Section 2 - Interviews with individuals knowledgeable about effective learning strategies related to learner characteristics.

Interviews and Focus Group Summary

EnterTech Project researchers Laura Bresko, Alan Buller and Judith Weiss interviewed ten instructors with experience teaching welfare population students and conducted a focus group of six TANF recipients and three program instructors at the Austin Area Urban League. A copy of the focus group questionnaire is contained in Appendix B and a list of interviewed expert informants is contained in Appendix C.

Focus group participants provided information about their personal, educational and work experiences. Instructors contributed information about their experiences teaching and supporting TANF learners.

To summarize the collected information, comments from the many informants were categorized as follows:

Barriers to Success

Prevalent barriers identified as undermining completion of training programs or successful employment were:

Age Differences

Instructors reported that learners displayed strikingly different approaches to learning, working and goal-setting within two distinct age groups: younger adults (16 to 24 years of age) and adults (over 24 years of age). The younger adults tend to be pre-occupied by typical adolescent identity issues, distrust authority figures (including teachers), have short attention spans, exhibit irresponsible and inappropriate behavior, and tend to want to socialize rather than engage in learning activities. Many of the adults have held multiple jobs without successfully finding a career, but have developed some insight into what employers expect. They are motivated, disciplined, receptive to help, and focused on using their training to gain more stable well-paying employment.

Ethnic Differences

Instructors noted few cultural differences in students. African-American women are seen as less likely to have a spouse or partner than Hispanic women. Hispanic women are seen as most likely to be influenced by traditional expectations of women and to use English as a second, not primary, language. Ethnic minority students perceived greater societal barriers to success, including employer discrimination, than Anglo students.

Gender Differences

Most programs reviewed had an 85-100% female enrollment, reflecting the preponderance of women on welfare. Instructors stated that the men and women in their basic skills programming were more similar than different in their approaches to learning.

Educational Experiences

Instructors report most students are not functioning at a high school graduate level. Learners report experiencing enormous amounts of failure and frustration in academic settings. Several students recounted teachers who were impatient and denigrating. They perceived low expectations from these teachers and often their own families. In addition, students reported financial and environmental conditions that limited their exposure to other sources of education and worldly experience, such as museums, libraries, books in the home, or travel. However, instructors and students alike noted that within respectful and supportive environments, their learning experiences improved immensely. Positive expectations expressed by the instructor coupled with patience and encouragement have produced remarkable results. Most of these individuals are very capable of academic achievement. Some can complete the GED as early as 16 years of age, or within a few weeks of entering a program.

Work Experiences

Most program participants have had some work experience. As with national averages, students report short-term employment experiences in service industry jobs such as fast-food and janitorial with poor pay and irregular schedules with neither benefits nor opportunity for career advancement. According to several instructors, some individuals — especially in the younger group — have shown a tendency to "self-destruct" in these jobs, through sporadic attendance, emotional outbursts, or other behaviors unacceptable to employers. They seem to have difficulty understanding the employers’ need for appropriate work behaviors. Even those motivated to keep a particular job often find that their life circumstances —often childcare and transportation issues—interfere with continued employment.

Perceived Strengths and Weaknesses

The typical learner in this population is more aware of her weaknesses than her strengths. Yet, with encouragement and support, she can identify a variety of significant personal strengths. Focus group participants noted the following strengths:

Instructors interviewed echoed the strengths identified by learners and added:

But instructors also perceived significant attitudinal weaknesses, including:

Current Environment

Individuals within the target population share a precarious financial situation, as evidenced by the need for public assistance. Many live in public housing and all receive food stamps in addition to the TANF stipends. Individuals report difficulty finding reliable, affordable childcare to allow them time to work. Lack of money also makes it difficult to acquire reliable transportation or appropriate work clothes. One instructor termed his learners’ daily existence as "100 forces pressing in on them."

Instructors noted that women trying to care for small children while working low-paying temporary jobs might be too tired to learn. Many of the women report experiencing sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Some are runaways; some are ex-gang members. Some programs report up to 30% learners with ongoing substance abuse problems. One program reported serving several individuals with arrest records.

Learners said they find few success stories to emulate from their immediate surroundings. Transportation difficulties compound the problem. Isolated in neighborhoods with few cultural amenities, they remain unaware of learning and employment opportunities in other parts of the city or region. Urban sprawl, the outer suburban growth of new businesses, and transportation barriers confine them to job searching within their own neighborhoods; neighborhoods where businesses and jobs are few.

Instructional Responses

Instructors report that learners entering into job readiness programs are highly motivated. They have a strong desire to improve and will strive to learn the skills required for a better job. They may have difficulty making a plan in pursuit of a goal. Several instructors noted that it is not enough to present a goal and offer learning activities to reach the goal. Specific linkages must be made from the current situation to every step along the way to the final goal. Given a specific goal and the supportive structure to reach that goal, instructors say their students can select and complete learning activities to reach the goal.

Instructors noted that many of their students have trouble deferring gratification and committing to a schedule. This is especially true of younger learners. Instructors said students benefit from a structured learning environment, although younger learners might rebel against it. Structures such as course outlines and action plans provide "road maps" that assist students in navigating from a current situation to an intended outcome. Adherence to scheduled starting times, break times, and ending times help them practice personal responsibility. Feedback from the teacher and peers on sporadic attendance and incomplete assignments convey the importance of discipline, routine and structure that can be transferred into a work environment.

Incremental learning is viewed as a best approach. Especially when beginning a new learning experience, instructors stated that learners need to feel that the first step is "do-able." Building upon an initial success, the learners are willing to attempt more difficult challenges. Little by little, new successes can replace the internalized experience of failure. While traditional assessment tools often prove intimidating at first, instructors use these tools to mirror learning styles and accomplishments back to their students. With encouragement from the instructor, the learners can become self-aware of their learning strengths, styles and strategies. As success becomes a pattern, pride in accomplishment pushes the learner onward.

Instructors report that the learners do not usually perform well in traditional classroom settings. But rather, learn best when given a variety of learning activities. The learners benefit from an array of individual and group learning situations. Some skills, such as communication and teamwork, are best addressed in the group setting. Activities generally need to be chunked into segments lasting no more than an hour per activity. Since learners receive little benefit from traditional lecture-style presentations, instructors must be energetic, creative and inventive to keep students’ attention. Instructors want to provide more attractive learning situations than students experienced in the past.

Many programs use "open-entry, open-exit" policies to allow the scheduling flexibility needed for learners to be able to participate. The instructor must keep track of each individual in what is essentially a "one-room schoolhouse." Learners of all ages, goals, personal issues, and academic levels work independently at least some of the time.

Concrete examples and real-world applications are crucial to adult learners. Allegories, theory, or abstract concepts do not reach these learners. The teacher must always be able to answer the question: "Why do I need to learn this?" Informing students of the relevancy of the presented information is a key motivation factor.

Instructors also note good response to project-based learning activities. Students learn needed skills by solving practical problems. Working in teams, they self-select roles that accentuate their individual strengths. Learners in this population typically have little self-awareness. When asked to reflect upon how the team worked together, the learners are often unable to discuss how they worked together and learned. However, with practice and guided discussion, they can become aware of their own strengths and contributions.

The kind of independent higher level skills (problem solving, teamwork, adaptability to change, and constant learning) expected by most high-tech companies require employees to take initiative and reason through a problem. Instructors note their students tend to become passive when a problem doesn’t resolve immediately. Instructors report greater success in teaching problem-solving skills through guided discussions on different ways to handle problems presented in real-life scenarios. Again, relevancy to the individual’s own circumstance or goal matters, and improves learning outcomes.

Developing a Learning Community

Most of the students reported few experiences with positive learning environments or supportive relationships. Yet in order to succeed in the workplace, they must demonstrate the interpersonal skills appropriate for collaborative relationships and continuous learning environments. Instructors reported that developing a learning community within their instructional setting was an important strategy to imparting the "soft skills." Instructors said they consciously strive to model appropriate behaviors such as punctuality, appropriate attire and respect for others. Creating opportunities for learners to model these same behaviors is important practice in job readiness.

The learners said they value the opportunities for peer feedback and participating in a learning community:

Most instructors noted significant boosts to their programs – in terms of both learner motivation and learning outcomes – through employer involvement. Involving potential employers in job readiness programs extends the sense of community to the potential workplace. Inviting employers as guest speakers, providing tours of worksites, and having recruiters conduct and critique mock interviews helps learners see the classroom-to-work connection. As the circle of community expands into the world of work, learners come to understand that a job is a partnership with their employer.

Implications for Instruction

After synthesizing the data, the research team extrapolated implications for the instructional design of the EnterTech Project.

First, in closely examining the skills and characteristics ranked by EnterTech Project coalition members as most important for entry-level workers, the research team created the following chart:

Learner Characteristic Summary from Research Interviews Implication for Instructional Design
Desire to learn, desire to work Genuine desire to learn, often masked

Will self-direct activities after specific goal is set and initial steps are taken

Want to work, but not always aware of what an employer might want

Provide specific goals but allow selection of learning activities to reach the goal

Provide an easily-referenced "road map" that shows current step in process and linkages to goal

Start with simple, manageable tasks to build success and reduce anxiety

Reading for information Of population with 8th grade reading level, about have problems centered around logic & reasoning, about can determine details & arguments

Need to know relevance of reading material

Start with simple reading tasks, slowly build in sequencing, structure

Relate reading tasks to the goal of securing a good job



Following instructions Able to follow simple instructions, may not be able to reason out complex sequence

Encounter difficulty if presented with unusual situation

Early portion of program needs to provide success in following simple instructions

Slowly build up complexity of instructions

Teamwork Strong sense of community

Learn better if can build on sense of community

Especially helpful: pair up adult learner with younger learner

Use teams to work on projects very helpful

Create mentoring (virtual and otherwise) among learners

Provide face-to-face opportunities for community-building

Use project-based activities to teach teamwork

Applied math General dislike of math problems

All can learn it reasonably well with practice and help

Need assistance in constructing sequence of steps to solve a problem

Provide a lot of success in confronting simple problems first

Build the complexity of problems as they progress without allowing "leap-frogging" of learning steps

Listening Indications of strong auditory learning style

Issues of short attention span

Need to demonstrate relevance before presenting information

Provide audio to supplement written material

Use auditory instructions when appropriate

Contextualizations for instruction (cultural characteristics) Unfamiliar with the world beyond their neighborhoods

Need to see relevance to their situation

Teach tasks that solve some of their external problems: scheduling, time management, budgeting, reading bus schedules/maps

Always link learning to job opportunities

Tour of workplaces helpful

Learning styles characteristics Need hands-on activities

Individual activities provide better pacing for some learning tasks

Group activities can promote additional understanding

Project-based activities highly motivating

Tend to give up easily when confronted with failure

Respond well to incremental successes and rewards

Provide mixture of individual and group activities

Provide relevant, realistic simulation of project tasks

Structure learning into "staircase" steps, starting with simple steps reinforced by success and rewards, slowly increase complexity and difficulty

Self-esteem characteristics Low self-esteem

Often feel no control over circumstances

Provide success experiences

Reinforce success

Allow control with assurances of continued success

Computer uses Older students more fearful

Younger students less fearful

Can overcome fear fairly easily with supportive guidance

Become aware of the value of using computer

May need two introductory components: one for younger (Quick-start) and one for older (liken the monitor to the TV and the keyboard to a typewriter)

Provide "failure-proof" interface at first, then build in problem-solving tasks to familiarize them with navigational interfaces, different applications, and post-crash recovery

Elaborating further, the team recommends the following strategies for the EnterTech instruction.

To build upon identified strengths rather than focus on deficits, the instructional design should:

To address identified deficits, the instructional design should:

Given the target population’s learning characteristics and instructional responses, the instructional design should also:

Additionally, the instructional design needs to address some aspects of the teacher’s role and the program structure, as follows:

In conceptualizing the flow of the EnterTech learner through the curriculum, the research team envisioned the following model as learners grow from current situation into new learning environments, workplace competencies and continuous self-improvement:


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