Learning and Talking Together

Research investigating persistence and retention in adult literacy programs

By: Robin Millar and Joy So

With funding from the National Literacy Secretariat

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This study was a collaborative effort between Journeys Adult Education Program, the Adult Literacy and Continuing Education Branch, Department of Education and Training, and the National Literacy Secretariat, Human Resource Development Canada.

The authors would like to thank the students for participating in this study. It is their voices that help us understand what adult learning is all about. For the purposes of confidentiality, the names of individual students have been changed. All students participated willingly in the study and consent forms were obtained from them.

Robin Millar was the researcher. She conducted interviews, collected qualitative data, and did the literature review.

Joy So was the class instructor. She collected the quantitative data and provided day-to-day instruction for both the Cohort and Control Groups.

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Overview of the project:

In order to investigate what adult literacy programs can do to promote student persistence and retention, a study was constructed to compare students who were assigned to a cohort group versus students whose program was only individualised. Students in the Cohort Group were randomly matched to a Control Group of students studying independently in the same program. Since the dropout rate in literacy programs is particularly high in the first two months, it was speculated that the Cohort group would provide greater support to help students continue with the program and achieve their identified goals.

This report includes a literature review, quantitative and qualitative data, and recommendations for program development for adult literacy.

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Literature on retention, motivation and persistence:

Retention in literacy programs is an issue of concern for the literacy field and literacy programs. Statistics in Manitoba over the past ten years indicate that 1) about 30 to 50% of students who enrol in literacy programs drop out and 2) only about 2% of students identified as being in need of literacy provision seek help.

Dirkx and Jha (1994) sought to identify students who are more at risk for non-continuing adult basic education classes. They contend that those with a lower reading level, who are less academically prepared, are less likely to persist. It may be that past experiences in school are particularly potent as deterrence factors. Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) identify negative attitudes towards schooling or the educational institutions as one of the two main reasons for adults not participating in programs.

Quigley (1993) has conducted a number of surveys of people he terms "resisters." Quigley classifies resisters as people who had consciously chosen not to attend literacy programs in spite of acknowledging they were "probably eligible to attend classes and agreed they could physically have attended such classes if they truly wanted" (1993:81). In spite of a range of serious deterrents from severe poverty to drug problems, the more severe deterrent appeared to be memories of prior schooling. In using a guided interview format, Quigley concluded that all subjects were adamant that they saw an "absolute value in education for their children" (1993:82). In addition, informants could identify ways in which they had continued leaming. This is consistent with Tough's (1979) view that adults continue learning projects whether in or out of formal learning situations.

The negative schooling experiences, Quigley (1993) feels, were so powerful that these memories continue to keep people away from formal education. Of these resisters, it was not lack of internal motivation that kept them away, but a discrepancy between schooling and education. Some researchers have identified deterrence factors rather than out right resistance as reasons for lack of participation or persistence in adult education. Thomas (1990) calls these individuals 'stopouts'. Valentine and Darkenwald (1990) identified a number of reasons that students are deterred from attending adult education classes. Almost 30% of the sample identified personal problems, especially childcare, as deterring them from attending. Rachal, et al (1987) also identified external reasons for people most likely to dropout. These deterrents are not motivational, but situational.

Ziegahn (1992) contends that persistence or resistance in attending adult literacy is more complicated. Like Cross (1981 ) she believes that motivations for participation are quite complex with participation a dynamic force of motivators and deterrents. In her qualitative study with Native Americans in Montana she found that a good deal of shame around illiteracy still exists in communities, even those that profess a positive view of adult literacy education. Ziegahn identified motivating forces as the desire to understand, to see results and apply knowledge, to respond to a challenge and to pass on knowledge. She observed that many of these motivations would occur simultaneously. At the same time forces which deterred students include past negative experiences with schooling, the alternative demands of adult life, and, for women, a deterrent was the responsibilities of caring for family. This is consistent with the findings of Horseman (1990) who found that the family demands on women overwhelmed their potential for participation in up-grading opportunities.

Finally, a number of researchers have identified certain personality or attitudinal constructs that potentially make learners more at risk to drop out or fail. Valentine and Darkenwald (1990) identified a lack of confidence (27.1%) as the second largest deterrent for adult learners. This lack of confidence is considered a trait or personality characteristic rather than a condition of the learning situation. Reynolds and Gerstein (1991 ) contend that the most 'at risk' in adult education are those who base their decisions to attend on the expectations or opinions of others. Although Reynolds and Gerstein did not conduct locus of control investigation of students they studied, their descriptions are remarkably like those offered by Perry and Struthers (1994) for at risk students. Students who are externally motivated who believe that forces outside themselves are the cause of their success or failure, are more vulnerable to dropping out in college.

A study conducted by Victor Mager Literacy Program (Thompson & Millar, 1996) looked at program delivery as a possible impact on motivation and persistence. In this study two literacy groups, taught by the same instructor were formed. One group had a structured format with assignment deadlines and times structures for studying. The other group was more loosely constructed with individuals setting their own goals and timelines. Neither group showed greater persistence. Although this study was small (36 individuals), the conclusions seemed to bear out that the program structure did not play a large part in whether students persisted in completing.

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Development of the cohort idea

Most adult literacy programs provide individualised instruction in group settings. This means that each adult sets individual learning goals. For some, this may mean goals are personal. These students want to improve their reading or writing for such personal or social reasons as learning to read to their children or accessing information such as reading the TV guide. Other students have specific job oriented goals or a desire to gain the appropriate qualifications for further training or education. Because goals are individualised, most up- grading programs have continuous intake. This means that a "class" is rarely constructed. Too many people are working on too many different levels and with different goals.

The cohort concept emerged out of the theory that working with a group could promote cohesion and provide the necessary supports for students to persist. Group psychotherapists and analysts provide some support for this theoretical supposition. Yalom (1985) contends that participants in groups with a higher degree of cohesiveness "value the group more highly and will defend it against internal and external threats. Voluntary attendance, participation mutual help defence of the group standards are all greater than in groups with less esprit de corps"(49). At the same time group therapists contend that groups are helpful for people experiencing or anticipating some life transition (Whitaker, 1985). It would appear, then, that a supportive group, focused on sharing the similar changes and backgrounds of its participants might provide a venue for introducing students to their new roles and provide on-going sustenance when students were vulnerable.

Most cohort studies have been conducted with students in higher education, especially those participating in educational leadership programs. Balsom, et al (I 995) contend that "effective groups work together, provide assistance to each other, find success in their efforts, while at the same time, developing each individual's talents"(4). These authors suggest that the development of interdependence is an important aspect of the effectiveness of the group. Groups must have a common purpose, promote social interaction, and the group must provide some results in terms of goals and personal development. A literature search revealed only one study in adult literacy that focused on the development of group work. Cooper & Inverso (1994) conclude that collaborative groups "enhance retention in learners because participants in collaborative groups believe that their activities and perspectives constitute significant knowledge that ought to be shared and that their own lives and experiences are course of knowledge"

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Description of the cohort group

In the fall of 1996, Journeys Adult Education Program in Winnipeg was given a grant to develop a cohort group to see if this approach would promote persistence and provide extra support for learners. Each student in the cohort study participated in eight one-hour sessions (once each week for eight successive weeks). Then, students received up to six hours per week of literacy/up-grading instruction based on their own goals. The Cohort group was randomly selected from a wait list on the basis of students who were able to attend. These students were also asked to agree to the guidelines for the cohort study. Students were told that attendance was mandatory for the first eight weeks, especially attendance at the Cohort discussion group. The researcher and the students decided the topics of discussion. Some topics included: returning to school, reasons for participation, how they viewed their own educational history, and strategies or approaches that might serve to support them in persisting in the program.

In the Cohort group four out of seven women had some kind of abuse (physical and/or sexual) in their background. Five out of the seven women were single parents. Some women had current partners, but the partner was either not the father of their child or was not seen as a permanent fixture. All students experienced considerable distress in their teenage years. Ten of the eleven came from working class backgrounds. One male student was from Trinidad, two women were Aboriginal, all the rest were Caucasian, Canadian born.

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Running the cohort group

The Cohort group discussions ran from October 1996 to December 1996 on eight successive Monday evenings. Eleven students participated in each session. After each discussion group, students received two hours of academic instruction. Students also received academic instruction for three hours on Wednesday evenings. After the initial eight week period, students continued to receive instructional help for six hours per week at the regular time slot. The Cohort discussions were tape recorded, and these tapes were transcribed for analysis. Students' reactions, interpretations, and feelings about the cohort as well as their reasons for dropping out, returning to school, resistances, and understandings of power and control were analysed. The group process was studied to determine if there was any greater group cohesiveness in the cohort situation and how this might play a part in supporting the continued persistence of students in adult basic education up-grading.

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Quantitative Results of the study

Eleven students participated in the original Cohort discussions. For statistical purposes an additional two students were added when individuals dropped out. The total participation for of both the Cohort and Control group was 13 students each. At the beginning of the study the members of the Cohort Group were roughly matched for literacy level, gender, age, and employment status to the Control Group. Twenty-six students participated in the entire study, 14 students were female and 12 were male. Fourteen (14) individuals were employed and 12 were unemployed (8 on social assistance, 1 a homemaker, and one on Employment Insurance). The following Table provides a breakdown of the statistical data.

Cohort Group Control Group
Gender F=7 M= 6 F= 7 M=6
Employment Status Employed= 8




Learning level Stage 1=0

Stage 2= 6

Stage 3= 6

GED prep= 1

Stage 1=3

Stage 2= 7

Stage 3= 1

GED prep= 2

Age range 21-46 21-58

Contrary to current data learning level did not seem to play as much a part in dropout rate as family responsibilities, work related responsibilities, or other concerns. Although the learning level of the Control Group was slightly lower than the learning levels of the Cohort Group these did not seem significant either. For example of the three Stage 1 learners in the Control group only one dropped out.

The table below outlines the drop-out/persistence rate of the cohort and control groups.

Total Number 26

Cohort Persistence Cohort Dropped Control Persistence Control Dropped
6 7 4 9

Students in the cohort group had slightly higher persistence rates but the study has such a small number of participants that few conclusions can be drawn from this. On the surface, the quantitative data does not suggest a particular impact that the Cohort group had on persistence. However, the qualitative data suggests the Cohort group sustained participation and provided support early on in the program.

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Qualitative Data

Students were asked about the value of the Cohort discussions at the end of the eight- week sessions and several months later. All students found the experience to be helpful for a number of reasons. It reduced their sense of isolation, helped them understand their past experiences, and provided meaning for their new endeavour. As Joy, the instructor put it,

Of course, the big difference was they did their bonding much faster. Than my regular class would. And they did that much, more, they were not forced into it, but it was a regular thing every Monday. They had you come in for the first hour and go through your research. So that forced the bonding faster. Uhm, so that definitely happened a lot faster than in my regular group where it happened more naturally.

Students themselves appreciated the interaction developed in the Cohort group. They felt the group offered them support, a chance to express themselves, and a positive learning milieu.

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Reducing isolation

The students in the Cohort appreciated the chance to interact with one another, exchange experiences and ideas, and generally get to know one another. This social interaction reduces isolation, a sense of "being the only one", of alienation. It may be true that many students have mixed feelings of shame and blame around dropping out of school, but once they return to adult education, they are proud of their accomplishments and not shy about sharing.

Tanya contended that her sense of comfort comes from feeling there are others like her at the program.

I feel comfortable because I know I'm not the only one in my shoes. Being' comfortable or whatever. I mean you can't imagine the single parents here. You always think you're the only one out there. I feel comfortable comin' here.

Tanya felt that by the commonalties of being a single parent, returning to school, dealing with all the difficulties inherent in this combination reduces her resistance to schooling and encourages her to persist.

Sherry agreed. She asserted that in a group you will find others with experiences like yours. In this way, learning will be more compatible and supportive.

I'd also like to add that when you're in a group, I'd say nine out of ten cases, I'm not saying everybody. Some people will find other people with similar issues in their life. Maybe not similar issues but similar things that they've been through, or and it makes it much more easier, you know? You become more compatible. You talk, and then everybody usually joins in a group.

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Sharing experiences

Participants in this study found that having the chance to exchange experiences, reflect on their past and current motivations, and generally share difficulties was supportive. Greg articulated this clearly.

And it gives you a chance to reflect on that. Like how I heard it, to revisit those experiences that might have been quite painful at that time. You can like revisit them but you don't have to re-open the wounds. You gain awareness of uh, like for other people, the difficulty

In particular, the students appreciated the chance to share their past experiences of dropping out, of returning to school and what that meant for them. Dick contended that in addition to the friendliness of the staff and students "It does make sense to have people at the same level you know that you are at, to have a discussion about certain things, where you went to school, and the conditions everybody understand each other, so.."

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Provide a sense of belonging

The group provides a sense of belonging, of sharing. George felt that the group as a whole plus his role in the group helped him gain a sense of control over his own life.

Because we're kind of like a group. And, you know, you want to move forward and I want the best for everybody here in the group. Like if somebody's got a problem you know then it's affecting the group. I mean, individual things, is individual, but as a group, you know, it's interesting it helpful for me too, to hear that somebody's struggling. Because I want, I like to see everybody's moving forward. Somebody's going down or something like that if I can do something for somebody. I'll do it. And that sort of helps me get control of myself too. And because, I'm here.

Students felt comfortable, a part of things, but they also had adult status. Students agreed that they will have individual differences, but that their reasons for being in adult education were similar. They believe that adult education is substantially different from school. Adults can chose to be there or not. The learning and motivational situation is now under their control, not dictated by a school system or parents. By discussing these similar feelings and situations, students felt more linked to their learning, and connected with others and the program.

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Helping students persist

The group offered comfort and encouragement. Being a part of the group can help sustain commitment and persistence. Greg feels that somehow the group energy will help him.

So it's like the dynamics of the group that somehow, I don't know what happens, but it encourages me in myself. It doesn't really matter like who the other people are. No offence to anybody. Cause everybody's doing their own thing, right? Some people have kids, some people don't, some people work, some people don't, et cetera. It guess the common bond is being in a room of people that are all trying to do the same thing. Regardless of their background. It's comforting. It's comforting.

Students need opportunities to discuss their past difficulties on learning and current barriers to learning. These discussions reduce isolation and provide continued sustenance to students, which helps them persist. Dick reflects on the value of the group,

Seeing everybody else around here, made me realize that there's not only one person in this school that have a problem reading and writing. And it's pretty proud that you could come out and say that you have a problem. Doing these things. Instead of hiding it for years. And what not. But it's not a problem when somebody asks, yes, I am going to school, I am taking adult education. They might look at you and says, oh, you're going back to school and whatnot. To me I don't feel anyway, I feel proud, I don't care what people think once I'm getting what I want to get. And learning the stuff that I want to learn. I'll continue doing it.

Dick asserts that he "feels proud" not only of himself for admitting he has problems in reading and writing but of others, too. By discussing these differences, Dick feels that his sense of shame and blame has been reduced through interacting in the group and that this helps him keep attending.

Recommendations to adult literacy programs

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1) Provide opportunities for regular small group discussions

Students liked the opportunity to share with one another and to use that experience to get to know one another. The instructor felt that the small group (no more than 12 students) was particularly appropriate for this. Group discussions can easily be integrated with other learning goals and experiences. The group can work on helping individuals set learning goals, establish learning schedules and learning habits, and mini-study group assignments.

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2) Develop a range of discussion topics of interest to students

Students strongly were interested in discussing the reasons they dropped out of school, especially sharing those incidents of shaming and blaming from teachers, parents and peers. At least one discussion session focused on these experiences. Students were also interested in how others were coping with becoming a student and what changes to their lives they were experiencing. For many students the return to school can trigger negative emotions from the past. The group can help stabilise these students and help them feel "normal" when they feel things are unsettled.

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3) Focus on learning strategies and study skills

Students were interested in discussing their own learning strategies and how they were handling specific skills (such as reading a textbook.) They appreciated hearing how others were struggling and solving these problems. Adult learners need to feel they are gaining skills and improving their abilities to learn. These collaborative discussions can reduce teacher power and provide a range of ways to tackle new learning.

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4) Provide support to becoming a student

The group discussion can not only focus on developing a "bonded" group, but also on the difficulties and tasks inherent in becoming a student. Since many adults in basic education are not aware of the need to reorganize lives, reduce current commitments, develop new styles of learning and managing their time, a group can provide the medium for introducing these changes. Joy, the instructor for the cohort group, agreed on the value of these discussions.

And I've been thinking since talking with you that well maybe some of the things that I should be doing next year is having group discussions not just on bonding the group but on specific things like how you have to change your life now. Or how your life will be different. Or how do you think your life is going to be different? And discuss all of that because I think, certainly I've never done that, in any of my classes, and maybe it would affect the absenteeism and affect the drop out rate. Initially on. Because after the euphoria passes of doing something new. Then the reality steps in and then that's when it starts getting fearful and if you're not used to event thinking that this I changed, this is what's gonna happen. And this is gonna happen. And if that's not in your repertoire.

Many students lack supportive families. When asked, "Who, in your past or present, would be least surprised at your returning to school?" Most students admitted that they couldn't think of anyone. No one in his or her experience believed in them, or cared whether they finished their education. Surprisingly, they did not appreciate the importance that support systems play in persistence. Programs may need to organise different ways to provide support for students whose families, friends, or peers do not provide that support.

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5) Use the discussion group to informally evaluate the program

Good practice in literacy programming includes supports to learners, quality instruction and opportunities for students to impact on program development and design. Students in this study appreciated financial supports, which included childcare (or babysitting services), transportation supports, and free tuition. They liked the adult milieu and caring instructors. Programs that offered flexible timetables and the opportunity to work at your own pace were also praised.

Because adult learners are aware of the value of the adult literacy program (and in some cases because the program is the only one available to them) they are often reluctant to critique the program. General discussion programs, which offer students a chance to analyse what makes a quality program, can facilitate program evaluation. Adult literacy program can use the discussion periods to determine what aspects of the program are working well and what needs more expansion or improvement. The Cohort Group provided feedback on areas they felt were supportive and areas that needed attention.

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