LBS Practitioner Training

Professional development support for Literacy and Basic Skills educators in Ontario

2.7 Motivation and Retention

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Instructors say that, of the learners who do not succeed in reaching their goals, most fail because they leave the program early. It’s the instructor’s particular challenge to find ways to keep learners coming to the program long enough for them to be able to reach their goals.

Learner retention is a complex issue. There are many different factors that contribute to a learner’s decision to stay in the program or to leave early. What can instructors do to encourage learner persistence?

In this unit we will:

  • identify some reasons why learners leave early,
  • learn how to identify which learners are most at risk,
  • discuss what instructors can do to help learners persist,
  • look at what learners can do to strengthen their commitment to learning.

Why do learners leave?

This is an important question that all adult literacy programs are interested in answering. To that end, LBS programs have a follow-up strategy that involves contacting all learners when they do not turn up after registering or when they have left the program. Our follow-up statistics reveal that most learners meet their goals and successfully move on to the next step. Unfortunately, we also find too many learners who do not reach their goals because they left the program early. It’s an interesting study to learn about why.

  • Some reasons are rooted in the learners’ earliest contacts with the program. The first questions we should be asking are:   
    • Is this the right program for this learner?
    • Is this the right placement?

    Click on Wrong Place, Wrong Time
  • Adult learners have many things going on in their lives that demand their time, attention and energy. Sometimes these external roles and responsibilities make it impossible for learners to maintain the level of commitment that is necessary to succeed in LBS.

    Click on Right Place, No Time
  • Many learners struggle with internal as well as external stressors. Personal issues that have to do with emotional and psychological challenges can create barriers that are just too overwhelming for some learners to deal with.

    Click on Right Place, No Heart
  • We also have to recognize that, from time to time, learners leave LBS because they are just not happy with the program. Who is responsible when learners are dissatisfied? Is it an attitude problem on behalf of the learner, or maybe an aptitude problem? Could the problem lie with the instructor?

    Click on Right Time, Bad Time (Don't miss the Journal Reflection at the end of this one.)

Learners at-risk

With some learners, there is no advance warning that they are about to abandon the program. If you’re lucky, you might get some information from their friends, but usually the comment is, “Oh, something came up.”. More often, the learner simply disappears without a trace. In other cases, however, there are telltale signs when things are not going well, and instructors say, “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.” when learners stop attending altogether.

Experienced instructors are attuned to these learner signals and can often take steps to intervene before learners stop coming. The most recognizable signs of learners at-risk for leaving are, not surprisingly:

  • poor attendance
  • lack of progress
  • inappropriate classroom behaviour

Early detection of learners who are at risk for leaving, and early follow-up with learners who have left the program, are two strategies that have proved to make a difference in the drop out rate. Early follow-up should take the form of supportive phone calls.

Not recommended:
“So, where have you been all month? Should we be calling someone on the wait list to replace you?”

Recommended: “How are you doing? Are you OK? When are you coming back?”

What are other educators saying about learner retention in the classroom?

Go to Ten Strategies and read an article that talks about ten strategies for improved retention in adult education.

This second article, written by Sandra Kerka,takes an interesting approach to strategies for improving retention in adult education. Ms. Kerka identifies the most common deterrence factors for adult learners, and gives practical suggestions for addressing each issue. You can read a shortened version of the original article at: Retention Kerka

What are some other strategies that can help?

As Sandra Kerka points out,
“One common thread in much of the literature is that the instructor is key in retention.”

Instructors who seem to have good success with learner retention say that motivation is the key. The following article directly targets skills for motivating adult learners by describing the characteristics of a motivating Instructor.
Read: Motivating Adult Students to Learn.

What do the learners say?

The learners' perspective also supports the idea that the practitioner is key. They also mention elements found in the learning environment. They want a place to learn that includes:

  • someone who believes in me
  • encouragement when I think I can’t do it any more
  • help when I get stuck, in my life and at school
  • hope that success is a possibility
  • help when I am afraid of failing or when I get frustrated and mad
  • a way to see that I am getting to be a better person
  • doing something that matters to me.

Susan Imel writes about how to create a learning environment that supports these kinds of needs and expectations. Read excerpts from her article at: 
Creating an Effective Adult Learning Environment.

Motivating learners at four stages of self-direction:

The final reading in this unit is, perhaps, the most valuable of all. This document picks up where we left off in unit 6 when we were discussing four stages of self-directed learning and the teaching strategies that support them. Here we see the four stages again and learn about specific strategies that instructors use to motivate learners at each stage. What is important to notice, is the way in which, at each progressive stage, the instructor steps a little further back and allows the learner to take more and more control and responsibility for learning.

Click on: Motivating Learners at the Four Stages
(NOTE: Again, this information is taken largely from the work of educator, Gerald Grow in “Teaching Adult Learners to be Self-Directed”. Adapted with permission.)


JOURNAL REFLECTIONS: What do you think?
Reflect on your current motivational techniques with learners. What stage of motivational method best describes your practice?
What are some specific strategies you could use to help move your learners on to the next stage of self-directed learning?


Self-directed Learning

Final Assignment

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