What makes our adult students stick around

Those of us who teach adults in groups know all too well anxious adult learners are and how easily they can give up and seek other language learning experiences. When the reasons for giving up are not personal, they are sometimes attributed to the methodology adopted or the heterogeneity of the group. A recent personal experience has gotten me thinking about adults’ anxiety and what motivates them to embark on a learning experience and, most importantly, stick to it.

I like working out and going to the gym, and I am a member of a health club that offers a number of classes besides the usual exercise equipment. I’ve been going there for almost four years and, until last July, had always preferred working out in the morning. Last July, though, my daughter started going to the same gym and joined a functional training class in the evening. She tried to convince me to try it out, but I resisted, thinking that it was not for me, that I was perhaps too old for that, and that I wouldn’t feel comfortable in the group, not to mention that it took place at a rather inconvenient time for me. One day I gave in and decided to give it a go.

There I went, worried that I would be the oldest student, that everyone would run much faster than me, lift much heavier weights, and worst of all, finish everything way before me. No matter how hard my daughter tried to convince me otherwise, I was worried that the instructor and everyone else would look at me and wonder what I was doing there!

What happened was quite the opposite. I felt welcome from the start. The instructor welcomed me with a big smile saying how happy he was that I had decided to join my daughter. He explained that I had to follow my rhythm and not worry about the others. He didn’t put me in the spotlight by making a big deal out of having a new student that day, but he made sure I understood what I had to do and demonstrated how to do it as many times as I needed. At the end of the class, he stood at the door and hugged each and every sweaty student; when it was my turn, he hugged me said he was expecting me the following class. The following class, as soon as he saw me, he said how happy he was that I had come back.

Needless to say, I changed my whole routine in order to go to the functional training class three times a week at 8:15 p.m., an unimaginable time for me.  Since then, many more students of all ages and levels of ability have joined the class and not given up. Besides enjoying my class and gaining strength and resistance, I’ve been observing what makes my instructor so effective. Here are a few examples:

  • He is extremely committed to what he does. He comes in early and prepares all the equipment beforehand.
  • His classes are never the same. Every day there is something new. It can be a new exercise, new equipment, or a new way of doing old exercises. We can tell he is constantly updating himself.
  • He makes everyone feel comfortable about who they are and what they can achieve. There are young and older, fit and unfit, thin and not so thin students. The exercises are the same, but he encourages us to perform them at our pace. If a student has a back problem or a bad shoulder, he gives an alternative exercise. However, everyone has to engage in serious workout.
  • He has a what’s app group where he shares his plans for next class, thanks us for our participation in class, posts jokes about functional training, and even organizes end-of-year parties.
  • He created a collaborative Spotify list where people can add the songs they like for the class. There are all types of songs just as there are all types of trainers.
  • He is always in a good mood, always supportive and encouraging.
  • The class is new at the gym, so the space where it is held and the equipment available are still rather precarious. He is creative in the use of the space and equipment available and turns this apparent drawback into an advantage and sometimes even a reason for jokes.
  • He goes beyond his role as a “mere instructor” and acts like a true educator, as he did the day my irritatingly skinny daughter said she needed to go on a diet. He discretely asked to speak to her after class and away from me.
  • He plans the training in such a way that it will challenge the ones who have been training for longer without overwhelming the newcomers. There are different alternatives of boxes to jump, weights to lift, and ways to do the sit-ups, for example. The exercises are timed, so we do as many as we are able to within that time.
  • I slipped while trying to jump on a box and hurt my leg. I said I was never going to jump on boxes again. The instructor said I had to overcome my fear and try again, held my hand and helped me jump a few times afterwards, and has encouraged me not to give up, saying that this is common in these types of classes and that I can do it.
  • He went out of his way to plan an end-of-year celebration at a disco and encouraged everyone to join in, showing his emotional bond to the group and encouraging this bond among ourselves.

As you can see, my functional training instructor is the kind of teacher that makes a difference in an adult’s decision to join a class and stick to it. It’s not the gym or the quality of the equipment. I don’t think it is the methodology either, as I’m not really sure that what he does in class is similar or different to other functional training classes out there. It is the teacher and his ability to create an environment where the students feel they belong and can advance in their development, at their own pace, but also knowing that the teacher expects them to do their best and gives them support. As the great Earl Stevick once said and we have to remind ourselves as often as possible, “Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom” (Stevick, 1980, p. 4).

As heterogeneous as a group may be, if the teacher is able to personalize students’ experience and make them feel that they truly belong, students will certainly stay and enjoy every minute. I did!


Stevick, EW. (1980) Teaching Languages. A Way and Ways. Newbury House, Rowley, Mass.


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Isabela Villas Boas

Isabela Villas Boas holds a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language from Arizona State University and a Ph.D. in Education from Universidade de Brasília. She has been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for 33 years, where she is currently the Corporate Academic Manager . Her main academic interests are second language writing, teacher development, ELT methodology, and assessment. She also supervises MA dissertations for the University of Birmingham. She has recently published the book “Teaching EFL Writing - A Practical Approach for Skills-Integrated Contexts.

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