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Drivers of Persistence


The process of helping adult learners articulate their dreams and aspirations as long and short-term goals, as discussed under ‘Clarity of Purpose’, needs to connect to the curriculum and ongoing counseling in order for the program to meet the test of relevance in the learners’ eyes. The degree of perceived relevance of the instructional program to the adult learners’ goals, interests and life experience is a key factor in adults’ motivation to persist in their studies even if they need to stop out for a while. Most adult learners juggle many competing priorities that may take precedence if the instructional program is not meeting their needs or engaging their interest. As has been noted by many adult education theorists, adults are by and large pragmatic learners. They want the instruction to be relevant to their lives and needs. Surveys of adult learners have shown that relevance is one of the most frequently mentioned expectations adult learners have of instruction (Donaldson, Flannery and Ross-Gordon, 1993).

Nevertheless, relevance is a subjective construct. Obtaining a GED or learning English may feel relevant enough for one person whereas another may need to see more specific real life connections in every lesson to feel motivated to continue learning. However, instruction that draws on students’ life experience and interests is more likely to engage both types of learners. Acknowledging and building on adults’ life experience is a broadly recognized tenet of adult education dating back to Dewey (1916) and Lindeman (1926). Both Dewey and Lindeman, followed by numerous social action theorists, believed that adult education should be relevant to adults’ role as citizens in a democracy, with adults’ experience as the starting point. 

More recent findings in neuroscience underscore the importance of experience and relevance to learning. Neuroscientists define learning as a process of continuous modification of what we already know because comprehension depends on the association between new information and past experience (Zull, 2006). “People learn from experience in a way that is simply not possible from instruction or information delivery alone. . . . It is only through a substantial range of relevant experience that the entire [psychophysiological] system can be adequately engaged” (Caine and Caine, 2006). This stems from the fact that the brain is a pattern-seeking organ, always scanning the environment and looking for a match to what it already “knows.” According to Wolfe (2006), “If there is no match, then the information is, from the brain’s perspective, nonsense.” Such information can stay in the short-term memory so that a student may remember it in a test if they crammed for it the night before. However, for that information to move to the long-term memory, it needs to be coded by the brain as something that makes sense, that is, in other words, relevant.

There are two factors that have been shown to greatly influence the kind of connection made in the brain that can lead to future recall and greater understanding. They are whether or not the information has meaning and whether or not it has an emotional hook. According to Zull, “Emotion is the foundation of learning . . . all regions of neocortex are enmeshed in networks of other neurons that secrete emotion chemicals.”

Thus, strategies that connect learning to students’ emotions and real life draw their power from neuroscience. In his review of effective ESOL teaching strategies, Chisman (2008) observed that programs that include real life situations outside of the classroom appear to “have higher retention and learning gains than programs that do not incorporate authentic learning components.” In their study of authentic learning, Purcell-Gates et al. (2000) found that use of authentic teaching material resulted in a more effective transfer of learning from the classroom to adult learners’ daily lives in terms of frequency of reading and writing and/or types of texts read and written. While their study did not address persistence, it implies that adult learners found authentic teaching material more immediately relevant to their lives.

The International Institute of Boston’s implementation of the unit on food is an example of instruction that connects to students’ lives outside the classroom and has “emotional hooks” even though it is not necessarily related to specific life goals beyond learning English. ESOL teachers Terri Kasper and Sayyora Nurmatova considered that, “food is central to any culture, and people love sharing stories about food.” By eliciting students’ memories, including taste and smell through writing assignments and discussions, they helped students draw on their emotions in order to learn English. By sponsoring a class visit to a bookstore to look at cookbooks and by doing a cooking demonstration followed by eating pizza they connected the learning to the real world that went beyond students’ memories from their native countries.

Likewise, computer-based instruction that drew on real-life simulations or websites with authentic material, such as job information or how to get your driver’s license honored students’ need for relevance that expressed itself as observable engagement in learning.

Outside of the classroom, counselors too share the responsibility to remind students of the relevance of persisting with the program to their lives and aspirations. Practices such as HERC’s Night to Dream panel of community members who had reached educational, career and life goals such as buying their own home are also effective in reminding students of the relevance of the daily struggle to learn English to the changes they seek in their lives.