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New England Learner Persistence Project

Dates: 2007-2009

States: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island

Client(s): Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, WEI-Unrestricted

Service: Technical Assistance and Coaching

Expertise: Learner Persistence


Promising Practices for Adult Student Persistence

Nationwide, an estimated one third of the adults enrolled in adult education classes leave before completing at least one educational level or achieving their goals. Many stop attending due to changing work schedules, lack of reliable child care or transportation, poor health, need to take care of other family members, or just simple exhaustion. Others falter because of self-doubt about their abilities or uncertainty about the relevance of their studies. In 2008, the New England Learner Persistence Project provided technical assistance and professional development to 18 adult education programs to investigate the impact of context-specific interventions to improve student persistence. Its findngs continue to be relevant, cited, and implemented by many adult education programs.

The resulting report details the promising practices that were tested and the quantitative and qualitative outcomes that resulted in a diverse mix of adult education (ESOL, ABE and ASE) programs in urban, rural, and small town settings. The project also aimed to understand why the implemented strategies were so successful. 
Our analysis of the strategies and their effectiveness revealed six categories of  “drivers of persistence:”

Community and belonging
When we feel welcomed, respected, and offered a sense of belonging, we are more apt to return to that setting or task. For that reason, cultivating a sense of belonging and community from the moment a prospective adult learner comes through the doors or calls is an important persistence strategy.

Clarity of purpose
Clarity of purpose refers to helping students gain clarity about their own purposes for learning - their goals and dreams – and how the instructional approaches of their teachers address those purposes. Knowing this builds trust that the program will meet their needs.

A sense of competence
Adults’ sense of competence and self-efficacy (beliefs about one’s ability to perform in a specific area – cooking, math, languages, etc.) can have a profound effect on their persistence and achievement. Students with more self-efficacy are willing to work harder and persist in the face of adversity to reach their goals.

Learning is difficult in an environment that is chaotic or unstable. This is challenging, especially, for the many adult learners whose lives are marked by instability caused by poverty and trauma. According to Perry (2006), “The major challenge to the educator working with highly stressed or traumatized adults is to furnish the structure, predictability, and sense of safety that can help them begin to feel safe enough to learn.”

The degree of perceived relevance of instruction to the adult learners’ goals, interests and life experience is a key factor in adults’ motivation to persist in their studies. Most adult learners juggle many competing priorities that may take precedence if the instructional program does not feel meaningful to their needs and interests.

Agency is the capacity for human beings to make things happen through their actions. As people mature, they move from dependence toward self-direction, and want to be treated as responsible individuals with the capacity to determine things for themselves.

We continue to apply what we’ve learned about student persistence to each new project we design, and to share it through our online courses (e.g., Helping Students Stay: Exploring Program and Classroom Persistence Strategies) resources for instruction and program design (e.g., Adult Learner Persistence WebsiteThe Change Agent magazine), and professional development.


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