LSAL Study

New study offers surprises on how adult students learn

If adult literacy programs are thought of as supporting self-study as well as providing classes, the programs could serve more learners, attract new learners to classes, and increase the overall persistence of adult literacy learning.

That is one of the findings from a newly published study called the Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) conducted at Portland State University and funded by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Figure 1"If we broaden our concept of an adult literacy program to include support or facilitation of adults working on their own, then we’ll have broader types of participation and be able to expand our services to many adults in need of literacy support who aren’t coming to programs as we currently conceive of them," said Steve Reder, principal author of the LSAL and professor and chair of the Department of Applied Linguistics at Portland State University.

In fact, self study and program participation appear to be complementary approaches to learning, according to Reder.

"The LSAL research indicates that self-study should be viewed as being on a continuum with, rather than an alternative to, classroom-based instruction," said Reder. "Most adults who have tried to improve their basic skills or prepare for the GED have tried both self-study and participating in a course. By the time we collected the fourth wave of data, nearly two-thirds of the adults in the study had engaged in self-study since leaving high school."

Some of this self-study is already being done inside established adult education programs, according to Reder.

"There are distance education programs out there," he said. "That’s one piece of it. But many adults need support developing plans to reach their goals, and they will need assistance from tutors or teachers at certain points as they work on their own. We need to think about how to broaden the elements of the adult education programs instead of self-study being such a different world."

Figure 2Reder said that is already happening in many adult education programs. "Many of the learners we talked to who were in a program were clearly not always in a classroom situation," he said. "Some were in a learning center situation working independently with technology. There was a teacher in the room who was available for help on demand. That to me is already facilitated self-study going on right inside a program. We need to think about how to expand that notion to a virtual learning center."

Conducted by Reder and Clare Strawn, an assistant professor at Portland State University, the study involved 940 Portland residents, ages 18 to 44 years old who had not received a GED or any other high school equivalency credential. Reder and Strawn did a series of five interviews and skills assessments, called waves, with each participant over seven years. About 93 percent of the participants remained with the study through wave four. Data from wave five has not yet been analyzed.

Hearing from adults not enrolled in formal programs was one impetus for the study.

"We wanted to get information from people who might come to adult education programs but don’t, or who might know about the programs but may not know there is a GED or how the GED can benefit them," Reder said. "Information about what happens to adults once they drop out of high school wasn’t available. We had just seen short-term glimpses; it’s hard to get a long term view."

Reder said they have already uncovered a handful of important findings although analysis of the final wave of interviews has not yet been completed. In addition to the insight on self-study, Reder said they also found that adults’ literacy continues to develop after they leave school. In fact, he said it continues to change across the person’s lifespan. This is influenced by many factors including, but certainly not limited to, participation in an adult education program.

"Another important finding for our field is that many adults who never come to an adult education program are nevertheless engaged in independent efforts to improve their basic skills or prepare for the GED," he said.

Unfortunately and perhaps not surprising to adult educators, most of the adults in Reder’s target population do not have access to the type of work and training that enables them to apply new basic skills.

"People whose earning go up are people whose skills go up and vice versa," said Reder. "By and large, most of the adults in our population don’t receive a lot of training and have limited opportunities to get into jobs that will support their literacy development."

Even so, Reder said adults have many reasons for trying to improve their basic skills, although some don’t know about the GED or may not be at a level where that is a realistic goal. "The adults who don’t go to a program may not have much information that there is a GED out there or how to prepare for it," Reder said.

One surprise from the study is that there is not as great a digital divide—difference in computer access and usage between high school graduates and non-graduates—as some might expect.

Figure 3"I think the computer usage rates are still higher among those with more education (and income)," he said, "but they are surprisingly high even among our target population. More of a ‘;digital divide’ is evident in how technology is being used (the applications involved). That may be an area for future focus."

Other findings confirm what many adult educators already know.

"Many factors influence the preferences and choices that people make about how to pursue learning," Reder said. "If programs are not convenient in terms of time and location, that will affect adults’ choices about attending them. So will work schedules and family responsibilities, If technology is not readily accessible, that will affect opportunities and choices for self-study. And there are learning style differences or preferences that lead some adults to prefer working with others in small groups, or one-to-one, or independently on their own."

The findings concerning self-study were, in fact, the greatest surprises from the study for Reder.

"We had heard anecdotal reports from teachers that students sometimes told them they were working on their own," he said. "We had no idea such a large percent of students never come to programs. It was a source of surprise."

But Reder quickly acknowledges that he doesn’t have an answer about how adult educators can best facilitate and encourage self study. "Practitioners and programs should experiment and share their experiences so we as a field can learn how best to do this," he said. "I think the learning center models that already exist in many programs are a good starting point. In many of these centers, teachers are already providing on-demand assistance to individual learners who are working independently. This is really guided or facilitated self-study. If we can extend these techniques—perhaps with the use of telephone and internet technologies—to other learners, we’ll make lots of headway."

Reder and Strawn are continuing to analyze and write up their findings. They have also recently received funding from the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) to continue another round of data collection. Other publications are in the pipeline and still others are underway.

Reder also said that similar studies are possible in other metro areas. Obtaining funding to support the research is an essential early step, he said, adding that he is glad to answer questions or assist those wanting to pursue such studies.

To learn more, contact Steve Reder at 503-725-3999, PO Box 751, Portland State University, Portland OR 97207-0751, and visit their website