News at Smith

On a QUEST to Improve Adult Education

Feb 20, 2012
Experiential / Reality-based Learning


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.

thebronx-subway-bookWalsh 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

About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.