Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  3

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.



Empowering Adult Students through Action Research



Nathalis G. Wamba, Queens College, City University of New York



Nathalis G. Wamba  Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Department of Educational and Community Services at Queens College in New York.




The purpose of this classroom study was to explore ways to empower adult students to articulate and share their work and life experiences through action research and to also explore the transferability of learning to other social roles they assume in their respective communities.




Public discourse about adult education has focused on the need for workers to learn new skills in order to cope with today’s rapid social and technological changes. Being a productive citizen in the current political economy is important. However, there is more to adult education than just participating in the production and exchange of goods and services. For example, adult basic education (ABE) and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) programs range from helping adults to become better prepared to join the workforce to getting them engaged in social and political action (Evers, Rush & Berdrow, 1998).


A great deal of research has been conducted in the field of adult education e.g., adult students’ways of learning, andragogy, effective adult learning programs etc.,(see work by Kegan (2000) Knowles (1980), Mezirow (2000), etc.). However, Eleanor Drago-Severson’s (2004) Becoming Adult Learners is the first comprehensive study, to my knowledge, exploring adults’ perceptions of their own learning experiences.


Having taught adult students in a worker education program for the past five years, I have been interested in helping them articulate their work and life experiences and finds ways to collectively analyze and build on them in new fashions.  I also wanted to explore whether they transfer classroom learning to other social roles they assume as citizens, parents, family members, workers etc. Little is known about what actually takes place in adult education classrooms (Drago-Severson, 2000).


That is why I undertook this classroom research. The project started when I was granted permission to teach action research, a process of investigation that generates knowledge for the purpose of taking action. I kept a log in which I recorded my classroom observations, analysis and reflections.


Adult Learners: A New Undergraduate Majority


Who are the new adult learners? The demographic profile of college undergraduates has changed significantly in recent years. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, over 60 percent of students in United States higher education can be described as non-traditional students. Here are some of their main characteristics. They:

§         are 25 years old or older;

§         have delayed enrollment into postsecondary education;

§         attend part-time;

§         are financially independent of parents;

§         work full-time while enrolled;

§         have dependents other than spouse;

§         are likely to be single parents, and;

§         lack standard high school diplomas.

(Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, 2000)



Their motives for returning to school vary. Some are returning because they have been able to send their children to college and have decided that it is time for them to get back to school.  Others never had the opportunity to get a college education and feel that now they are ready to make a commitment to realize that dream.


Since these students have been absent from academe for awhile, it is understandable that their skills are often lacking in such areas as reading, writing, and computing, among others. Their skill limitations often contribute to a general lack of confidence.


The fear and anxiety that returning students bring with them often encourage coping strategies that tend to detract from their academic success. Their lack of self-assurance causes what could be called a culture of silence. They tend to internalize their ideas and avoid expressing them, especially when they might challenge the prevailing classroom discussion (the dominant culture) or the teacher’s opinions. Their participation is often limited; it is seldom proactive and assertive. This is unfortunate in light of the significant amount of life and work experience they have acquired and bring to the classroom.


The question is, how do we build on the strengths that adult students possess when they return to the classroom, and at the same time reduce the obstacles that they also bring with them?  Action research can provide a successful approach.


Action Research


Action research provides participants with the means to investigate systematically the problems and issues they face in their workplaces, schools or communities, formulate accounts of their situations, devise plans to deal with the problems identified, implement proposed solutions and evaluate results.  AR democratizes the research process by including the local stakeholders as co-researchers and provides the participants with an opportunity to apply and test knowledge. The action research cycle is as follows; 


·        identification of problem area,

·        collection of data,

·        interpretation of data,

·        action based on data, and

·        critical reflection. (Ferrance , 2000).


Winter, R. (1996) advances six principles which are central to the action research process, as follows:


1.  Reflexive critique, awareness of our own perceptual biases. 

2.  Dialectic critique, a way of understanding the relationships between the  

     elements that make up various phenomena in ones’ context. 

3.  Collaboration, when everyone’s view is taken as a contribution to

     understanding situations.

  1. Risking disturbance, or submitting our own taken-for granted processes to


  1. Creating plural structure, which involves developing various accounts and

      critiques, rather than a single authoritative interpretation.

  1. Theory and practice internalized, or seeing theory and practice as two interdependent yet complementary phases of the change process.


From these principles of action research I have selected the two that I found most effective in my classroom work. They are collaboration (community) and democracy (plural structure). I use these principles as follows.


The first step entails a collaborative identification of the research problem. While in traditional research, the investigator solely decides on the question to be examined, in action research both the investigator and the stakeholders make that decision. In my class, however, I instructed the students to identify a problem and choose a group of stakeholders to work with because of time constraint. Collaboration was limited but nevertheless present.


Second is the concept of democracy.  In action research the stakeholders and the researcher conduct the investigation, analyze and interpret data, communicate the result, implement solutions and evaluate results.


Community-based action research has the following benefits. It is


§       democratic, that is, enabling the participation of all people;

§       equitable, that is, acknowledging people’s equality of worth; 

§       liberating, that is, providing freedom from oppressive, debilitating conditions; and

§       life enhancing, that is, enabling the expression of people’s full human potential.  (Stringer 1999 in Smith, 2002).


Democracy and Community as Pedagogy


The concept of pedagogy is not static but rather evolving. Freire (1997) introduced educators to the notion of critical pedagogy. It is akin to action research and developed from critical theory. Nowadays, critical pedagogy is concerned with transforming traditional relationships between student and teacher where the teacher is the active agent and the student is the passive recipient of the teacher’s knowledge.  To this passive mode of instruction critical pedagogy suggests that the classroom be the site where  new knowledge is grounded  in the experience of students and teachers alike and produced mainly through dialogue.


Critical pedagogy, however, needs a context and a process.  The context is community. The process is democracy.


First, let us explore the community context in the classroom. Community implies a safe place where people are not strangers (Zygmunt, 2001).  Community people are engaged

in all sort of activities and sometimes they are involved in quarrels.  In fact, M. Scott Peck (1987) maintains that until a group has experienced a period of disagreement and resolved it, there is only what he calls “pseudo community.”  Through resolving differences, people create and solidify their togetherness.


Next we examine the process of democracy Gastil (1993) argues that the concept of democracy is evolving and embodies powerful philosophical principles that have never been fully realized on a large scale.  The concept of democracy embraces the notion of pluralism, cultural diversity, social and civil equality and a rejection of discrimination and prejudice.  It represents the ideal of a cohesive community of people living and working together and finding fair, non violent ways to reconcile conflicts.  Democracy embodies the three elements of the French Revolution slogan “liberte, egalite, fraternite.”



A democratic classroom is an environment where there is a relative equal distribution of authority.  It is an inclusive milieu where members internalize democratic values and ideals.  These values are the acknowledgement of peoples’ individuality, their competence, and their rights and responsibilities vis-à-vis deliberation.  This form of democracy goes beyond the thinner forms of democracy where the majority rules (Freire, 1997).  Ultimately, it is the teacher who remains the catalyst.  It is his or her commitment that makes democracy possible in the classroom.


Students’ Action Research Projects




I started the course by introducing students to the history and the philosophy of action research.  Then we examined the principles of community-based action research, the methodological assumptions and the theory behind the ethical issues before staring work on individualized assignment.  I instructed students to think of a problem they were having at home, work, school etc., which they would want solve.  I insisted that the problem be manageable and realistically solvable.  I encouraged the students to talk about their projects in class and solicit feedback from their peers.


This process of exchange protected their self-esteem and ego.  The students selected problems related to work, home, church or school etc.  They felt comfortable critiquing and giving each other feedback.  I orchestrated this classroom exchange as students integrated their life experience and action research.


Once a student has identified a problem, I worked with her/him individually on reviewing the literature on the subject, designing instrument to collect data, organizing, analyzing and interpreting data and discussing action and implementation and reflecting critically  on the result.




Students developed a great variety of research projects.  Here are a few examples.  A student decided to organize people living on her block to convince local legislators to put a ban on trailer trucks that were parking on their block, destroying the street pavement, polluting their neighborhood and lowering the value of their property.


Another student who is a nurse in a Planned Parenthood clinic in a low income neighborhood experienced great difficulty in getting her patients involved in her project.  She decided that she would involve them through a survey inquiring about their thoughts about condom distribution after an abortion procedure.  Using her survey results, she challenged her supervisor who had decided that she would not distribute condoms to her clients after an abortion procedure because it would encourage sexual activity.  She described her supervisor’s attitude as paternalistic and condescending to the women who came to the clinic.  She succeeded in changing policy at the clinic.


A third student working in collaboration with her housing neighbors confronted a school district superintendent because the bus would not pick up their children.  The reason given was they were told that they lived less than three miles away from the school.  After conducting research on school transportation in her school district, she and her friends drove to school calculating the mileage and found out that they lived 4.5 miles away from the school.


A fourth student successfully challenged the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance (NYSDT) which audited his parents’ small business and claimed that they owed $ 51,733.87 in back taxes.  Not only did he bring them to significantly reduce this amount but also discovered in the process that the Arab community, to which he belongs, was the target of perhaps discriminatory audits by the NYSDT since September 11, 2001.  As a result of his research, this student helped found the Arab American Business Association to protect the rights of small business owners in his community.




The students selected their own projects, collected and interpreted data, took action and reflected on the results.  The assignments gave them the opportunity to bring to class issues they were experiencing in their lives and apply academic knowledge to solve them.  This reflected our worker education program mission “to develop a better educated citizenry and union membership and to generate new ideas for social change.”


Several students took on issues some of them thought were beyond their control and were sometimes surprised by the results.  Getting these positive results gave them self-confidence and a skill repertoire to tackle other issues.  What could be more empowering than to take on the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance and put it on the defensive?


Another significant development was that the classroom also became a community of learners.  Learning was no longer an individual activity but rather a communal one where students helped and inspired each other.  They sought new kinds of information, skills, and ideas, which they hoped would help them in their projects.  This camaraderie supported the academic development of students.


Our classroom became a forum for an exchange of ideas.  Contrary to the banking concept of education where the student is the docile recipient of knowledge each of us taught and each of us learned.  It took some time to get the students accustomed to this style of instruction, since most of them were schooled according to the banking concept of education.  Once we overcame this initial resistance, the relationship of power between me and the students changed and we learned to assume new responsibilities for learning.


A major challenge to the assignment, however, was the involvement of stakeholders identified by the students as crucial to their projects.  It was difficult to get them in one place at a time and have them identify a concern or an issue of importance.  Some stakeholders were cynical about action research.  Time also played a crucial role, since an academic semester is about four months.  It takes time to gain the trust of stakeholders and to work with them.  So to lessen the burden, I instructed students to identify an issue and have a sample of stakeholders, an advisory board of sorts, validate it.  I also insisted that they involve them in all phases of the action research project.




The rationale for this exploratory classroom study was to find ways to encourage adult students to articulate and share their work and life experience and to explore the transferability of classroom learning to other social roles they assume in their communities.  The nature of the course, action research, and the way the classroom was structured provided a transformative educational experience.  The democratic process involved in the choice of topics for assignments, the forum discussions, and the sense of community in the classroom created a unique environment that built on students’ interests enabled them take ownership of their learning.


As a teacher, I felt a sense of transformation.  It became very clear to me that, despite the relationship of power that exists between teacher and students, our students are also our teachers.  I became increasingly comfortable with the notion that I did not need to know everything or have answers to all questions.  Instead I needed to be a particularly adept and flexible facilitator of the acquisition and creation of knowledge.


Action research allowed my students to talk about their personal issues and integrate classroom learning into their lives.  They used assignments to apply classroom knowledge to the solutions of their problems.  But perhaps the most significant contribution of this class is that it gave each student a story of success of failure from which they could learn.





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