Andy Nash: Learner Persistence, Key to Success

Andy Nash

In the New England Learner Persistence Project, 18 diverse ABE programs throughout New England investigated promising persistence strategies and reported on their impact on attendance, cycle completion, and program practices. In reviewing the dozens of program findings, we tried to understand why the strategies were so successful. What explained their effectiveness?

Our analysis led us to conclude that the strategies work because they support adults’ need for six things, which we call the “drivers of persistence.” Programs can use these drivers to stimulate their thinking about ways to improve learner persistence.

Community and belonging

When we feel welcomed, respected, and offered a sense of belonging, we are more apt to return to that setting or task. For that reason, cultivating a sense of belonging and community from the moment a prospective adult learner comes through the doors or calls is an important persistence strategy.

Clarity of purpose

Clarity of purpose refers to helping students gain clarity about their own purposes for learning – their goals and dreams – and how the instructional approaches of their teachers address those purposes. Knowing this builds trust that the program will meet their needs.

A sense of competence

Adults’ beliefs about their competence and self-efficacy can have a profound effect on their persistence and achievement. Students with more self-efficacy are more willing to persist to reach their goals in the face of adversity.


Learning is difficult in an environment that is chaotic or unstable. This is challenging, especially, for the many adult learners whose lives are marked by instability caused by poverty and trauma. According to Perry (2006), “The major challenge to the educator working with highly stressed or traumatized adults is to furnish the structure, predictability, and sense of safety that can help them begin to feel safe enough to learn.”


The degree of perceived relevance of instruction to the adult learners’ goals, interests and life experience is a key factor in adults’ motivation to persist in their studies. Most adult learners juggle many competing priorities that may take precedence if the instructional program does not feel meaningful to their needs and interests.


Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make things happen through their actions. As people mature, they move from dependence toward self-direction, and want to be treated as responsible individuals with the capacity to determine things for themselves.

For a description of the specific strategies investigated by NELP programs, see our project report or visit our website.


One thought on “Andy Nash: Learner Persistence, Key to Success

  1. Mr. Nash, The qualitative life history research I completed in 2009 for Walden University for my PhD dissertation examined the role of human agency in the lives of adult non- and limited readers. It was fascinating to listen to their stories and to see how many of them “made things happen” in their lives whether they learned to become proficient readers or not. The role of agency in success is amazing! Betsy Stoutmorrill

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