Barriers and Strategies

PART TWO: Barriers and Strategies

FOCUSING ON “PHASE ONE” OF COURSES: Most tutors and instructors will agree with the published literature that learner dropout is typically very high in the first three or four weeks of classes. Let’s call this  the “Beginning Phase” of  courses. In this first phase, what many new BE  learners perceive as they come into our buildings and classrooms is typically reminiscent of “school.” Despite our best efforts, anxiety can run extremely high; self-confidence can run extremely low  for new learners.

So the first point to be made is:

Recognizing this learner perception from the learners’ point of view, being empathetic to how our learners often react to “school” can make the difference as to who stays and who drops out. Anxiety and fear is not rational—moreover, we need to remember that dropping out is a viable option in the minds of virtually every adult learner who comes through our door. Unless they are court-ordered to be there, every one of our students is a voluntary learner. And, unlike children and youth, our students have dropped out before and are typically very  aware of this drop out option.   

MOVING ON… But dispositional barriers in the first phase aren’t the only factors that we need to be aware of. Situational and institutional can have huge influences in the decision to stay or leave as well….. and these two often appear as later influences in our programs…  Let’s see how this works…  


As discussed in blog  instalments #1 and #2, we can see programs as consisting of three phases, and these, together with some of the strategies that have proven successful with SARN can be built into a “Planning Framework.”

Creating a retention plan diagram

Creating a Retention Plan.

The Beginning Phase & Dispositional Barriers:

The first approximately three weeks are critical for improved retention. “Unschooling” the first few critical weeks is—just in principle—one of the best approaches. Just improving the atmosphere of the classroom in the first phase of a learner’s program to make it less like “school” seems to build success. Here are some proven strategies that have turned much of this early phase of dropout aound. These strategies have mainly relied on  making the adult learning experience more enjoyable, more relevant, and more group inter-dependent than the stereotypical K-12 schooling experience. In every case,  the strategies created a place that  students wanted to come to.  They tried to “unschool” the adult education experience.

The full reports as written by Saskatchewan practitioners appear on our SARN Website and the archived blogs from 2013-2014 discuss all of the following in greater detail as wellBut read on…

Try Engaging the Entire Class in “Unschooling”…

  1. Would including food preparation and/or sharing food within the class keep students in class longer?”  Northlands College experimented with a breakfast program—minimal cost, largely student operated. See how this strategy improved retention and what the students themselves said. This strategy has since been implemented in programs across Saskatchewan, from Northlands College region in the extreme North East, to Great Plains in the Southwest corner of Saskatchewan. Check it out.

  2. How can I changing my  classroom’s social environment in the first three critical weeks.  Jacqueline Bruce at Onion Lake First Nation changed the classroom learning environment with selected social activities. By experimenting and documenting what she found, she radically changed the dropout rates from no students at all some days, to full classes and the need for a second instructor. In her own words, she sought to help learners, “Overcome the sense of not belonging.” See the social activites she tried in the first phase—which worked best.

  3. Identifying and focusing on At-Risk learners during intake: The success of the Small Group Approach.Dr. Allan Quigley has published his research study as conducted in a large urban ABE centre. The experiment involved  identifying those incoming new adult learners who were clearly “at-risk” of dropping out during the first three-weeks of their program. Take a look at Allan’s write up in the archived blog series.

How the intake counselor (Tom) set up a method for identifying At-Risk (ARs) learners during the intake interview, meaning those who appeared to be at risk of dropping out in the first three weeks. These learners were then randomly placed across the Centre in three different test settings, as well as a fourth control group:

  1. the first experimental group was placed across several regular classrooms but the instructors in each classroom knew which new students were identified as At-Risk (ARs) and they made every effort to be sure these AR students had lots and lots of support—even if they didn’t ask for it ….. they got it. No chance to be bored or distracted…  Meanwhile the intake counselor Tom and/or his assistant, Sharon, came and visited each of these same ARs every week to make sure they were doing well. The question was: “Would extra teacher + counselor support make the retention difference for ARs?”

  2. In experimental setting #2, other ARs  were randomly placed across the Centre’s various small classes of 6-7 learners.  In fact this ABE Centre was chosen because it had the small class option. We now asked, “Would small groups and more peer interaction make the retention difference?”

  3. The third group of ARs were placed in regular classrooms but with continuous support with a volunteer helper accessible both during and after class—even at their home. Now, “ Would volunteers’ extra help make the difference?”

These three test groups were compared with a control group which simply meant other ARs went directly to the regular classes as usual. Can you guess which of the three test groups was most successful in retaining ARs: 

1) Lots of Teacher/Counsellor attention?

2) A small group of peers?

3) A one-on-one volunteer to help each AR day or evening?

If you guessed the small group strategy, you were right. Go to that blog to find out why this was the case and how this worked for those At-Risk of dropping out in the first phase of ABE classes.

  • Building retention with “decolonization strategies’ in a class of Aboriginal learners” Anne Cook of the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology (SIIT) in La Ronge has her report on the SARN Website. See how she engaged her Aboriginal learners in highly successful decolonization strategies to build cultural pride and “raise self-efficacy” among her Aboriginal adult learners.  This strategy, like all the others, sought to change the “schooling atmosphere” in the beginning phase.

OR maybe try a more individualized approach …

  • Using a weekly feedback card and journal to improve retention.” Following a SARN workshop, instructors from several Colleges, as well as from both Sask Indian Institute of Technologies and Dumont Technical Institute, experimented with the strategy of having adult learners pay more attention to their own attendance patterns, and having them reflect on those patterns. The strategy was to use a more adult approach to attendance right from the start and they again saw an improvement in the first phase of their program.
  •  “Using a morning sign-in sheet to change student lateness patterns.” The same concept as above was tried  at Southeast Region College (Weyburn): by Anna Fish and Shannon King to address student lateness patterns—often were the first step to dropping out. Having a sign-in sheet and having students see and think about their own patterns as compared with  others’  made a major difference.  Once again, this approach succeeded in “unschooling” by putting an emphasis on adult-level responsibility. The learned behaviors and  notion that the “teacher” was somehow there to” scold late students,” was avoided.  The responsibility was put back on the adult learners, and it helped.

These are just some examples of the full reports found on the SARN dealing with all kinds of widely shared problems beyond retention…


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