On a QUEST to Improve Adult Education
For Smith School senior John Walsh, his last year meant more than just exams
and post-graduation plans. It also meant it was time to consult on a present-day
challenge affecting a real-world client, a challenge that allowed Walsh to
improve the student retention rate at a local adult learning program.
Walsh is a student in the Quality Enhancement
Systems and Teams (QUEST) Program, a partner program of the University of
Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, the A. James Clark School of
Engineering and the College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences. In
the QUEST curriculum, students learn to solve problems through systemic thinking
and a team approach, ending with a real-world project their senior year.
had been working with the Literacy Council of Prince George’s County, which
provides tutoring and classes for adult learners, since his freshman year. He
decided to approach his faculty adviser to see if the QUEST senior consulting
program could work with the Council. After speaking with leaders at the Council,
Walsh and his senior project teammates discovered a major problem: 60 percent of
its students were leaving the program from one semester to the next.
The team was tasked with discovering the cause of this low retention rate and
finding an implementable solution. They conducted interviews, went on site
visits, and observed student/teacher interaction. Their observations, plus some
outside research, helped the team identify students who were at a high risk of
not completing the program: women ages 45 to 55 with dependents and
poverty-level working men. The team also found that many students were dropping
out due to personal obligations and a lack of community accountability.
Armed with this information, the team came up with a three-part process to be
implemented in three stages over the year. The process included teachers
contacting students after a missed class, creating a Community Council, grouping
students into cohorts, fostering student/teacher relationships through smaller
class sizes and community activities, and introducing teaching assistants. When
the team presented their proposal to the Literacy Council, the Council decided
to fully implement their suggestions over the year -- an outcome that is not
always realized by the best of consulting firms. So far, the numbers have spoken
for themselves. In just two semesters, the Council’s student retention rate has
soared from 40 percent to 71 percent, is ahead of projections, and is still
increasing during the third phase of the process.
Nancy Burphy, intake and assessment specialist for the Literacy Council, said
that the student QUEST team was very motivated: “They came in not knowing much
about adult education, but came very prepared, which enabled discussions to be
focused. They had a very specific agenda, and that impressed us.” The team
“presented a proposal that was measurable, included next steps and flexibility,
and feedback. For young people they were remarkable, passionate and excited, and
this became contagious.”
For Walsh, the project reaffirmed his motivation and dedication to this cause
in the community. “Knowing how much the students cared about getting an
education and being a positive force in achieving that goal was a very rewarding
experience,” he says.
Rachel Hester, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, Office
of Marketing Communications
Published: February 20, 2012