Improving Student Persistence in Adult Education: A Proposal for Action Research at the Downtown East Education Centre

Major Research Project, June 1 2014

Improving Student Persistence in Adult Education:

A Proposal for Action Research at the Downtown East Education Centre


Adults are motivated to participate and persist in organized learning because they love learning, they have a goal, and/or they seek the company of their peers. Each of these motivations can be supported. Each faces potential barriers. Funding shortfalls in high school adult education programs mean that teachers must strive to increase student participation and persistence if the programs are to remain viable. In an investigation of how adult student participation persistence can be supported, this paper includes a review of literature and concludes that goal setting is an effective measure to support persistence. The findings are related to an action research initiative at a small storefront school in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.

Introduction and Research Question

The Adult Education (AE) system at the Vancouver Board of Education (VBE) was established in 1983 in a room in an elementary school. This self-paced program was intended to give adult non-graduates, largely newly unemployed resource industry workers and single mothers, access to a high school education. Vancouver’s demographics have changed substantially since then. Today AE boasts six adult learning centres, eight outreach classes, and serves approximately 2000 FTE, many of whom are English language learners who already hold a high school diploma. Despite its success, the security of AE programming is continually threatened by funding reductions that necessitate growing enrolment quotas. Teachers and administration care very much about this problem and do their best to avoid cancelled classes and attrition, yet organizational strategies for acquiring or retaining students are weak to non-existent. Adult students deserve better.

This pressing issue has led me to my research question: How can the Downtown Eastside Education Centre improve student participation and persistence?

The Research Opportunity

The Downtown East Education Centre (DEEC) is a smaller one of six VSB adult education centres. It is a storefront school with two classrooms and a learning centre with a computer lab. Information about DEEC’s programs is available on the VSB website as well as a tri-annual newspaper flyer that lists all AE and continuing education courses offered by the VSB. The remainder of advertising is designed and distributed by DEEC’s outreach worker. This limited priority placed on advertising may explain why word of mouth continues to be the most common way for students to hear about VSB adult education programming (Sorensen-Lawrence, 2010), but it is also possible that word of mouth is the most effective way to attract new students. Regardless, by examining factors that encourage and discourage participation, DEEC can increase participation in programs. Participation is only the first step. If word of mouth communication is to support the DEEC’s ongoing calls for participation, registered students will have to experience success in learning. In short, students will have to have a reason to persist in their learning. In this light, participation and persistence have a symbiotic relationship.

Concern is on the rise about low levels of persistence in the VSB AE program, which offers BC Ministry of Education Adult Education Foundations and Grades 10 – 12 curricula.  Funding is increasingly contingent on demonstrating student achievement. Initially, student achievement was measured in hours spent in the classroom. Then it was accounted for through percentage of learning outcomes delivered. At this time, most AE students are funded incrementally, with half of funding granted after a student completes 10% of a course and the remaining half only after a student has completed 65% of that course. Class minimums, which have more than doubled in the last 20 years, are already challenging to meet. Furthermore, “research generally shows low rates of participation in adult literacy programs accompanied by high dropout rates for those who do enroll” (Malicky, G. and Norman, C.A., 1994, p.144), making this newest funding formula a threat to the sustainability of VSB AE programs.

My investigation of student registration and persistence assumes a connection between persistence and student success and satisfaction that can lead to increased registration. Through action research, an inner city VSB AE centre will be informed about how it can protect and possibly increase programming. Specifically it will attempt to answer the questions

  • What are the barriers to student participation?
  • How can student participation be increased?
  • What are the barriers to persistence?
  • How can student persistence be increased?

Figure 1. Conceptual Map of factors affecting student participation and persistence

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Significance of the Opportunity

Except for purposes of regular financial audits, AE does not study data on student enrolment and retention. This is understandable given the unpredictable nature of a student body that is not compelled to attend, usually attends part time, and is commonly subjected to interrupted study due to forces beyond the school’s scope of influence. Nevertheless, I believe that a clearer understanding of student motivations to register in and persist in AE courses will allow and prompt educators to develop improved practices and strategies that lead to more stable programming and increased student success.

Underpinning the success of the students is the viability of the system. Not only are AE students funded at a rate lower than in K-12, the Education Guarantee (British Columbia) has created funding reductions that increased student enrolment minimums and the layoff of approximately one quarter of VBE AE teachers in June of 2013. The creeping normality of under-funding to a have-not system will lead to the dissolution of AE programs at the VBE. It is time for AE to take stock of its strengths and develop a plan for improved outcomes, or else die this death of a thousand cuts. Since the school board is offering no additional money for professional development or media presence, it is up to the individual schools to appeal to their reason for being: the students.

It is my hope that framing this research question as action research will lead to improved communication, strategizing and goal setting around the issue of student enrolment. It will be a challenge to motivate adult educators, who receive minimal support for professional development, to overcome established practice and take part in collaborative inquiry. However, the question I pose is relevant to teachers and administration for practical as well as professional reasons. Action research also presents an opportunity to develop meaningful connections with students that can inform program development and lead to improved levels of student persistence.

Literature Review

An understanding of motivations to participate and persist in education can inform instructional design that addresses the emotional, social, and intellectual needs of adult learners. The first section of this literature review addresses issues of participation by looking at barriers and supports to making the active decision to enroll in formal education. The second section addresses the ongoing challenge of persistence. “Most adults come to adult basic education (ABE), English speakers of other language (ESOL), or adult secondary education (ASE) programs with goals that require hundreds if not thousands of hours of learning to achieve” (Comings, Parella & Sorcione, 2000, p.2). Education will not win the unavoidable competition with life’s circumstance unless student goals provide a compelling reason not to drop out. The final section of the literature review investigates goal setting as it relates to supporting persistence.

In general, I have defined participation as the choice to attend and persistence as the choice to continue to attend. In my research, however, I have found that the term participation is used to refer to both registration and persistence. This is understandable given that these categories are adjacent in the center of a continuum that begins with eligibility to attend and ends with completion.


Adults face the burden of choice when they participate in educational programs. The “legal mandates and strong social and cultural forces that identify schooling as the proper ‘work’ of childhood” (Comings, Parella & Sorcione, 2000, p.2) are far less compelling to adults. AE practitioners interested in increasing student participation must consider how programs can overcome adults’ many reasons to not engage in formal education.

Barriers to participation. The question of how to encourage student registration is rooted in investigation of the systemic barriers to education that adult students face. These trifold barriers can stem from the individuals relationship to self, to society, and/or to the institution of school. Patricia Cross groups barriers to learning into three congruent categories of dispositional, situational, and institutional (1981, p. 99). Valentine and Darkenwald (1990) cite their earlier study (Darkenwald and Valentine, 1985) “in which six factors of deterrence to participation were identified: Lack of Confidence, Lack of Course Relevance, Time Constraints, Low Personal Priority, Cost, and Personal Problems”. While Darkenwald and Valentine’s factors are more specific than Cross’, and they are further developed in a subsequent study that investigated how the factors are connected to specific populations, the factors do not add a new category of deterrent to participation. The ideas of Cross, and Darkenwald & Valentine support the structure of my conceptual map as well as the following section, which organizes deterrence to participation in relation to student experience to self, society, and school.

Relationship to self. Personal challenges to registration can result from low self-esteem, negative past learning experience, or lack of community support for learning. Without the belief of the possibility of success in learning, engagement in learning is unlikely. In their study of adult literacy learners, Porter found that “many have performed poorly in school or in jobs due to their literacy challenges and, as a result, lack self confidence in their ability to learn” (2005, p.28). Boshier’s Congruence Model (1973) describes a student lacking self-esteem and/or self efficacy as having intra-self incongruence and theorizes that this incongruence will result in non-participation unless appropriate social and psychological mediating variables are present. Carp, Peterson, and Roelfs’ 1974 study noted significant numbers of students self-described as “too old to begin” and as having “low grades in the past, not confident of my ability”. Others in this study “hesitate to seem too ambitious” and or have friends or family who “don’t like the idea” of engaging in organized instruction (Cross, 1981, p.81).

Persistence in DEEC programs is impossible without registration. When teachers understand the significant barriers that have been overcome by registered students, they can better determine barriers that will challenge subsequent participation. Understanding student motivations for non-participation will help improve the relevance and effectiveness of program development and public relations. For example, courses can be repackaged to highlight relevant content that motivates participation.

Relationship to society. Program structures and systems must be accessible from a practical standpoint as well as a dispositional standpoint. Poverty induced situational factors that affect ongoing participation create competing demands both within and beyond students’ control. Schafft, Prins & Movit (2008) investigated the relationship between poverty and mobility and how these factors affect persistence in family literacy programs. They found that students moved at least once a year. Although accessible public transport decreases impact of a move, participation is interrupted as students and their families settled into new residences and/or resolve the issue that caused residential mobility. Lack of access to affordable housing, a stable wage, and social services are all barriers to persistence that discourage both initial and subsequent registration.

Adult educators must help students overcome barriers to participation by referring students to appropriate community resources and by advocating for social change that supports working families. “We cannot ignore the importance of structural forces in limiting the life chances and educational progress for poor families” (Schafft, Prins & Movit, 2008, p.4).  DEEC’s Outreach Worker currently facilitates communication between students and community services, but navigating the decentralized networks of social support is a complex, organic, and time consuming task. Student advocates could help design and manage a solution to this communication issue by indexing available services, but the unstable nature of student persistence challenges the success of such an initiative. Student persistence also challenges action research at DEEC, which cannot depend on students as participating stakeholders yet needs to ensure that the student perspective is represented.

Relationship to the institution of school. Institutional irrelevance can also dissuade participation. “Potential learners complained most about inconvenient locations and schedules and about the lack of interesting or relevant courses” (Cross I, 1981, p.104). Recent reductions of VSB adult education programs (Hyslop, 2013) make it increasingly difficult for individual centers to offer a course of study leading to graduation, and consolidation of small, local schools may result. While consolidation may create a school with a more comprehensive program, inconvenient location may have unintended consequences such as reduced registration and lost connections to local communities.

VSB AE programs are exclusive to BC Ministry of education curricula. These courses make the adult high school diploma possible, but Fitzgerald and Young’s 1997 finding that highly individualized instruction benefits ABE student reading achievement shows how Ministry curricula can limit the potential to develop relevant programming. “Program defined goals may not align with the many motivations and goals of individual enrollees” (Mellard, 2012, p.33).

Misaligned goals can be related to instruction as well as curricula and scheduling. Warning against the bias of adult educators, Allan Quigley stated, “As educators, we often seek to reproduce to the experiences that worked for us. Most of us basically liked school and succeeded at the schooling process. Educators have a common experience that separates us from our students. The culture of school we so enjoyed is not necessarily a culture into which our students fit. We must keep that in mind when we designs programs and instruction” (1998, p.1). Identifying students’ understanding of school will assist DEEC teachers as they seek to improve lesson focus by increasing content and delivery of material that leads to improved learning outcomes.

Even though “factors outside of literacy programs seem to be more influential in decisions not to participate or stay in literacy programs than factors within the programs themselves” (Diekhoff & Diekhoff, 1984; Fitzgerald, 1984; Glustrom, 1983; Reston, 1990 in Malicky and Norman, 1990, p.145), the programs themselves are not without impact. VSB AE schedules are flexible, learning options are varied, and instruction can be responsive to student interests and experience while meeting provincial curriculum requirements.

Motivation for participation. “Research indicates that about a quarter of adult students separate from formal basic and secondary education programs before completing one educational level” (Mellard, 2012, p.1). With the many factors working against the student success, high attrition rates characteristic of adult literacy programs (Comings, 2007; Pierce,1993; Malicky & Norman, 1994) are understandable. Even though persistence is personally, academically, and socially challenging for adult students, registration continues. Motivations for participation, like barriers to participation, are varied and dependent on individual contexts. An understanding of why students enroll can guide DEEC’s attempts to attract new and returning students. The following section reviews research on reasons that students engage in formal education.

In his research of common motivations for adults to participate in learning, Houle (1961) identified three subgroups of learners. The first group, goal oriented students, has a specific objective and is more interested in achieving this goal than in completing a course of study. The second group, activity oriented students, participate primarily because they enjoy the social aspect of learning. The third group, learning oriented students, pursue learning for its own sake. Tough’ s 1968 investigation revealed learning patterns that reinforce Houle’s framework. Tough, who also used interviews to study motivation, found that “a variety of factors lead to participation but students are most frequently inspired by practical concerns” (Cross, 1981, p.83-84).

If students are mostly goal oriented, it is logical to conclude that effective programs at DEEC should be delivered efficiently and tied to practical concerns. The problem with this thinking is that the student subgroups that have been identified are not discrete because motivations are multivariate. Participation is determined by a context that varies both within and between populations and individuals, making broad truths about motivation difficult to identify accurately. Results of research on one population may not reflect another population and can lose relevance as contexts evolve. DEEC must take this variance into account and offer a varied delivery that appeals to each of the three motivations identified by Houle, regardless of which factor is most prevalent.

Boshier’s 1973 Incongruence Model provides another framework for identifying students motivation. It compares compatibility of self with perception of self or of self with environmental factors, claiming that dropout is a result of high levels of internal and or external dissonance. Although it is repeatedly cited in scholarly works (Cross, 1981; Malicky & Norman, 1994; Beaudin, 1982), Boshier’s model makes the basic observation that people are motivated to participate (and persist) when perceived assets outweigh perceived liabilities. Although Tough’s subgroups can help identify the context of Boshier’s model of incongruence, neither approach provides detailed data to inform DEEC’s action research. These generalized findings are understandable given that participation is “a phenomenon which clearly has multi-virate origins” (Boshier, 1973, p. 255).

Beder’s 1990 investigation offers a more specific description of motivation by identifying 32 reasons for non-participation, which are further categorized into four usable factors. Like Tough, Beder noted that reasons for non-participation in adult basic education are multidimensional. While Beder’s approach of looking at the situation in the negative (reasons for non-participation) instead of the positive (reasons for participation) may inform formal marketing strategies for increased registration, research on factors motivating participation could offer DEEC more guidance on improving word of mouth by supporting persistence for students who have already overcome the barriers to registration.

A weakness in Beder’s many reasons for non-participation in adult basic education is that they do not markedly differ from the many reasons I had for not participating in a Masters program for the two decades after I finished my Bachelors degree. Themes of lack of motivation need to be identified among specific groups of people (Valentine & Darkenwald, 1990). If themes and populations were cross-referenced, more specific and meaningful information could be found. For example, how old are people when they decide they are “too old” to go back to school? How does the answer relate to older people who cite different reasons for not participating? Is age related to the socio-economic status of nonparticipants? Are the reasons for thinking one is “too old” related more to perceived job prospects or perceived learning ability? How accurate are non-participants’ understanding of the effect of age on learning? Answers to such questions move beyond researched statements of what AE practitioners already know and can provide a more informed guide for program planning.

An increased understanding of secondary completion target market(s) would help to clarify the value of DEEC programs to all stakeholders and lead to increased registration. Improved understanding of motivations to participate would also inform relevant course development that leads to improved levels of engagement. The challenge will be acquiring this data on a relevant population. Of course collecting this data on DEEC’s own students would be an ideal solution, but I do not believe the VSB AE system is able to support such an investigation at this time.


Like research on participation, research on persistence relates to the student’s relationship to self, to society, and to the school. The findings, which sometimes identify general themes of motivation and other times cross-reference subgroups to more specifically identify motivation, support goal setting as an effective strategy to strengthen student persistence.

Persistence in the general context of AE learners. Echoing Houle’s three types of learners (1961), and Cross’ three barriers to learning (1981), MacKinnon-Slaney’s Adult Persistence in Learning model (APIL) suggests that there are three components that have a particular impact on adult learners: personal issues, learning issues, and environmental issues (1994). APIL focuses on post secondary adult learners, but Mac-Kinnon Slaney’s now familiar recognition that “adult satisfaction with and continued participation in formal learning are not the cause of one easily isolated factor…but rather complicated responses to a series of issues confronted by one individual adult in his or her unique situation” (p.4) make her recommendations for counseling relevant to VSB AE students.

APIL’s learning issues component suggests that intrapersonal and interpersonal learning challenges can be more easily overcome by counseling students in metacognitive practices in both learning and communication. While increased understanding and awareness of one’s own learning can lead to academic success, discussions about interpersonal communications must be addressed with great care. Beyond the challenges of communication between cultures, negative past experiences with school may also sideline the best intentions of students who value education (Quigley, 1995). DEEC action research needs accommodate student bias in measures to improve student persistence.

Teacher bias also impacts persistence. AE practitioners need to be culturally sensitive in order to avoid misunderstanding student intentions. Teachers also need to be aware that evaluation may trigger students who have been labeled failures or who live in a social construct that does not exhibit a clear connection between education and social mobility (D’Amico-Samuels, 1990). Of Cross’ three barriers that adult students must face, situational barriers, institutional barriers, and dispositional barriers (1981), Quigley (1998) contends that dispositional barriers are most relevant to ABE learners. Citing Finigret’s (1985) caution against instructor devotion as response to low self-esteem in students, Quigley recommends that instructors, most often successful learners themselves, investigate their own bias in order to better understand and respond to the dispositional barriers that adult students face.

Persistence among specific subgroups of AE learners. Malicky and Norman (1994) studied patterns of participation in adult literacy programs by studying who participates or drops out and why. Of the 94 students who took part in Malicky and Norman’s study, 54 were immigrants, only eight of whom were from English speaking countries. The average age of the sample was 29.5 years and 61 were female. Participants reading levels were measured by the TABE, which is the same test used by the VSB. Levels ranged from 2.1 to 9.2 with a mean of 5. These levels are common to VBE AE students studying at the English Foundations levels (pre-English 11). Like Beder, Malicky and Norman have focused on non-participation, but the findings are more relevant to DEEC because they also relate to persistence. Furthermore, the study investigated a variety of literacy classes in an urban and Canadian social context similar to that of VSB AE.

Malicky and Norman’s study (1994) was informed by a survey of a random sample of 2398 Canadians who were given both a literacy test and an interview. Results showed that, of all participants, 16% felt that reading and writing were holding them back but only 10% were planning to participate in literacy classes. An additional survey of institutions providing literacy programs in Alberta showed that one percent of adults with less than grade ten education were enrolled in literacy programs, and 5.6% of adults with less than nine years of education were enrolled in any type of adult education program. This is significantly fewer than the 25% of all adults enrolled in any type of adult education program. Malicky and Norman emphasize that these results are not unusual by comparing them to participation and attrition rates in the US. Missing from this discussion is whether and how Alberta’s economy is a mitigating factor in motivation. Nevertheless, these statistics reveal a relationship between participation and increased years of education in a context similar to DEEC’s, and thereby justify efforts to support student persistence.

Malicky and Norman (1994) found that approximately half of the students did not complete the program. Of those who did not complete, Canadian born students were more likely to drop out than immigrants, and Canadian born men were at highest risk of non-completion (79%). This discrepancy in completion rates among student sub-groups is at least partially explained by previous school experience. All students had similar years of education but immigrant students cited external forces such as political problems as a reason for dropping out whereas Canadian born students cited internal reasons such as social or psychological problems. The persistence of immigrant students was also attributed to a folk theory of getting ahead through the power of education that the Canadian born students did not believe as strongly. This study also found that dropout rates were highest in the first few months of literacy programs. Of the 94 students who took part in the study, 19 dropped out in the first three months (30% of Canadian-born, 13% of immigrants). 74% of those 19 students had grade nine or less education. A further 17 students dropped out by the end of the first year. This study begins to address the kinds of questions I posed in relation to Beder’s 1990 research. The data, which offers answers to questions about how and why persistence occurs, can inform a variety of systems to improve student persistence at DEEC.

Fitzgerald & Young (1997) conducted a study of a student population similar to that of VSB AE. They researched the value of persistence in three student groups (ESL, ABE, ASE) by comparing the results of standardized tests. They found that persistence helped ESL students more than ABE or ASE students who achieved more through quality, personalized instruction. Although VSB AE classes do not formally differentiate between these types of students, Fitzgerald and Young’s findings can inform teachers who are planning personalized instruction and meaningful assessment.

The VSB AE could benefit from quantitative analysis of dropout rates, attendance, and grades among student subgroups. If the VSB AE were to collect this kind of quantitative data, teachers could more clearly measure the success of new initiatives. The downside would be the hours required to determine, collect and collate the data and the potential threat to teachers of being judged by factors beyond their control. However, professional security could be protected if teachers take a leadership role in developing an initiative to measure success with quantitative data. Unfortunately, long established administrative focus on using data to limit learning options combined with the unlikelihood of added support for data collection make the possibility of this type of initiative remote. Until then, VSB AE practitioners will have to continue to be satisfied with research done in similar learning contexts. Nevertheless, such research could go a long way to inform the current practice of informal qualitative observation, even if the teachers objected to the findings: “Perception and recall can be aided by comparison and contrast” (Fahy, 2004, p.3).

Supporting Persistence with Goal Setting

“Every adult education program should help adult students persist in their learning until they reach their educational goals” (Comings, Parella & Sorcione, 2000, p.2).

One cause of withdrawal is a gap between expectation and reality. Students can becomefrustrated by lack of improvement or an increased workload that was not anticipated at the point of registration (Hamann, 1994 in Kerka, 1995). APIL’s personal issues component stresses the importance of helping students overcome negative academic self-concepts and developing long-term goals that enable students to attribute a positive sense of purpose to their learning that supports persistence.

Comings et al. (2007) also support student goal setting as a support to persistence. In a study that examined supports and barriers cited by pre-GED students, reviewed research literature and data from interviews with adult educators, Comings developed four supports to persistence. Their approach, which combines theory with action, is particularly useful for DEEC practitioners who have minimal experience of professional development. The first support, establishing the student’s goal, supports Mac-Kinnon Slaney’s APIL model that condones long term goal setting. The second goal, to develop the student’s sense of self-efficacy, addresses issues related to a negative self-concepts. The third goal, to help students manage the positive and negative forces that help and hinder persistence, and the fourth goal, to ensure progress toward reaching a goal, reflect sound change management. The goals are intended to be personalized and administered through facilitation and with allowance for how change may affect goals. In this way, these goals are flexible enough to be relevant and rigorous enough to be worth the effort.

Adult learning theory and goal setting. Adult learning theory supports these assertions that goal setting aids persistence because “When the conditions are right, adults seek out and demand learning experiences” (Zemke & Zemke, 1995, p.32). Teachable moments require social and institutional contexts that allow for the personal experience and ability of the learner, but context and support are bootless unless the student acquires curriculum content.

To support persistence by building student achievement, instructional design and delivery must consider that adults are problem-centred learners who are motivated by personal growth or gain (Zemke & Zemke, 1995). In a synthesis of research on adult learning, Zemke and Zemke offer the following advice about curriculum design:

  • learning experience should be problem centred
  • pre-program assessment is important
  • learning design should promote information integration
  • exercises and examples should be relevant and pragmatic
  • feedback and recognition should be planned
  • curriculum design should account for learning-style differences whenever possible
  • lesson design should accommodate continued growth and changing values
  • transfer strategies need to be integrated into instruction
  • a safe and comfortable environment is required
  • facilitation is more effective than lecture
  • activity promotes understanding and retention (p.33-38)

Each of these suggestions for effective curriculum design for adult learners can be supported when students engage in student-centered goal setting activities.

Summary of Key Findings

The literature suggests that each adult student faces a complex and unique set of barriers that is not resolved by delivery of curriculum alone. It is easy to identify a gap in knowledge that is preventing a student from achieving a goal, but other barriers to learning are more complex and therefore difficult to discern. The effects of poverty, negative past school experience, learning challenges, anxiety, culture shock, family responsibilities, and/or lack of self-efficacy and community support are idiosyncratic, not necessarily visible, and difficult to identify without risk of misunderstanding or even alienating student participation and persistence.

Individual counsel on personal, intellectual, and social issues is recommended as a support to persistence that leads to improved skills and quality of life for adult learners. The drawback of this solution is that literature also suggests that most adult students are goal oriented, which would make the potential benefits of personal counseling sessions difficult for many students to perceive. Ironically, the solution that I see returns to the curriculum. Teachers, most often successful in school and the community, must continually acknowledge how both their own bias and that of the learning materials may be hindering the relevance of even the best planned lessons. They must use their creativity and empathy to create high interest lessons that appeal to students’ situational, dispositional, and intellectual learning needs.

Teachers need to know not only what students are interested in learning, but also what keeps them interested in learning. Persistence is supported by social bonds in the classroom, practical content that relates to student goals, and acknowledgment of learning. Yet teachers can only plan these supports if they understand how students’ experiences outside of the classroom are challenging persistence in ways that reach beyond the scope of prescribed curricula. Again personal bias plays an important role. Of course teachers are not known for their lack of caring, but sympathy is not the best route to understanding; empathy is. However, the average teacher’s experience of being a relatively successful and probably supportive/supported member of a community can challenge the accuracy of empathic understanding. In addition to effectively listening to students, VSB AE practitioners must read relevant research so they can make informed decisions about lesson and program design. This is especially true in a system that does not actively use quantitative data to inform school improvement measures leading to increased student achievement. Research that identifies themes of motivation among specific groups can inform program design that accesses more teachable moments, thereby increasing persistence and leading to an improved rate and quality of student success.

Finally, a recurring theme in the literature suggests that goal setting can improve persistence. Goal setting has been recommended as a form of personalized instruction appeals to students personally, socially, and intellectually. Goal setting can help students overcome negative academic self-concepts, attribute a positive sense of purpose to learning, remain focused on learning, deepen learning, and enjoy the rewards of acknowledgement of the process and product of learning.


Organized improvement will be a challenge to implement because AE has, by default, focused on autonomous action. Low levels of funding offer minimal support for professional development, a system that continually threatens job security, and inadequate workspace for teachers and often students. Add asynchronous work schedules into this mix and it becomes clear why collaboration for school improvement within and between schools is not common practice despite obvious dedication to student success.

The consequence of this lack of organized professional action is debatable. Although the VSB AE does not officially tally or analyze student persistence rates, my 21 years of anecdotal observation indicate that persistence rates reported in research are significantly lower, suggesting that the VSB AE is already successfully supporting student persistence. Nevertheless, further improvement is needed to sustain current levels of programming. I believe action research is a particularly effective approach to achieving this goal. There are already some teachers who attract and retain their students longer than others. If student persistence is addressed by the school as a whole, the success of some can be the success of many, or maybe even all.

Despite the potential value of a collaborative inquiry into increasing participation and persistence at DEEC, the inherent limits of the school’s cultural and fiscal contexts have lead me to refine my original research question. My research reveals that most barriers to participation are beyond the direct control of the school. It also shows that successful change initiatives must have achievable goals. Therefore, I propose narrowing the focus of this proposal by removing the issue of participation and refining the question of persistence. My revised research question is: How can DEEC use goal setting to increase student persistence at DEEC?

The Action Research Process

There are many etymological incarnations of action research, but they all follow a recursive process of identifying a problem, planning an intervention, collecting and analyzing data, and reflecting on the results in order to identify a subsequent problem. I have planned my action research under the following model:

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The process of writing this paper has become the three stages of the first cycle of this action research. Once I had identified the problem, gathered the data, and interpreted the data, I was ready to plan the intervention and act on the evidence. It was time to include the stakeholders. I had identified my research question on my own, but the question included the entire school and this proposal is for a collaborative inquiry. In order to initiate action research about how to improve student persistence through goal setting activities, potential participants needed to identify the importance of this issue and agree on the proposed approach. They also needed to understand the value of participating in action research. For this to happen, I concluded that school-wide professional development was required. Professional development at DEEC is organized by committee, so my next step was to encourage this committee to plan a professional day that addressed my research question. As I re-identified the problem, the second cycle of my action research began.

I subsequently co-planned and co-facilitated a professional development day about persistence. My original agenda to employ action research to increase student persistence through goal setting was ambitious for a single day of professional development in a school culture that is typified by teacher autonomy. The day included individual and group planning for practical actions that could be taken to support student persistence, but action research was not overtly addressed. The professional day was well received, and it is my hope that the questions posed and the actions agreed to will provoke a desire to make conscious use of data to measure success of initiatives to increase student persistence. As teachers identify the problem of lack of data, a third cycle of action research can begin.

Proposed action research investigating how goal setting can support student persistence.

Cycle 3

Re-identify the problem

  • DEEC has no baseline data by which to measure success
  • DEEC teachers are not familiar with formal structures of action research
  • Something else introduced by DEEC staff (this issue may start parallel action research)

Gather data

  • Learn about action research
  • Determine and collect baseline data

Interpret data/plan intervention

  • Interventions will vary according to practitioner/student context

Act on evidence/collect data

  • Facilitate individualized goal setting activities over two quarters/one semester (18 weeks)
  • Record student attendance
  • Record final marks
  • Determine if students experience qualitative change related to goal setting

Analyze Results

  • Note whether goal setting can be tied to increased student persistence
  • Compare persistence data during the 18 weeks to baseline data
  • Observe trends
  • Note whether quantitative data support observations


  • Was the endeavor to use goal setting to increase student persistence successful? Why?
  • How should the inquiry continue?

Cycle 4…

The entirety of this plan, however, is yet to be adopted by my peers. As more people engage in this process of action research, the research question itself will evolve. Furthermore, my peers may not be ready to engage in formal inquiry. It will take time, trust, and effective communication to make that happen. Solid leadership is required. I will need to be ready with my paddle to lead my fellow teachers as we navigate the whitewater coming our way.

Change Management Plan

Many of the lessons learned throughout this Masters of Educational Leadership and Management echo the process of action research. The importance of communication, data, adult learning, stakeholders perspectives, and assessment for learning are tied together with a healthy respect for what one Royal Roads University instructor described as the “complex, churning, ever-changing environment that is what Peter Vaill describes as ‘permanent whitewater (1996)’ ” (Neal, 2013). There is and will be much work to be done. An awareness of the barriers and supports to teacher engagement in learning is the first step to addressing the challenge of encouraging their participation and persistence.

Addressing barriers to stakeholder engagement

The work may seem to begin with seeking an answer to the research question, but before that can happen, teachers need a base of background information to even begin contemplation. Most teachers are already aware of supports and barriers to persistence, but their understanding is not organized into a common language or conceptual structure. Until that alignment is achieved, the team will be troubled by slow and confused communication. Open discussion, a critical component of developing a learning environment (Zepeda, p.97), will be key to encouraging teacher learning.

Further challenging the initiation of this action research will be the status quo that does not include volunteer school-based collaboration for improved student achievement. Except for one school and one district professional day, volunteer collaboration is exclusive to union committees concerned with practical matters related to the smooth and just running of the school. These concerns have informed my choice of research question from the start of this investigation. I know that teachers will need to be motivated to participate, so I identified a topic that is relevant to them both professionally and personally. My research question’s appeal to teachers’ commitment to student success, professional development, program vitality, and job security was confirmed at the professional day. If follow up to the professional day is communicated well, I believe the benefits of the solutions-based focus of action research, which can lead to improved collegiality, collaboration, and communication, will become increasingly clear to my colleagues.

Supporting stakeholder engagement

My plan to inspire a school-wide initiative to increase student persistence began with leading by example. I expressed my enthusiasm for the learning I have acquired through the literature review and engaging my peers in informal, reciprocal conversations seeking feedback about my research findings and how they relate to DEEC. I also highlighted the pressing concern of funding changes and posed open-ended questions about how to increase persistence. These conversations, which were inspired by Peter Senge’s five stages of building a shared vision in schools: telling, selling, testing, consulting, and co-creating (2012, p.88-97), influenced the professional development committee which invited me to help design and facilitate a professional day investigating how persistence can be supported at DEEC.

Leading learning. In order to encourage collaborative action on the professional day, the committee members chose to forgo booking an outside speaker. This emphasis on the existing knowledge and expertise of the staff set into play a familiar learning process to AE practitioners: preparing to facilitate a day of collaborative learning with prescribed outcomes that appeal to personalized learning needs. I guided this preparation with relevant resources from my research on persistence. Once the committee determined the specific topic of the professional day, all staff were informed and invited to contribute any resources they may find relevant. This call for resources ensured that all stakeholders were consulted, encouraged discussion about persistence, and enhanced interest in the professional day.

Teachers needed to understand persistence and relate it to their individual and common contexts before formulating actions to increase persistence. Although it would have been ideal to commit to action research on the professional day, I was concerned that the participants’ lack of experience with prescribed collaborative procedure would risk having the concept rejected. I decided that the limited time available should be spent connecting participants to the ideas and encouraging them to responding to these ideas in a way that is relevant to them, which is the essence of action research. Further challenging potential acceptance of formal action research is that there is minimal history of data analysis for the purpose of student success. I believe my colleagues will come to see the importance of data measurement and analysis after they have taken action to increase persistence. At that time, they will naturally want to engage in the fifth step of action research, analysis. When they find that success is unrewarding to analyze when the data is weak, they will reflect and re-identify the problem. In the meantime, I can encourage an awareness of the importance of data and increase opportunities for the team to align its learning by asking pertinent questions about how the results can be measured in way that recognizes their efforts to increase persistence.

Supporting stakeholder persistence

This year’s professional day marked the transition from identifying the research question to planning the intervention. There was opportunity to learn about the research and discuss how it relates to the teachers’ personal experience. This investigation facilitated the identification of a question that is relevant to those who will be seeking the answer. The group identified and committed to many actions to increase persistence but did not exclusively focus on goal setting for students. Nevertheless, the staff now understands the use of goal setting as support to persistence, and a sub-group will participate in the action research I have developed. The rest are responding to the readings and discussions in a manner more relevant to their thoughts and experience. This flexibility in response is supported by three of Margaret Wheatley’s ten principles for creating healthy change: “Expect leaders to come from anywhere; we focus on what works and it releases our creative energy; the wisdom resides within us” (2007).

As one of now several leaders of change, I feel it is essential to respond to the interests of the participants because “people support what they create” (Wheatley, 2007). If the reflections of the group are not supported by acknowledgement, then the whole structure and purpose of action research falls apart. Watts (1985, in Ferrance, 2000) described action research as based on the following assumptions:

  • Teachers and principals work best on problems they have identified for themselves
  • Teachers and principals become more effective when encouraged to examine and assess their own work and then consider ways of working differently
  • Teachers and principals help each other by working collaboratively
  • Working with colleagues helps teachers and principals in their professional development


Regardless of how the group chooses to move ahead, the work of all participants will be acknowledged and followed up by balanced, formal and informal communication that summarizes and celebrates the accomplishments of the professional day. The practice of effective communication is embedded with assessment for learning. When achievement is summarized, participants are encouraged to analyze and evaluate the nature of their progress and determine logical next steps. This approach emphasizes the positive outcomes and is inspired by appreciative inquiry, which nurtures the best in ourselves and in others, and can help boost morale and participation along with achievement (Kowalski, 2008, p.104).

Technology-mediated environments. I strongly believe that a technology-mediated environment (TME) will assist collaboration help overcome the communication challenges associated with asynchronous work schedules. Unfortunately, AE teachers do not regularly engage in this form of communication. This issue could become action research in itself, but in effort to balance my lifeworld, I will support increased use of TME at DEEC by gentle and repeated encouragement. I will use email, and cloud computing to communicate progress made in supports to action research. Whenever possible, I will support participation in the TME through informal face to face communication and formal paper based communication. I will continue to lead by example by sharing useful TMEs and high interest links via email, including a blog that I have created with a downloadable resource that can be used to teach goal setting in the classroom (Harker, 2014).

The use of TME’s will also increase the breadth of inclusion of stakeholders. Missing from this investigation is the voice of the students. This not only works against the philosophy of action research, it works against research recommended support to student persistence. I have spearheaded a committee that will launch a Facebook page intended to increase student participation and persistence. This page will be managed by the school, but will actively seek input from the students. Anecdotal observation shows that DEEC students at all levels of literacy use Facebook. I believe that making a TME that is relevant to students will encourage teacher engagement in this form of communication. It will also open opportunity for other schools in the system to engage in discussions of student persistence.

Summary and Conclusions

Research shows a close relationship between participation and persistence. Adult students are motivated (and discouraged) to come to and stay in school to achieve goals imposed by society, to connect with people of similar interests, and to experience the intrinsic rewards of learning. When they are identified among specific groups, these themes of motivation can guide the development of personalized learning and goals that encourage persistence.

AE students and programming is complex and difficult to define. No single strategy can adequately address all needs exhibited by all students. By employing the tenets of constructivist learning (O’Neil in Zepeda, 2000), greater ownership and participation in job-embedded learning can be promoted. A constructivist approach is particularly relevant to AE stakeholders who have experienced frustration with remotely imposed top-down instructional strategies for teachers working in a context that values autonomy over collaboration. Encouraging teachers to build their own strategies allows for learning outcomes that serve individual needs and interests of both student and teachers. Furthermore, the open dialogue that is emblematic of constructivist learning communities and encouraged through coaching will appeal to as well as support improvement in the AE teaching community.

The AE context both challenges and is challenging to practitioner collaboration. Action research is an effective response to the established culture of professional autonomy and the individualized instruction required by VSB AE students because it allows for a practical response to individualized context. Lack of support for professional development, however, makes the learning curve too steep. The best response to this barrier is patient and persistent supportive leadership. It will take time and experience for teachers to see the benefit employing all aspects of action research. Throughout this time, effective leadership will support the long-term goal of school improvement by encouraging professional collaboration without discouraging participation by compromising relevance for participants.

Even if the goal of my proposed action research is not reached, DEEC will be further ahead. Already collaboration has energized professional inquiry in the school. If this inquiry does not increase student persistence, the team members will have strengthened their bonds to one another, enjoyed the social and intellectual rewards of collaboration, learned something about academic thinking about persistence, and reflected on their own practice. This means that the very motivations for adults to participate and persist in learning —social connection, goal achievement, and the love of learning— have been addressed.











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