Home | About Us | Site Map

Drivers of Persistence


Learning is difficult in an environment that is chaotic or unstable. Yet many adult programs are designed, out of the best intentions to meet the needs of every individual, to allow students to enter and exit classes at any time. This constant coming and going has been termed “turbulence,” (Sticht, 1998), and a growing body of research is showing that it disrupts learning and decreases retention.

In a survey of 17 teachers at San Diego Community College, Sticht (1998) found that open entry/open exit policies made it difficult for teachers to know who would be in their classes from day to day, and therefore to plan extended or innovative instruction. Povenmire, in her review of the literature, adds that turbulence is a challenge to classroom management, curriculum development and teaching, and community building and trust. “In an effort to ‘catch up’ new students on previously covered material, teachers repeat lessons over and over again, which 1) discourages learners who have already participated in those lessons and would like to move on, and 2) prevents teachers from actually completing an entire lesson unit with a cohort of learners” (Povenmire, 2006).

In Ramirez’s study of ESOL students in open enrollment, non-credit classes at MiraCosta College in California, she found that “25% of the students left the program after one week of instruction and only 8% were promoted to the next level of instruction.” Students often complained that they couldn’t see progress and blamed that lack of progress on the constant turnover and repetition in their classes. In this study (Ramirez, 2005), managed enrollment was instituted at the main campus site in five 8-week sessions. The results indicated that the average retention rate went up to 80% per session and 35% of students were promoted or graduated each session. During the second year of managed enrollment, almost 50% of students were promoted or graduated after one session.

Given the timeframe of the NELP project, most programs that did not already have managed enrollment in place did not have the time to plan for and implement it as their persistence strategy. However, several programs began to serve students in cohorts – small groups that would enter a class together. At Vernon Regional ABE and the Clinton Adult Learning Center, their new group orientations created natural cohorts as students were no longer registered and placed in class one at a time. SCALE’s peer mentoring model also relied on a cohort model to bring a small group of students into the advanced math class together, so that they could benefit from the peer support of both the cohort and their new mentors. SCALE teacher Tom Glannon credits the cohort model with creating the opportunity for students to “work their way through the class syllabus in a more organized, cohesive way.” All of these programs are continuing or expanding policies that manage the movement of students in clusters, as they were well-received by students, teachers, and counselors alike. And some programs, such as Quinsigamond Community College, whose own intervention had nothing to do with cohorts are moving toward managed enrollment after seeing the impact it’s having at other programs.

In addition to the turbulence that may result from program policies, many adult students experience turmoil in their daily lives due to a variety of poverty-related issues. Schafft and Prins (in press) researched the relationship between poverty, residential mobility, and persistence in Pennsylvania family literacy programs and found that in twelve out of twenty programs practitioners estimated that the typical participant moved once a year or more. This transience was due to displacement caused by poverty, domestic abuse, employment instability, and other disruptions that disproportionately affect the poor. Residential instability then affected persistence because families needed time to get resettled and transportation often became more difficult.

Other forms of instability affect adult students, as well. Perry (2006) notes that “nearly one-third of the adult population bring to their classroom a history of abuse, neglect, developmental chaos, or violence that influences their capacity to learn,” as well as those who have acquired cumulative trauma from past stress-inducing experiences in school. According to Perry, “The key to understanding the long-term impact of trauma on an adult learner is to remember that he or she is often, at baseline, in a state of low-level fear. . . . 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.”

And yet it is not only those who have experienced turmoil or trauma that benefit from stable learning environments. Drago-Severson, et al. (2001), in a study of using cohorts with different kinds of adult learners, found that all students need supports and challenges from their surrounding contexts in order to grow. “We refer to such contexts as ‘holding environments.’ ” One aspect of a good holding environment is that “it ‘sticks around,’ providing continuity, stability, and availability to the person in the process of growth.”

Several programs implemented interventions that added elements of predictability, continuity, safety, and stability to their students’ experiences. On the program level, student orientations provided a safe, welcoming introduction to the program and built a connection among the new students that supported them through their first classes. Clinton Director Christine Cordio observed that “students bonded with each other as ‘new students’ and the . . . teacher mentioned she could literally see the look of relief on their faces because they knew someone in the class from attending the orientation.”

Counselors increased their attention to new and at-risk students so that they received regular, predictable support calls. Several students mentioned that it was this consistent support that got them through their GED exams. And on the instructional level, many students responded to regularly scheduled activities in the classroom. At the International Institute of Boston, students commented on looking forward to their Wednesday night combined class, and students at the RI Family Literacy Initiative eagerly awaited their next reading packets.

Ritualized activities were an explicit element of Barbara Alsabek’s strategy at the Genesis Center. Students were so accustomed to the regular opening and closing activities that they could step in to lead them. For example, Barbara reported that, “One day I was late in getting the daily syllabus on the board . . . and one of the students of her own volition walked up to the front board and wrote the date at the top where the syllabus is always scribed. She then wrote the word ‘activities’ under it and asked me what we would be doing that day. I dictated the syllabus to her and was fairly overcome that this daily syllabus had becomes so much a part of the classroom ritual that a few minutes’ lateness led to this student participation.”

Overall, offering students predictable, consistent programming enabled them to participate more fully and with greater ease. More attention could be paid to their learning, as they were not distracted by the anxieties and other affective barriers that arise when dealing with constant change.