Where were you last week?
Sarah Malins describes how she has responded to the problem of adult learners' non-attendance at literacy classes
I teach Literacy to a daytime class of twelve Entry 2 adult learners in Central London. Two learners are retired on low incomes and, of the other ten, only one is employed. Seven have children; three are single parents. Three have children under five years of age. Two care for elderly relatives. Two learners (both of them parents, and one a single parent) are affected by mental illness, and one has mental difficulties requiring semisheltered care. Five learners have frequent hospital appointments. One (a single parent) has a son requiring regular hospital visits; this same learner has serious housing difficulties. One learner has alcohol problems. Four are Muslim and follow strict religious observances, for example in Ramadan and Eid. Three Christian learners will not come to class on certain Christian festivals, such as All Souls' Day. Ten learners are second-language speakers and allegiance to their mother-country, usually African, remains strong; they miss class for celebrations such as an anniversary of Independence Day. On top of all this, learners are absent for the usual problems that affect everyone, such as waiting at home for an electrician.
That's a reasonably typical group.
They are also typical in that there is a serious problem of non-attendance. There were 107 absences in a single term, which meant 321 hours of potential learning lost during the 864-hour course (72 hours per learner). The reasons for this are shown in Table 1.
Non-attendance is not only a problem for the individual; it directly affects the tutor and the other learners and, indirectly, the college, the funding bodies, employers, and the national economy.
Of course, attendance per se does not necessarily mean progress is being made, but it gives an indication of the learners' attitudes and indicates that the teaching is at the correct level and that the learners are gaining something from the class.
Aiming to improve
Much of the above will be familiar to many practitioners but, while the last decade has seen a massive increase in the emphasis on the needs of adults with low literacy skills, not enough attention has been paid to the problem of maximising their attendance at classes. Most of these learners have little or no previous experience of the process of learning but are expected to attend regularly, and funding for their courses is linked to attendance and retention.
I have tried various ways of improving attendance, as shown in Table 2, with mixed success.
Personalising and motivation
Many commentators, and my own experience, confirm that motivation is the key to improving attendance. With this in mind I created a personalised 'Attendance and evaluation sheet' (after Soifer et al. 1990) for each learner to maintain for him/herself. Please see Figure 1 (page 18). It is apparent that the form itself provides several learning opportunities.
Learners kept their own record for the last four weeks of term. The attendance/lateness pattern of ten of the twelve learners improved markedly, ranging between 80% and 100%, though this may have been partly influenced by the imminence of their City & Guild's Assignment 3792. There was also a noticeable improvement in their learning outcomes.
Non-attendance does not necessarily mean that a learner is not interested in learning, that the College is not good, the tutor is not skilled, or the curriculum inappropriate. At Entry Level, it is likely to mean that learners are, quite simply, overcome by life's pressures; attending a Literacy class is necessarily a low priority. It may also be saying that these learners need a different, more caring approach to learning if they are to succeed, and that emotional support should play as large a part as academic support in their curriculum.
My recommendations are:
Avoid Monday daytime classes for learners with children: (a) Mondays are school INSET days; (b) a child will be taken to a doctor on Monday if ill over the weekend.
Morning classes should not start too early, to enable learners to sort out their domestic responsibilities.
Access as much Learning Support as possible, particularly to encourage men - whose self-esteem is often particularly low - to participate.
Encourage learners aged over 50 that they can succeed.
Create a class 'coffee break', priced so that learners can afford it and where companionship is encouraged.
Advise learners to make hospital appointments early, and come to class later.
Be aware that tactile and kinaesthetic approaches can cause stress to those learners who are trying to conceal their perceived 'inadequacies' from their peers.
Be aware that religious/cultural observances may cause absences.
Be wary of 'prizes': they can create distress.
Enquire about absence via letter rather than telephone, which can be intrusive on family life and is usually less productive.
Allocate time for an unexpected tutorial.
Have ongoing short-task assessments to maintain impetus rather than assessment at the end of an academic year.
Create attractive 'attendance record' paperwork that learners will be responsible for themselves, to chart their own progress.
Sarah Malins is a teacher in South London and took an in-service course at LLU+,
London South Bank University in 2007
Sarah Malins is a teacher in South London and took an in-service course at LLU+, London South Bank University in 2007
(1) Assessing learners' present performance against their own prior performance, rather than against wider 'norms'. Measures the 'distance travelled' over time.
Soifer R et al. (1990) Program Development and Management in The Complete Theory-to- Practice Handbook of Adult Literacy Teachers College Press