What factors influence student persistence?

As an upgrading/ABE/literacy instructor, I think a lot about what kinds of factors influence student success. Of course, it must be emphasized that there are many definitions of success, especially in a literacy or ABE context. For some students, success means…

  • developing high enough reading skills so they can read to their children
  • getting enough resources (internal and external) to leave an abusive relationship
  • staying out of jail
  • getting custody of their children back from Ministry care
  • coming to believe that they are intelligent and capable and have value as people
  • becoming engaged community members and citizens

However, for many students who are pursuing upgrading, one very important goal is to complete enough high school equivalency credits to get their high school diploma. Some want to eventually continue their education in trades training, other university programs, or professional programs.

For these students, their immediate long-term goal (and how they will measure their success) is to get a passing grade in their upgrading course. Obviously, in order to get a passing grade, they must stick with the course until the end. After all, you can’t get a passing grade if you don’t even complete the course. And most of the time, if someone completes the course, she or he will pass it.

I’ve come to think of this quality–continuing with something until you achieve your goal–as persistence.

I find myself asking, every semester, “What are the factors that influence student persistence? What is it that keeps one student coming to class, completing every assignment (even if some are turned in late), and another student–who may even be doing well on every assignment–to stop coming to class, either gradually or suddenly?”

I have been poking around and doing a little bit of research, and I found an interesting article discussing first-year student persistence. Even though my students are not in first year, I think many of the factors are just  as relevant at the upgrading level.

Crissman Ishler, J. L., & Upcraft, M. L. (2005). The keys to first year student persistence, in Upcraft, Gardner & Barefoot’s (Eds.) Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Although a lot of this article does talk about things that are beyond the scope of institutional control (e.g. parental involvement, socioeconomic status), there are a few things we can be more attentive to, including

  • interactions with faculty (the more nonclassroom contact the better)
  • multiple positive interpersonal interactions (including peers and family)
  • participation in extracurricular activities
  • a welcoming campus climate free from discrimination and prejudice
  • providing grant-based rather than loan-based student financial assistance
  • institutional student supports and interventions (e.g. orientation, advising, tutoring and other supplemental instruction, counselling, student recreation).

There is also an interesting section on the best classroom environment  for encouraging student persistence, which is described as having

  • small class sizes
  • problem based learning
  • cooperative learning
  • study groups
  • focused writing assignments.

Factors that contribute to a learning community also were seen to contribute to persistence. The research shows that intentional clustering of students, whether through cohorts or scheduling students so they share at least two classes together, helps provide social and academic support.

I’ll continue to ponder this topic over the next semester. Stay tuned.

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