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Drivers of Persistence


Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make things happen through their actions. Adult learning theory has long held that adults strive for agency – that as individuals mature they move from dependence toward self-direction, and that adults want to be treated as responsible individuals with the capacity to determine things for themselves (Imel, 1988). When adults are encouraged to become self-directed, they begin “to see themselves as proactive, initiating individuals engaged in continuous re-creation of their personal relationships, work worlds, and social circumstances, rather than as reactive individuals, buffeted by uncontrollable forces of circumstance” (Brookfield, 1986). More recent work in cognitive theory suggests that, “learners of all ages are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others” (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000).

Bandura’s social cognitive theory is rooted in a view of human agency which holds that people strive to control events that affect their lives and are proactively engaged in their own development. Key to this notion of agency is the idea that individuals’ self-beliefs affect their motivation and actions -  that "what people think, believe, and feel affects how they behave" (Bandura, 1986). Therefore, adult educators should be attentive to building students’ beliefs that they are capable, creative agents. Adult learning should be structured to nurture the development of self-directed, empowered adults. This concept is discussed in greater detail within the ‘Competence’ section.

The NELP data is replete with examples of students who took more initiative in making decisions, advocating for themselves, and asserting their needs as a result of persistence interventions. Much of this occurred in counseling, classroom, or tutoring sessions that invited student participation, decision-making, and problem-solving. In addition to the many examples provided in the strategy sections, we note some specific illustrations here:

In the past few weeks, the learners have begun looking at the daily schedule with a more critical eye.  One student looked at the syllabus and requested an activity be done earlier that day because she had to leave early for an appointment and didn’t want to miss it. . . .Learners have opinions and preferences, and are expressing them (Genesis Center).

During the term, learner willingness to suggest curriculum adaptations, changes in routine, duration of activities, and even discussion on whether new classmates should be enrolled became more evident. . . The classroom functioned as much more of a democracy by the end of the term (Genesis Center).

A student who continued with a tutor after stopping out focused on workplace self-advocacy during her sessions.  After a few weeks, she felt comfortable enough to ask for a planned work schedule and class nights off, and her employer honored her request; she was able to re-enter classes (Boston HERC).

After learning about program services at the orientation, “a student from the advanced ESOL class came into the office for college program information. He came in without ‘fear’ and knew exactly who to talk to regarding his concern (Clinton).

One ABE student decided that a GED program with an academic focus was not the right place for her at this time in her life (she was 65 years old) and instead decided to enroll in a computer class at a local community center (QCAP).

At our first orientation, two young ladies were questioning their options for a diploma. . . . One of the young ladies responded that we were wasting her time, that she didn’t need a diploma, and that she was leaving.  It sounds like this would be a negative side of the orientation, but in fact, it’s not.  This student in the past, would have signed up for the class, started it, probably would have been a problem in the classroom, and then would have dropped out.  The negativity would have impacted many more than just herself.  The program served its purpose in educating her about her choices and making her responsible for that choice (Vernon).

Adults who were given information and opportunities to use their agency to impact decisions that affected them demonstrated greater persistence and took greater responsibility for learning. They effectively assessed and asserted their needs, even if this meant postponing or redirecting their learning. Again illustrating the interconnectedness of adults’ affective needs, those whose agency was respected seemed to develop a stronger connection to their program, demonstrate greater self-efficacy, and participate more fully in the life of the program.