In search of the secret of stickability
John Vorhaus and Desiree Lopez on what an NRDC project is discovering about learner 'staying power'
What helps Skills for Life learners to persist for long enough to make real and lasting progress? And what are the barriers that lie in their way? The Quality Improvement Agency has commissioned NRDC, together with our partners NIACE and Tribal-CTAD, to find answers to these questions and to offer practical support for learners, teachers and providers that encourages and enables learners to persist.
The Persistence, Progression and Achievement (PPA) project got under way at the end of last year and is now helping learners to 'stick with it' at sites up and down the country. The PPA literature review, the results from the project's web survey, and other research and development work will be shared on a new website www.stickwithit.org.uk
Some messages are already coming across loud and clear. UK research suggests that learners who withdraw from courses do not have a markedly different demographic profile from those who complete their studies. Researchers in the US reached a similar conclusion. They did, however, find that immigrants, those over the age of 30, and parents of older children, were more likely to persist.
Barriers to persistence
What about the barriers to persistence? We know of at least three kinds: situational (the pressures of day-to-day life), institutional (providers' rules and procedures) and dispositional (the attitudes that learners bring to their learning). It is the dispositional barriers that may prove to be the biggest, but they are the ones that are often least understood by practitioners. Respondents to our web survey shared similar perceptions about the barriers and what could help to break them down:
■ time for adult learners to develop a real love of learning
■ practitioners having time to understand what motivates their learners as people
■ more diverse progression routes
■ more flexible provision
■ more personal tutor follow-up with learners when they are absent or have to drop out for periods of time.
There is also evidence that providers and teachers who identify early on the learners at risk of dropping out are likely to witness higher levels of persistence. The first three weeks are critical.
Episodes of learning
Adults involved in previous literacy, language or numeracy learning, or vocational skills training, are also more likely to persist. And that underlines the importance of recognising episodes of learning and self-study; learning does not stop just because formal learning has ended. Adults engage in self-study, often at home. We need to recognise learning pathways that include much more than what goes on in a formal learning environment.
The web survey respondents agree. They mentioned working with learners to support learning outside the classroom. Resources such as Skillswise (www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise) and other forms of e-learning have proved helpful in this respect.
The importance of goals
We also believe that goals matter. Adults who mention a specific goal when they are enrolling on a course or training programme are often more likely to persist. The time spent in finding and identifying a learner's motivation and goals is therefore time well spent - learners can then make informed choices about their education and training. Our web survey respondents endorse that view. They havealso found that effective initial assessment, which includes finding out what motivates learners as adults, and how they see learning in relation to their personal lives, is critical to supporting learnersto stick with it.
John Vorhaus is an associate director
of NRDC and director of the PPA
Desiree Lopez is an NRDC research and evaluation officer and project manager of the PPA project.
What do you do to help learners persist?
To share your experiences, to find out more about the PPA project, or to get involved, go to www.stickwithit.org.uk