apple Learner Retention

The reasons why adult students decide to enroll in a literacy program and then choose to either continue or drop out are multiple, complex and varied. Adult students come to literacy programs with their individual sets ofmotivations, barriers and personal needs. In this training module, Community Literacy of Ontario explores issues around the important topic of student retention.

Canadian and international research consistently shows high drop out rates from adult literacy programs. The Ontario Literacy Coalition’s “Seeing the Need; Meeting the Need” found that “Various studies have suggested that anywhere between 10 to 60% of all students in adult basic education programs drop out before they have achieved their goals.”

We live in the information age where an ever-increasing level of literacy is needed. However, in Canada millions of people face literacy challenges. Surveys indicate that here in our province, four in ten Ontarians aged 15 and over do not have the literacy skills they need to meet the demands of modern life. There is simply no denying the need for literacy. You can learn more about this issue by checking out the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey at:  IALLS 2003 Survey

Along with the need for literacy, Ontario has a diverse and effective range of adult literacy organizations funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skill Development (MAESD). Two hundred agencies at 300 sites are funded to help adult learners achieve their literacy and basic skills goals. As well, these agencies offer a range of delivery formats (one-to-one tutoring, small groups and classroom-based learning). Literacy instruction is delivered in four streams: Anglophone, Francophone, Native and Deaf. For more information on Ontario’s literacy agencies see Ontario LBS Programs

So with the high need for literacy and a variety of excellent programming to choose from, why do so many adult learners drop out?

The 2002 report called “Seeing the Need; Meeting the Need” (written by Yvonne Roussy and Doug Hart for the Ontario Literacy Coalition) describes recruitment and retention research conducted with 92 adult students. This research found that adults had many different reasons for leaving their literacy program. Students spoke of busy schedules at work or home that conflicted with their ability to attend. Others had money or health problems or lacked the confidence to continue. Overall, this report found that people stopped going to literacy programs because “something else in their everyday lives was more important than going to school at that time.”

This report found that learners who dropped out of their literacy programs gave the following reasons for doing so:

  • Work conflicts (39%)
  • Money problems (39%)
  • Personal problems, health, confidence (26%)
  • Other problems with program (22%)
  • Childcare conflict (13%)
  • Other time conflict (13%)
  • Other reasons (9%)
  • Curriculum not relevant/wrong level (4.5%)
  • Disliked teachers and/or students (4.5%)
  • Family, others not supportive (4.5%)
  • Staff not supportive (0%)

(Note: Learners could cite more than one reason)

Conflicts with work and lack of money topped the list of reasons for dropping out. Personal problems, health and confidence are also key factors for adult students. This research indicates that literacy learners face significant challenges when returning to school that may be outside of their control and that are often beyond the control of literacy agencies.

ABC Life Literacy’s “Who Wants to Learn?” Study

In 2001, ABC Life Literacy released the results of a national study it conducted with Literacy BC called “Who Wants to Learn? Patterns of Participation in Canadian Literacy and Upgrading Programs.”  This report, written by Ellen Long with assistance from Sandy Middleton, was based on findings from interviews with 300 people who were seeking information about literacy programs. Research findings are used with ABC Life Literacy’s permission. You can view the full report at: Who Wants to Learn

“Who Wants to Learn?” found that 33% of adult learners who had signed up for a literacy program dropped out by the six to eight month mark. This report examined various retention issues such as who drops out and why.

Who Drops Out?

The “Who Wants to Learn?” report found that there were various demographic and socio-economic factors that affected rates of learner retention.

  • Men were more likely to drop out than women (39% of men versus 23% of women).
  • Age was also a factor with young people being much more likely to drop out. 42% of those aged 16-24 dropped out while only 17% of people over 45 dropped out.
Level of education:
  • Dropout rates were highest for people with a formal education level of Grades 5-9 (36%), Grades 10-12/13 (no diploma) (37%), or who had a high school diploma (32%).
  • The people least likely to drop out were those with the lowest and highest level of formal education. People with less than a grade five education had a drop-out rate of 20%, while 19% of people with some post-secondary education dropped out.
Community size:
  • Rates of retention were lowest for learners in both the largest cities (more than 500,000) and the smallest communities (less than 15,000).
Level of annual household income:
  • Learner retention increased as household income increased. As noted by ABC Life Literacy: “Nearly one-third of learners with household incomes below $20,000 left their programs, compared with about one-quarter of those with household incomes between $20,000 and $40,000 and less than one-fifth of those with household incomes of more than $40,000. Those with lower household incomes were twice as likely as those with higher incomes to say that worrying about money was a factor contributing to their decision to leave”.
Employment status:
  • Interestingly, dropout rates related to employment status only resulted in small variations. Dropout rates for those employed full-time were 28%; while 35% of those working part-time dropped-out.
  • Dropout rates for people receiving social assistance were 30% while people who indicated “other income” had a dropout rate of 34%.
Why People Drop Out

ABC Life Literacy’s “Who Wants to Learn?” research found that the most common reasons people dropped out of literacy programs were job related conflicts, money problems and childcare issues. The following chart lists the reasons cited by adult learners for leaving their literacy program.


(Note: Learners could cite more than one reason)

In addition, ABC Life Literacy’s “Who Wants to Learn?” research found that adult learners report that many issues and concerns affect their ability to concentrate on learning. The top factors affecting concentration were concerns about money; being tired or having trouble sleeping; concerns about childcare issues; worries over job-related conflicts; and personal anxieties.

Other research from a wide variety of sources has identified additional factors: low self-esteem; a lack of self-confidence; a real or perceived lack of progress; insufficient opportunities to achieve success; learning (or learning materials) not considered relevant to the student’s needs; previous negative school experiences and a negative perception of the value of education.

It is critical for literacy practitioners to be aware of the barriers faced by adult students so that we can better understand what supports and motivators might help them to stay. It is also important for practitioners to note that many of the barriers are personal or life issues that may be beyond our control to change.

We will leave the closing of this section on “Why Do They Leave” with a heart-felt and important quote from ABC Life Literacy’s “Who Wants to Learn?” report. Those of us who want to support adult learners to succeed, whether we are literacy practitioners, government officials, researchers or the general public, would benefit from reflecting on this quote.

“Many learners may be ‘just one circumstance away’ from dropping out. Furthermore, in the face of other urgent needs, the benefits of improving literacy skills may seem inconsequential.”

Questions and Activities for Reflection

  1. Are there any common reasons why learners leave your literacy program before achieving their goals?
  2. How does your literacy agency support students who are at risk of leaving the program? What actions could you take to improve in this area?
  3. Does your program identify at-risk learners when they first enter your program? If so, how?
  4. What are the characteristics of your program’s at-risk learners?
  5. What new strategies or program changes might you be able to put in place to help learners cope with the barriers they face?
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