On the retention of adult learners


The literature on retention of adult learners strongly suggests that previous educational attainment is closely tied to participation and persistence. Educationally disadvantaged adults are more likely to lack self-confidence and self-esteem, have negative attitudes toward education, and need mastery of basic skills such as literacy before attaining job skills that could improve their economic circumstances.
Sandra Kerka, Strategies for Retaining Adult Students:
The Educationally Disadvantaged. ERIC Digest No. 76


Last Monday night I decided to drop a film documentary class I had been taking at Columbia after getting my first assignment back from Jane Gaines, the professor. I had completely forgotten how bad a reaction I have to getting papers graded.... Just three months short of my 66th birthday, the last thing I needed was to go through the humiliating experience of a professor giving me a C.... I was flabbergasted by her insistence that I use the term “motion picture” instead of “movie”.


Grumpy old Louis Proyect calls himself "the unrepentant marxist" and has the chops and writings to prove it. He spent the late 60's and most of the 70's in the American Trotskyist movement, before growing beyond it to work in the fields of Central America as an activist and published author. These days, he focuses on films and the open or hidden political and economic statements they make.

I laughed when I read his growling complaints about the disconnecting experience of trying to bring real-life credentials and experiences to the game-show world of universities. The heart of his problem was that he wasn't in that class by choice. He was there because it was a prerequisite to attending the class he really wanted. This is part of how universities work. As with cell phone and cable companies, it isn't enough to purchase just one of their products: you have to buy a bundle. The cell phone people justify this by saying they want to save us money. Universities justify it by saying they know what's good for us. And, of course, they retain the grade school model of an adult-like, informed expert called a teacher or professor who has the job of judging each (presumed child-like) student's work.

These days, I often find myself thinking about going back. In the last year or so, I've been aware of issues in community literacy work which I can't get my head around because I don't have the theoretical framework any longer. I need a half dozen left-leaning 4th year poli-sci students to talk stuff out with. I need the political economy and the history.

I was tempted far enough in this direction to apply for the online Foundations of Family Literacy program offered out of BC this fall. But I was late getting to it, and then Canada Post told me over-night delivery of my payment would take 7 earth days (their one day delivery apparently operates on lunar time), and I realised I just wasn't ready, so I bowed out.

There is a distance Community Development program offered out of Nova Scotia, I hear. Maybe they'd have the political economy I need. It would be more expensive, but I can scrap together the money. Surely Canada Post can get a letter to Cape Breton in three or four days. The real question is if I'll do any better than Louis when it comes to having my passionate and work-related reflections graded by someone who almost certainly knows less than I do about the adults, families and neighbourhoods I serve.

Formal education is frequently expensive, inconvenient and disheartening. Some of us, working hard, doing our best, getting by, making plans to do better, are reluctant to spend time, money, effort and self-esteem in a course with a fixed curriculum and a grading apparatus. What's in it for us? Certification and the job security that it promises (however falsely) are values imposed on us from the outside - sometimes by people who directly profit from us going back to school.

Education, intellectual pursuits, and life long learning may be important parts of a life well lived, but Formal Education isn't. It's a system whereby people buy and sell education and/or certification through a process almost wholly controlled by the vendor.

We in the adult learning field are not totally innocent of this sort of thing, and it shows up most clearly when we talk about recruitment and retention.

Consider that infamous gap between the apparent literacy or skills deficit of 40% or 50% of Canadian adults, and the much smaller number (10%? less?) who actually show up at our classroom door. If so many are suffering so badly because they can't read well enough or can't do their sums, then why aren't they calling?

I suspect the problem - for us - is an inverse of how we generally talk about our nation's literacy crisis. The problem is not that too many Canadians with low literacy skills cannot function in daily life. The problem is that too many Canadians with low literacy skills can function - raising families, holding down jobs, helping out in their neighbourhoods.

Are they still poor? Sometimes. Do they still get sick more often than their more literate neighbours? Yes, on average. They also, on average, have more run-ins with the police, suffer more domestic violence, are more likely to be abused in the workplace, and have a harder time dealing with their kids' schools.

And yet. They get through their days. They keep their expectations low, find and stay in safe spaces (even the ones they know aren't really safe), put their faith in scratch tickets or God, and they get through their days.

Like Louis and I, they are uncertain that they want to go back to school. They know they risk ridicule and failure and being harshly judged - not because they are "educationally disadvantaged adults" but because that's the nature of school. In addition, unlike Louis and I, many have children in their care. Family responsibilities, as well as chronically poor health and a shaky socio-economic situation, make a mockery of intentions to attend regularly in a good frame of mind over an extended period.

Meantime, we offer a two centuries old education system that was designed for children, and has since been tweaked chiefly to meet the needs of staff, volunteers, employers and funders.

The wonder isn't that struggling, self-respecting adults won't stay in our programs. The wonder is that anyone shows up at all.


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