Around this time of year, those of us working in adult education begin to reflect on a testing past few months. Adults differ from schoolchildren in one crucial way: they don't have to be there. And in summer, they can be easily knocked off track.
Of course, adult learners are always balancing multiple demands: jobs, childcare and other responsibilities can all contribute to a keen student abandoning their classes because they simply don't have enough time for them. But in summer, stopping for an after-work drink or tending to the garden seems more appealing than completing homework.
Another problem is that the summer term is when exams take place. Adult students often lack confidence and many associate learning with negative experiences they had at school. My classes in literacy and English GCSE are full of people who failed to obtain their qualifications the first time around. Having found the courage to enrol on a course, facing exams again can be tough. With that comes the chance they might fail again.
So keeping the adult learner in class for the duration of the course can be difficult. Here are some tips on holding students' focus and discouraging them from dropping out.
1 Give them a break
Adults put a lot of work into their studies. I'm often asked for extra homework and I've been presented with many unsolicited pieces of writing. One English GCSE student wrote up to 20 drafts of each controlled assessment before sitting the real thing. So by this time of year, they're tired. Less homework and more downtime in lessons are always welcomed. (We play lots of brain-boosting Countdown in my literacy lessons.)
2 Remember, it's not school
Penalise an adult student for being consistently 10 minutes late - perhaps because of reasons outside their control - and you'll find that they stop coming altogether. Chastise them for not doing all their homework - especially if they have very little spare time - and you might never tick their name off your register again. It's not school, they're not children, and if they're in your class after a full day's work, they're not going to appreciate being "told off".
3 Don't focus on the exam
Fear of exams is common with adults who haven't sat one for decades. I've had to talk students out of quitting just days before their test, as they convince themselves it's better not to do it than do it and fail. If you constantly teach to the exam, it becomes the sole reason for being in class. Then if someone doesn't pass, it's seen as a total disaster. Focus instead on the distance travelled and the fact that students leave with greater confidence and much-improved written and spoken English.
4 Make learning relevant
I warn my adult students sitting English GCSE that they may find questions on the exam paper about school uniforms or Facebook that are targeted at 16-year-olds, who make up the majority of GCSE sitters. Tailoring exercises and activities to your adults' interests means they're less likely to get bored and demotivated. I teach in East London and my students are from diverse backgrounds, so we learn a lot about each other's cultures. Many are looking for work, so activities involving CV writing and application letters are always welcomed.
5 Know your students
Understanding that someone in your class has three small children and barely a moment to herself means you might not expect all the homework to be completed. Knowing that another doesn't have access to a computer at home means you'll avoid setting them online homework. By getting to know individuals' circumstances, you can tailor your teaching to their benefit. In return, they'll feel more supported.
6 Allow students to drop a course
Many adults decide to learn maths and English (or English and a practical subject such as upholstery) at the same time, then realise that they can't cope with all the lessons, coursework, homework and revision, and they leave. Rather than lose them completely, suggest that they drop one course - or, better still, deter them from signing up to too many in the first place.
Kate Bohdanowicz teaches adults in East London