Understanding the Experiences of Adult Learners: Content Analysis of Focus Group Data Jeff Zacharakis, Marie Steichen, and Gabriela Diaz de Sabates, Kansas State University Dianne Glass, Kansas Board of Regents
ABSTRACT In this qualitative research study, we sought to better understand the experiences of adult learners in adult education centers. We conducted eight focus groups with 104 adult education students from 25 adult learning centers. Five groups were made up of English-speaking ABE students; learners in the three ESL groups spoke Spanish. We used an iterative content analysis method. Strategic Analysis of Representations Approach (SARA), to explore data gathered from the tocus groups. Six themes emerged: empowerment/ agency/energy, exigence, personal barriers, program challenges, program strengths, and self-perception. This research adds to and supports the growing body of knowledge on the role of adult learning in the lives of adult learners. It also can inform development of programmatic and strategic changes in individual adult learning centers to increase student retention, persistence, and success.
by being "mindful of life" (Freeman, 1993, p. 3); and a content analysis approach with sufficient complexity to contextualize this intent. This content analysis method adds and provides support to the growing bodies of knowledge on adult education and qualitative research methods. Our research questions were: (a) Why do participants attend adult education classesi" (b) What elements of the program do the participants believe promote success? (c) What are the barriers to their participation and success? and (d) How might their adult education programs be improved? Adult learners participated in the focus groups as key stakeholders and expert panelists (Chioncel, Van Der Veen, Wildemeersch, ôC Jarvis, 2003) with local knowledge relevant to these questions.
LITERATURE ON ABE AND ESL LEARNERS INTRODUCTION
Adult education has developed into a strong network of adult learning centers across the country working with people who seek to improve their literacy skills through Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English-as-a-secondlanguage (ESL) classes. This research contributes two elements to adult learning literature and qualitative content analysis: an understanding of the participants' intent to rechart, redesign, and reconstruct the "self" Researchers who study ABE and ESL students have identified several characteristics unique to adult learners as well as conditions that promote program completion. They confirm what ABE and ESL teachers have observed—the educational trajectories of adult learners are frequently complicated by negative personal experiences and social barriers (Beder 6i Valentine, 1990; Hand, 1965; Kegan, Broderick, Drago-Severson, Helsing, Popp, Sí Portnow,
Jeff Zacharakis is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Marie Steichen is a research assistant professor at the Cencer for Engagement and Community Development, and Gabriela Diaz de Sabates is an instructor in the Department of Women's Studies, all at Kansas State University. Dianne Glass is state director of adult education for the Kansas Board of Regencs. 84 Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal • Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 2011
Experiences of Adult Learners
2001). Hayes (1988) developed the Deterrents to Participation Scale for low-literate adults. Using cluster analysis, she identified five key factors that influence adult participation in ABE programs: low self-confidence, social disapproval, situational barriers, negative attitudes toward school, and low personal priority. When low self-esteem, multiple situational barriers, and negative attitudes toward school converge, the chances are low that an adult will pursue education. The chances are also reduced when complex situational barriers are compounded by a low personal priority on learning (Hayes, 1988). Once they decide to return...