad idea...until this, I figured that it just wasn't for me."

From this new-found sense of community support came surprising statements of self-awareness, thoughts that could change attitudes, and quite possibly, change lives. Here are some examples: "I am learning a little bit about myself like I need to further my education because if I don't, I will not have a good job to support my family." "What I am learning about myself is that I'm not as dumb as I thought I was and if I put my mind to it, I can accomplish just about anything." "What I am learning from this session is that distractions keep me from focusing fully on my objective...[I] need to grow up and realize what's real important. That's what I've learned."


As a facilitator of growth, I was excited and inspired by results such as these. As a teacher, I wanted to know that I helped the participants develop some of the learning skills they need for the future. I asked each of them at the end of the six-hour workshop, "What have you learned through our work together?" They told me, "I learned that to work in groups is very important, rather than try to get all the information by myself." "It made me realize that the telephone, the computer, and printed information is there to help me learn." "The most important things I learned was how to make a list of questions, how to look for information, and these will help me make my decisions."

At the end of the orientation workshops, several prospective learners chose to enroll in the External Diploma Program and others entered the adult high school. One participant left the orientation excitedly midsession to go straight to the adult high school office to register when he realized how easy it was going to be to finish. Most of the participants voiced the wish that they had learned the information sooner.

This project lasted six months and offers encouragement that adult learners can be taught and motivated to ask more personalized questions about each of the program options during orientations. Furthermore, we are encouraged to find that when learners formulate and answer their own questions, they use this knowledge to make appropriate choices.


We saw that the research methods we used during the orientation workshop allowed adult learners to get involved and encouraged them to take responsibility for their own learning. Their many individual questions suggested that they were personalizing the information they received. The sense of community also helped adults feel comfortable enough to guide each other. Those who were able to explain, guide, or support, did. Those who needed to learn these skills could do so by watching others in their group. Those who were able to organize a plan of action demonstrated the skills for those who needed to learn it. Everybody supported the group goal in some way. In this atmosphere it seemed that everybody was a teacher as well as a student. Participants learned about more than the three high school completion options available to them in Fairfax County. They learned to rely on themselves and others to gather information. They also learned to extend their reach for more information through the use of technology.

Based on results from this research project, Ronna and I recommended a full-scale program change. It includes a single point of entry for adult learners in the Adult High School Completion Program combined with a multisession orientation program that encourages personalized questions through working in small groups to research our three program options. The full-scale program change is now being designed.


Pritza, M. (1998). "Getting into groups." Focus on Basics, 2, A, 19-22.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering Education - Critical Teaching for Social Change. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

About the Author

Marti Giese coordinates group contract services for Fairfax County Public Schools, where she develops site-based, workforce, and workplace training programs for local businesses and community agencies. The programs she provides include adult basic education, high school completion, English for speakers of other languages, and an array of classes in computer skills, trade and industry skills, workforce readiness, and workplace improvement.

Books and Articles on Qualitative Research

Bogdan, R., & Biklen, S. (1982). Qualitative Research For Education: An Introduction to Theory and Methods. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc.

Brookfield, S.(1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hubbard, R., & Power, B. (1993). The Art of Classroom Inquiry: A Handbook for Teacher Researchers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company.

Hull, G., (1997). "Research with words: qualitative inquiry." Focus on Basics, 1, A, 13-16.

Merriam, S.B. (1995). "What can you tell from an N of 1?: Issues of validity and reliability in qualitative research," PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 4, 51-60.

Power, B. (1996). Taking Note: Improving Your Observational Notetaking. York, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

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