Persistence: Helping Adult Education Students Reach Their Goals

This resource focuses on persistence and the author provides a synopsis of research, studies, findings, and implications for national, state, and local adult education practitioners.  

J. Comings
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy (NCSALL)
Review of Adult Learning and Literacy, Vol. 7, Connecting Research, Policy, and Practice, Ch. 2
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages

The author defines persistence and discusses why this issue is critical for the field.  In the resource, persistence is defined as “a continuous learning process that lasts until an adult student meets his or her educational goals.”  Several studies are highlighted in the resource that examines the intensity and duration of instruction, participation, retention, and persistence.  The author concludes by suggesting changes in policy and practice that might support higher levels of persistence and suggests direction for future research.

Comings describes a multi-phase persistence study that examined factors which support and inhibit persistence.  Results of a phase one force-field analysis identified several forces such as relationships, goals, teacher and fellow students, and self-determination that enhance and support persistence.  Three types of negative factors that inhibit persistence were identified and included life demands, relationships, and poor self-determination. The author recommends that local adult education programs support their efforts in persistence by:

  1. examining positive and negative forces that hinder or support student persistence
  2. building self-efficacy or the feeling that students can be successful in their educational and goal pursuits
  3. setting clear, meaningful, and achievable goals, and
  4. helping students realize progress in meeting those goals. 

In addition, the resource recommends that adult educators closely examine their strategies to keep adult learners or intermittent learners engaged in learning while they are forced to exit temporarily from program participation.

What the experts say

Expert 1:  With student persistence being such a critical issue for adult education programs across the country, this document is definitely an important resource for all adult educators.  The research review is a concise and easy-to-read compilation of studies, findings, and implications that can benefit national, state, and local adult education practitioners.  First and foremost perhaps is the recommended definition of student persistence versus the traditional term of retention.  The term retention stems from a program’s point of view; the program wants to retain its students. Comings and colleagues (1999) preferred the term persistence because it defines this phenomenon from the point of view of students who persist in learning—inside and outside of a program—until they have achieved their goals.

Adults staying in programs for as long as they can, engaging in self-directed  study or distance education when they must stop attending program services,  and returning to program services as soon as the demands of their lives allow.

Implications for Local Programs:

By examining the current status of policies, procedures, instructional practices, and professional development opportunities that underpin the four supports and intermittent learning, local programs can determine areas needing improvement related to such functions as:

  • Intake and orientation procedures that identify and resolve barriers to participation, begin to develop a sense of community, and provide sufficient information to allow new students to set clear expectations for their participation;
  • Initial assessment and goal setting procedures that identify student strengths, meaningful goals and interests, and needs;
  • Instructional practices that directly relate to identified goals; accommodate various learning styles and student needs; and build student leadership, a sense of community, and self-efficacy;
  • Ongoing assessment procedures that provide revisiting of student goals, realignment of programs of study, continual feedback on student progress;
  • The types of professional development and technical assistance that must be provided to all staff to foster the four persistence supports; and
  • Distance learning strategies that can keep student engaged during their temporary hiatus from program participation.

In addition, the resource includes a list of elements (Tracy-Mumford 1994) for a student persistence plan that weaves persistence strategies into all aspects of the program structure.  These strategies could be formatted into a program persistence checklist to assist in determining program improvement needs.

Identification of At-Risk Learners:  The resource describes several factors that could be used to develop checklists to assist in the early identification of students who may be at-risk in terms of persistence.  For example, Comings identifies five persistence pathways that are determined by personal and environmental factors and ways that programs might support students on each pathway.  The five pathways are long-term, mandatory, short-term, try-out, and intermittent.

Implications at the State Level:

At the state level, the implications of the persistence research are substantial.  Examples include:

  • Supporting a “quality versus quantity philosophy” to allow programs to focus funding on persistence strategies to keep students connected to learning until they meet their goals versus pressure for increased enrollment with limited persistence.
  • Maintaining accurate reporting systems that provide local programs with class and student data in a timely and efficient manner to ensure they are examining student persistence trends over time and identifying issues needing attention.
  • Offering an array of state-wide professional development opportunities (face-to-face, online courses, blended options, study circles, etc.) to ensure that local programs are aware of the persistence research and are able to implement strategies to support the findings.
  • Examining distance learning policies and options to assist local programs in supporting intermittent learners.
  • Integrating student persistence research and strategies into orientation trainings for new instructors and program administrators.
  • Integrating student persistence research and strategies into program standards or indicators of program quality, program monitoring instruments, and RFP’s.
  • Developing online resource libraries of strategies and materials that reflect the four persistence supports.
  • Examining the recommended implications for further research contained within the document to determine if there are ways in which the state could conduct and/or support needed research studies.

Expert 2:  This resource is valuable in a number of ways:

  1. It masterfully links theory to practical advice for the field with frameworks and strategies for increasing student persistence that are relevant to adult education programs and students and grounded in research.
  2. In one engaging, easy to read chapter, it boils down what we need to know and do as a field to increase student persistence and success. 

It is grounded in the philosophy of doing what is best for students.  Policymakers are challenged to broaden their perspectives of what constitutes student success and practitioners are encouraged to support student persistence from recruitment through follow-up.

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