Lessons Learned

Lessons learned: promising practices from the Saskatchewan Action Research Network 

As discussed in more depth through a series of six archived installments on the 2013-2014 “What Works?” blog, the research in adult education explains dropout from adult education programs—and adult literacy and basic education (BE) in particular—as directly influenced by “barriers.” The barriers that typically affect the decision to participate, stay or drop out of literacy/BE programs can be grouped into three clusters. By first understanding why most of our learners drop out, we can begin to “sort out” what is too often accepted as an unpredictable, even demoralizing problem across the field of adult literacy and basic education.

Barriers affecting the decision to stay or drop-out fall into one or more of the following categories, and, as will be seen, each barrier can be more influential than others at different phases of literacy/BE programs:

1) Situational barriers: those barriers arising in one’s home or life situations. These are perhaps the most obvious barriers and are named most often by practitioners when discussing retention issues. These normally occur outside of the program and usually involve the “lack of something”:  lack of child care, lack of good health, lack of confidence on one’s academic abilities, lack of finances, lack of stability in the home life, lack of transportation…the list is long since many BE learners struggle with the multiple issues associated with lower incomes and poverty.

2) Institutional barriers: those systemic barriers that learners can encounter, or expect to encounter—whether real or perceived—in the educational settings offered to them. From the hassles of  “red tape,” to inaccessible geographic location of programs, to challenging program schedules, to a lack of child-care facilities or arrangements, to costs of programs, to intimidating program environments.

3) Dispositional barriers: perhaps the one area we can affect the most…these are the  learned barriers that come out of adult learners’ past experiences. As the published research explains, this cluster can be extremely important for literacy/BE learners.  So much so that dispositional barriers tend to make our student population more complex and  more challenging on issues of recruitment and retention than those experienced by systems of continuing, higher and adult education and training.

Why do dispositional barriers matter so much in our field?

As discussed throughout the SARN blog series, many of our learners come into our programs with self-doubts, high anxiety and;  worse, a great many bring  the internalized belief that they won’t do well in “school.” Their past experiences with school are almost always negative.  Many come believing they are “stupid”; they won’t “fit in”; they will be no “smarter” than before. Once burned, twice shy, this same phenomenon doesn’t appear as acutely in most other areas of adult education. The important point is that many in our field are returning with negative experiences and very mixed emotions to the whole idea of coming back to “school,” irrespective if we call it “adult education,” “basic education,” “foundational education,” or “essential skills,” it still looks a lot like school to our returning adult learners.

Influences on the Decision to Stay or Drop Out

Influences on the Decision to Stay or Drop Out












Influences on the Decision to Stay or Drop Out and what we can do…

As seen next, not all of the three clusters have the same impact at the same time. Typically, some have more influence than others at different points in our courses.

Please click here to see part two.  It will discuss what the barriers are, when they appear,  and the evidence-based strategies used to address them.



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