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Drivers of Persistence

Clarity of purpose

One of the basic tenets of adult learning theory is that adults tend to be goal-oriented (Knowles, 1975), seeking to use their learning to achieve specific ends. Notwithstanding challenges to the theory based on claims that it does not recognize cultural differences in regard to goals or explore community (vs. individual) goals (Brookfield, 1986), current studies do show a relationship between having goals and persistence.

As they followed adult learners over time, Comings, Parrella and Soricone (1999)  found that adults who were able to clearly identify their learning goals were much more likely to persist than those who either mentioned no specific purpose or simply said that they were learning for themselves. According to this study, learners who establish concrete goals and are given the opportunity to see that they are making measurable progress toward them are more likely to persist in their studies.

Demonstrating this point in a program setting, Meader (2000) incorporated goal-setting activities into two math classes, with a review of goals after four and eight weeks and reflection at the end of each course. She compared these classes to two non-goal-setting math classes of similar size and makeup. The course completion rates were similar for the two night classes, but in day classes the class that utilized goal-setting had a completion rate of 71% compared to 45% for the class without the goal-setting. Meader stresses that, in order to be effective, goal-setting needs to be on-going.

Following up on the Comings, Parrella and Soricone study (1999), Comings, et al. (2003) tracked the persistence patterns of students in five library programs. They found that short-term students usually have clearly defined goals that motivate them to stick with their learning until the goal has been achieved, while long-term students tend not to have such specific goals – they more generally value the learning and community aspects of participating in the program. The researchers distinguish between instrumental (specific) and broader, transformational goals, such as improving one’s life, and recommend that programs “tap into such aspirations” by not restricting goal-setting to only short-term, immediately achievable aims.
Moreover, research in higher education shows that having long-range goals is a predictor of success in college (Sedlacek, 2004). In addition, researchers using goal “redirection” as a way to help college students persist note that “long term goals are . . .  important to establish for two main reasons: they help shape the kinds of learning activities the learner engages in and they provide an important source of motivation for the learner” (College Sector Committee for Adult Upgrading, 2000).

The NELP programs explored various approaches to goal-setting and found that all of them helped students focus on their studies and evaluate their progress. At Nashua Adult Learning, teachers focused on helping students set clear, achievable goals. This was motivating for students, such as those in Vicki McIver’s class who asked for her guidance in setting goals for their summer months away from class. Similarly, staff at Quinsigamond Community College observed that “students [began to approach] the program from the goal achievement stand-point.  With all the discussions regarding persistence and goals, they felt very proud when they achieved one of them . . . . Once this happened, they wanted to set another goal.”  At HERC, the program invited community mentors to talk with students about how they met important life goals, such as buying a house or getting into a particular field of work. This helped HERC’s students reconsider their own personal and family goals, and to place their learning in the context of reaching their long-term “dreams.” And at Vernon Regional ABE, staff credited goal-setting exercises with helping students figure out which high school completion program would be best for them so that they could make informed choices.

Goal-setting is a way to help adults clarify their purposes for returning to school. It is also important, however, for students to understand the purpose of the instruction and to see the relevance of one to the other. Describing the research that underlies the Equipped for the Future framework for lifelong learning, Gillespie (2002) highlights the need for transparent alignment between learning purposes, instruction, and assessment. She notes that an “intentional and purpose-driven approach to planning creates the conditions for teachers to make explicit both what will be learned and what good performance will look like. In this way, the process and goals of learning are transparent to everyone involved.”

Where clarity and transparency are lacking, students are often confused about the purpose of instruction and how it supports their academic goals. In Ramirez’s study of managed enrollment at MiraCosta College in California, one of the issues identified as problematic for students was that there were no clear entrance and exit criteria for a class.  Some instructors said it was “just obvious” which students were ready to be promoted. The purpose and objectives of the course, or how one could be promoted, were undefined. This lack of clarity of purpose from the program and instructor was unsettling for students. Through a process of identifying clear exit criteria for each level, instructors articulated the skills and knowledge expected. Student response was very positive. Most instructors felt their students were excited about having clear priority outcomes and understanding how assignments, assessments, and promotion were connected. Ramirez noted that, “The most astounding difference between the original student survey and the follow-up survey was how well students could articulate their progress through program levels.”

Transparency of purpose was emphasized in several NELP programs. Throughout orientations, counseling sessions, and classes, practitioners made efforts to clarify and explore why the instruction or the programming was designed as it was. Where the design did not fit the purpose well, policies and practices were reconsidered. For example, Quinsigamond Community College Adult Education program re-examined its strict attendance policy when the program saw that it was discouraging the persistence of students who had intractable life barriers that required more flexible options. In classrooms, teachers were attentive to explaining why they were organizing instruction in a particular way. SCALE set aside meeting time to make sure that entering cohort students, mentors, and other students in class all understood the purpose and format of the peer mentoring project and, specifically, how it would benefit them. And in regard to the learning packets that were implemented at RIFLI, teacher Chris Bourret noted, “I feel the most significant change is that students have expectations now about what the packet is and what it is for, plus they can cite their own reasons for doing it.”

Finally, goal-setting is a social and developmental process. With more information and confidence, students frequently change their goals (Precure, 2000). They also expand their notions of what is possible by hearing the goals and aspirations of others. At Boston HERC, hearing from peers bolstered students’ sense that they could reach their goals. “One student explained that she realized after speaking with a member of our informal mentoring ‘Dream Team’ that her goals were attainable over time.  Other students set new goals for themselves, with the help of their peers.  After hearing spontaneous testimonies, a lot of students wrote on their evaluations that they realized attending college or a training program was possible for them.”

In sum, dialogue and reflection – about aspirations, goals, and dreams – helped students gain clarity about their own purposes for learning and about the program’s intentions and approaches to helping them. This clarity provided motivation, relief, and the possibility for adults to make informed decisions and take responsibility for their own learning.