Making it Worth the Stay: Findings from the New England Adult Learner Persistence Project

The study examines strategies and both quantitative and qualitative outcomes in four program components: intake and orientation; instruction; counseling and peer support; and re-engagement.

A. Nash
S. Kallenbach
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
New England Literacy Resource Center, World Education
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages
Product Type

The New England Literacy Resource Center at World Education developed the New England Learner Persistence project with the purpose of improving the persistence and outcomes of adult learners to enable them to meet their educational and related life goals. This resource describes how adult student persistence research was used first in study circles and subsequently for action research in 18 New England adult education programs in 5 states. The adult education programs that participated in the study varied by size, focus, and location.

The study examines strategies and both quantitative and qualitative outcomes in four program components: intake and orientation; instruction; counseling and peer support; and re-engagement. For the project, persistence was measured by rates of attendance, completion of a course and/or hours of self-study.

Numerous persistence strategies that were used in the study included:

  • Showing interest, support, consideration, and caring of students
  • Enhancing the ability of students to make informed decisions
  • Providing learners with options and opportunities for them to be included in decision-making
  • Engaging in dialogue with students concerning their learning and goals
  • Expanding the learners’ roles and responsibilities in the program
  • Making learning relevant and engaging for students and
  • Providing consistency in terms of program structure.

The importance of recognizing and examining adult learners’ affective needs (sense of belonging and community, clarity of purpose, agency, competence, relevance, and stability) is underscored in the report. The authors recommend that these affective needs serve as guideposts in designing, revising, and testing specific strategies. The report concludes by discussing implications of the study’s strategies and findings for policy, practice, and research.

What the experts say

This resource provides programs with interventions and findings to support program change and help to address the ongoing challenges of recruiting, enrolling, and retaining students. The summaries throughout the report provide clear descriptions of interventions, results, challenges, and next steps. The variety of charts and categories contained in the resource allows for ease of use and readability. The reader can choose from a wide array of strategies or interventions that would be most relevant for implementing in their program. Key outcomes and challenges for each section are particularly helpful as a summary of the various interventions.

The chart on page 64, Effective Persistence Strategies and Their Outcomes, is a concise summary of strategies, outcomes, and related affective needs for adult learners. Administrators and program improvement teams could use this information to identify interventions that might be most beneficial for their program. The cross-category challenges section provides a comprehensive list of common challenges found in the programs, regardless of the size, focus, or location.

Program directors and professional development staff will find this resource to be a good guide for local or statewide projects and is valuable on a number of levels:

  • Adult education programs looking for new strategies to increase student persistence will find a variety of promising practices to adopt or adapt as well as descriptions of key outcomes from the New England programs. The study describes strategies the participating programs explored within the categories of intake and orientation, instruction, counseling/peer support, and student re-engagement.
  • If you want to know about student persistence but have little time to locate and review multiple sources, this study is comprehensive in identifying and summarizing research on adult student persistence. The authors’ synthesis of research in section 7, Findings by Adults’ Affective Needs, summarize how various persistence strategies can address adults’ need for a sense of belonging and community; clarity of purpose; agency; competence; relevance; and stability.
  • The study is an excellent example of action research and its value to program staff and students. Perhaps even the limitations of the study – short duration, small sample size and lack of baseline data – can be instructive for those wishing to implement action research projects in the future.
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