Adult Learners Engage with the Drivers of Persistence

By Laura Porfirio

The 6 Drivers of Persistence offer a powerful framework for program improvement and learner leadership development. As a participant in Arizona’s Adult Education College and Career Readiness (CCR) Implementation Project, I knew I would learn a lot from the findings of the New England Adult Learner Persistence Project.

The 6 Drivers of Persistence quickly became a lens for me to re-examine everything we do:  from new student registration and orientation to classroom management to civic engagement and digital storytelling. The research affirmed our long-time practices in promoting community building and student voice and participatory philosophy in our program at Pima Community College in Arizona. It prompted us to make sure we meet these needs of adult learners: Sense of belonging and community, Clarity of purpose, Agency, Competence, Relevance, and Stability.

This research on learner persistence solidified our commitment to leadership development and civic engagement to help students build skills for success in future college and career endeavors.  Students (and teachers) reap the benefits when we provide them with opportunities to connect with others through leadership teams and training, take action outside of the classroom, and develop their voice in order to advocate for issues they care about.

In 2015, student leaders and I were asked to do a panel presentation at the Arizona Department of Education Directors’ Institute.

Adult Learner Persistence Panel from the Perspective of Adult Learners

This was our opportunity to highlight two powerful models for student engagement. We called our panel “Student Voices for Transformative Learning and Student Achievement.” I wanted the students to have some context to guide them in their remarks for the directors and other administrators from around Arizona. On a whim, I sent the students the 6 Drivers of Learner Persistence document. To my surprise, they wove the persistence research into their own observations and reflections. The following are excerpts from their panel presentations:

Sense of Belonging: For some adult learners, the decision to go back to school can be anxiety provoking. They are stepping into unfamiliar territory, possibly without an expectation of belonging there. When the director says, “This is your program, you can do whatever you want”, obviously we are going to learn but these words help us to feel part of this community school. We create connections that help to connect jobs for people looking for them, and we start friendships that continue for many years.

Clarity of Purpose: Research shows that learners who establish goals and see their progress are more likely to persist. Although our purposes, needs, and goals may be different, we students know exactly what we really want to learn and achieve.  As a cancer survivor, it increased my clarity of purpose. I decided that I needed to stay busy and do something to improve myself mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Agency: Agency is an action that a student takes to accept responsibility for its consequences in order to achieve his or her goal. Both students and teachers are constantly in a struggle with the challenges of teaching and learning. Good communication is essential. If students express opinions and preferences, teachers can make curriculum adaptations, change routines, and promote discussions that generate a democratic environment. Both teachers and students should apply the “agency driver” for success.

Competence: People who feel competent visualize success and those who doubt their competence visualize failure. Belief is very, very important. We must believe that our dreams can come true and goals can be reached. The better I get in English, the more I believe! When I see other students as competent, it helps me to believe that I can be competent, too. Leadership training and doing public presentations helped me feel competent.

Relevance: I lost my job last year. It was a catastrophe. I felt hopeless and totally lost my confidence. Then, a thought came to me. Are all these problems from language proficiency or lack of confidence? I knew the answer. I participated in Ms. Jackson’s leadership class. All the lessons are relevant to my needs – inspiring lessons and hands-on experiences.

Stability: Learning is difficult in an environment that is chaotic or unstable. There are some fears in the minds of adult students that stop us from believing that we can do whatever we want. In this program, we receive information that is very inspiring and that motivates us to feel stable in a safe environment for learning.

Those are the words of Queen Creek Adult Education students: Maybelin Rodriguez, Patcharaporn Phupaibul, Ana Morin, and Maria Alvidrez.

Our students’ experiences provide powerful testimony to the value of the learner persistence framework and how we are implementing it with a strong focus on leadership development and digital storytelling while building a sense of community and belonging. Our students express it the best. Just listen to Matias and Israel.

Matias' Story

Matias Rodriguez

Israel's Story

Israel Gonzalez


*Adult Student Persistence E-learning courses:


Queen Creek
That’s me (4th from the right) with my friends from Queen Creek.

Laura Porfirio is an adult educator in Tucson, Arizona at Pima Community College. She has spent her entire 23-year career in adult education looking for ways to help students take charge of their learning, break down the walls of the classroom, and promote student engagement in social justice oriented education.

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