The goal of the Research To Practice Initiative is to find achievable solutions to the nagging problems in adult education. COABE’s Adult Educator Resources platform was created to be a tool for discussing and sharing of solutions. Let’s put the concept of crowdsourcing to work and together find the ways and means to help adult learners make change in their lives.
I believe that advanced technology can offer solutions to many of these problems. But technology alone is not going to keep students coming to class and staying long enough to complete their degree or career pathway. It will take other innovations, and many I suspect are being practiced right now in adult education classrooms. Please accept this call to action to focus on the things that matter most to us. I believe that together we can solve a great many of the challenges in adult education. Watch the video.

Reducing Attrition & Increasing Completion

by Michael Ormsby


Students enter the adult ed system highly motivated to make change in their lives, yet only 39% complete their programs. The reasons why students drop or stop out of adult ed programs include issues with childcare, work, transportation, and poverty. Additionally, students face issues with learning as well as negative attitudes about education.

In his book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges, Thomas Bailey talks about how the structure of adult education schools affect completion rates. He points out that while community colleges have been extraordinarily successful in providing education to underrepresented students, they are not well designed to maximize completion of programs of study. In particular, the emphasis on low-cost enrollment has encouraged colleges to offer an array of often-disconnected courses, programs, and support services that students are expected to navigate mostly on their own. It is often difficult for the adult ed student to see how the classes they are required to attend contribute to their goal of getting a better job and financial security for their families.  

Bailey states, “We argue that to improve outcomes, [community] colleges need to move away from the prevailing cafeteria-style model. Instead, they need to engage faculty and student services professionals in creating more clearly structured, educationally coherent program pathways that lead to students’ end goals, and in rethinking instruction and student support services in ways that facilitate students’ learning and success as they progress along these paths. In short, to maximize both access and success, a fundamental redesign is necessary. We refer to the resulting strategy as the guided pathways model.”

Redesigning adult ed programs to this extent is beyond the scope of most adult ed schools. The question for discussion is, what can existing programs do to keep students coming to class and completing their educational goals within current funding and staff limitations? Or to state it differently, how can we do more with less?  

We can’t remove the stresses in the learner’s life, but perhaps we can find ways to keep the fire to achieve their goals alive. Adult learners come to the classroom motivated to make change in their lives, but lose momentum and focus because the pathway to change is long and not well marked with signposts. They become discouraged by their lack of progress and the inability to see the relevance of the classes they are required to take.  

It’s easy to forget that education is a transaction between the learner, the teacher, and the institution. The student invests time and money and expects to see the return on their investment. To understand more about how to provide a richer return on the student’s investment, we can look at how video games motivate users. Video games are tasked with the job of keeping players engaged and coming back, and to do this they tap into eight core drives common in all people. Finding ways to make adult education programs connect to these core drives has the potential to increase the engagement and focus of adult learners.  

Yu-kai Chou’s Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards is a rich source for learning how to do this.

Core Drive 1: Epic Meaning & Calling

This is the drive that is in play when a person believes they are doing something greater than themselves and/or were “chosen” to take that action. An example of this is when a person devotes a lot of their time to contribute to projects such as Wikipedia. For an adult learner, this may be the drive of being an example for their children or improving the financial stability of their family. What can we do to connect what is happening in the classroom experience to this drive? Would contextualized learning help with this? Would discussions with students about how what they are learning connects to their career goal help connect with this core drive? 

Core Drive 2: Development & Accomplishment 

This is our internal drive for making progress, developing skills, achieving mastery, and eventually overcoming challenges. The adult learner wants to connect their learning activities to their long and short term goals.  They want to see progress on what they are doing and get a sense of accomplishment for achieving certain benchmarks.  How can the classroom teacher help students see progress and get a sense of accomplishment for the things that they have done?  Some classrooms use progress boards updated by the teacher. Others use adaptive learning software that continually shows the student their progress toward their goals such as passing a HSE test. What progress tracking and responses have you seen in your teaching experiences? 

Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback  

This is expressed when users are engaged in a creative process where they repeatedly figure new things out and try different combinations. It’s why playing with Legos and making art is intrinsically fun. People not only need ways to express their creativity, but they need to see the results of their creativity, receive feedback, and adjust in turn. Incorporating this drive into adult ed programs can be challenging. Perhaps one way is to give the student a sense of choice and the learning tools to meet their learning goals. The idea is to help the learner feel that they are in control of their learning and outcomes.

Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession 

This is where users are motivated because they feel like they own or control something. When a person feels ownership over something, they innately want to increase and improve what they own. Helping the learner take ownership and possession of their learning and how it affects reaching their goals is what this core drive is about. How can an adult ed teacher help the learner feel in control of their learning and outcomes?  

Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness 

This drive incorporates all the social elements that motivate people, including: mentorship, social acceptance, social feedback, companionship, and even competition and envy. Much has been written about how learning is a social experience and how learners do better when they participate in study groups. Questions to consider include, how does the adult ed classroom use social relatedness to empower students? And how do grading systems increase the competitiveness and sometimes derail connectedness of students who struggle with learning?  

Core Drive 6: Scarcity & Impatience 

This is the Core Drive of wanting something simply because it is extremely rare, exclusive, or immediately unattainable. Applying this drive to the adult ed classroom is challenging. Perhaps just recognizing that many adult learners are impatient for making change and want to move as quickly as possible to their goal would be helpful. Offering special one-time events in the classroom, such as guest speakers or special presentations, could appeal to this drive. Another example would be giving extra points for turning in an assignment on a certain day or at a certain time. After the window closes, the points are lost. Have you used scarcity in your classroom? Did it succeed or fail? Why?

Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity 

Unpredictability is the Core Drive of constantly being engaged because you don’t know what is going to happen next. When something does not fall into your regular pattern recognition cycles, your brain kicks into high gear and pays attention to the unexpected. General unpredictability in learning is probably not a good thing for many adult learners since much of the educational experience has been unpredictable and uncertain. But curiosity is something that can be used in the adult ed classroom.  It is a very powerful motivator. The question is, how can we tap into this when teaching basic academic skills?  How can we get our learners to be curious about what they are learning?  What are unexpected, interesting, or engaging ways to connect students to learning material?

Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance

This Core Drive should come as no surprise—it’s the motivation to avoid something negative from happening. On a small scale, it could be to avoid losing previous work or changing one’s behavior. On a larger scale, it could be to avoid admitting that everything you did up to this point was useless because you are now quitting. When learners have a clear idea of their pathway goal and and how what they are learning today contributes to achieving that goal, then interruptions and ‘stop out’s have a greater significance to the student’s future.  

The Core Drives comprise only one lense through which we can look at classroom learning, and there are many. These drives, however, can be powerful. Many are already in use in classrooms around the country; it’s a matter of finding techniques that work in the classroom context. Advanced learning technology, also, can appeal to these drives, in a few ways.  

One is Process Feedback. This where the learning software is continually giving the learner a sense of where they are on their learning curve, as well as how what they are learning connects to their lives and their career goals. Contextualizing the learning into real-life situations is critical for making these connections. Concepts and skills that are taught in the contexts that are relevant to the adult’s life and also to the career they are pursuing keep students in mind of their larger goals.  

Simulation learning software attempts to do exactly this: put learning in the context of students’ lives. Unlike Text Driven or slideshow learning software, Simulation learning technology is highly interactive and relies on graphics, video, animation, and some level of gamification. Simulation learning software teaches concepts by putting the learner into situations or simulations in which the concept to be learned is actually used in their lives. This improves learning because it allows the learner to enter into a situation where they have to process the skills and concepts directly in their own minds. Here is an example of simulation software.

Multiplying Whole Numbers II

Learning technology is often used as a supplement or support to direct instruction. The assumption is that classroom instruction will reach all learners equally. But the adult ed classroom is a mix of diverse learning styles, speeds and academic backgrounds. Instead of using learning technology as a support for direct instruction, many teachers use it as the core of learning. This concept is often called Flipped Classroom learning and is very popular in K-12 and higher ed. The learning software does not replace a teacher, but rather becomes a central curriculum to improve acquisition of skills and concepts while the teacher focuses on intervention.  

An early innovator with this concept was Steve Reder’s Learner Web which created a learning support system for adult learners. The system is organized around the concept of Learning Plans, a set of steps or learning challenges designed to help learners achieve an identified goal. It works kind of like a massive subway system that provides the basic connections between all things educational for the learner. Essential Education’s adaptive learning technology uses the same concept. Using an initial set of assessments aligned to the HSE tests and the CCR standards, the program designs a learning plan for each student to follow.  

The learning plan becomes the core pathway, or what Bailey would describe as a guided pathway for the learner to follow. It lays down exactly what skills the student needs work on and which they have mastered. Beyond the obvious value of this for the student, the benefit for the teacher is that they are no longer in the dark about what each of their students needs to master. It means that the teacher can free up their time to do valuable one-on-one instruction with each student which of course can focus on the core motivation drives.  

In COABE’s survey of adult educator challenges, lowering attrition and increasing completion rates was the highest-rated challenge among adult educators. Finding ways to address this nagging issue without major changes or new funding is challenging. Being aware of what motivates adult learners and finding ways to connect their learning to these drives can help with this challenge. Advanced learning software with adaptive learning systems is playing a major role in providing a core pathway for students and helping them stay on track to achieve their career pathway goals.