Student Retention and Persistence

julia-maffei-imgThis month we have a guest post from one of our Master Trainers, Julia Maffei. Read Julia's post on student retention and persistence below!

How many times have you or a colleague started a semester with a full classroom and then watch the numbers dwindle to half? Dropouts are disheartening, and programs with low attendance can face negative consequences from funders, making student retention forefront in educators’ minds. Several factors can increase retention, such as engagement and motivation. If the class is not relevant and interesting, bored and frustrated students often quit coming without verbalizing why. Furthermore, many programs ask teachers to talk to their students about educational goals at the beginning of the term and to check up on those goals periodically to keep motivation high. Students face many barriers to attending class such as transportation, child-care, and time off from work. It’s clear that keeping students in class is a complex puzzle, but some educators wonder if student retention is less critical to student success than student persistence.

Some suggest that persistence as a more reliable measure of student success than retention. Researchers are examining the idea of students “stopping out” rather than “dropping out.” Stopping Out, Not Dropping Out (Alisa Belzer) Their findings show that many students often face factors beyond their control that cause them to stop attending classes, but they have not given up on their educational goals. Rather, they re-enroll when their life circumstances allow them.

What can we do to increase persistence? Researchers at NCSALL have found four “supports” that bolster persistence. These include support from teachers, students, friends and family; self-efficacy; the establishment of personal goals; and visible progress toward these goals. Helping Adults Persist: Four Supports (John Comings, Andrea Parrella, & Lisa Soricone) 

Even though it is discouraging to lose students during the semester, educators should keep in mind that a student’s road to reaching their goals is a long one. Thoughtful actions can help students attain their educational goals as they increase persistence. First, if you can, provide childcare and flexible class schedules. Some students may be able to attend in the morning, others in the evening. In addition, define learning goals and objectives early on. In my class, we discuss and write these down at the beginning of the semester and each month reconfirm objectives to reaching the goals. Make the classroom a community where students feel comfortable and enjoy learning. I always memorize students’ names and call them by name regularly. Using name tents makes this easier and helps students remember each other’s names as well. The class becomes a special club where students make new friends who encourage them to learn. I give students my number, as well, and tell them to text me if they need help with English or if they are going to be absent. It is a good idea to text or call them to check up on them, too. Furthermore, have fun in the class, and do a variety of activities that are interesting. Also, make the curriculum flexible, and find out what students want to learn and work that into your plans. Allow time to allow students to ask you questions. Relax and don’t worry about going on tangents sometimes. As you go along students that they are learning with quizzes and “can-do” check lists. Finally, encourage learner persistence by teaching self-efficacy by learning outside of the classroom. 

Educators can do a lot to encourage persistence, which in turn can increase retention. But, remember that the road to mastery is a long one that will take several years. For more ideas check out the New England Learners Persistence Findings at


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