The relationship between Participation in Adult Education and Effectiveness

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Last week, we had a conversation with colleagues in an effort to exchange knowledge regarding the most effective adult education systems among EU countries. The first questions that popped into my mind were: What do we mean by the term effectiveness in adult education? How is it defined? And then, how do we measure it? …Well, that was more complicated than I thought.

Usually, as we prefer to get quick and straightforward answers, one of the most appealing data to look at for evaluating the effectiveness in the adult education sector, are participation rates. Is it the best we can do though? How representative are participation rates to assess effectiveness? Before we deep into some theory, let us think about this example:

“Helen is a 28-years-old adult, living in Athens. She has a major in Law and two Master’s degrees -in International Relations and European Rights Practice-. She has obviously invested significant effort and financial resources to obtain these titles.After her studies, Helen had spent a year working at a coffeeshop until she could find a job at her disciplines. After numerous efforts, she has finally got a contract as a receptionist at a health clinic. Her current salary is slightly above the national minimum wage. Given the challenging economic conditions of her country, Helen understands that the possibilities to achieve a better job with a higher salary for her are minor. In particular, the legal sector has been seriously harmed and fragmented. Therefore, she has lost her motivation to spend more time studying or expanding her knowledge since opportunities are limited. Helen’s example is not rare for a significant percentage of adults in Greece.

Sem is a 30-years-old Dutch, who studied Business Administration as a major degree and has a Master’s in Sustainable Development. He currently works at a local consulting enterprise for 5 years now. Given his gained experience, Sem has good chances for promotion within the company as well as new job prospects. With a quick look on some recruitment agencies, he realised that his experience is highly valued in the market. Recently, he has attended a fast-paced programme for financial management subsidised by his employer. Now, he desires to attend a series of courses for pursuing a professional title in Finance, as he is really interested in it and the opportunities are evident.”

As we could observe from the example above, people’s motivation and, therefore, participation in education and training depends on both internal and external factors. Taking a closer look on the participation rates of EU countries (last four weeks-2019), we could also observe that higher rates are somehow related to the ‘good’ economies and the other way around. Now let us wonder, why do adults want to educate and train themselves? When do they take action to participate in education and training? Well, there is a plethora of possible factors noted by numerous surveys, however, the most dominant and persistent motives to participation were found to be job-related reasons (Desjardins, 2010; Eurostat, 2020; Hovdhaugen & Opheim, 2018; Kim et al., 2004). As simple as it sounds, adults are often willing to give some extra effort to educate themselves whether their investment will pay back. Which investor would stake money in something that apparently has no demand?

Participation rates are usually the complex result of macro-economic and macro-cultural psychological factors within a wider system (Boeren, 2017). It is a variable or an indication for adult education effectiveness, but not the only one. Given this consequence, we would be very naive, if we use only participation rates to assess effectiveness in adult education. Nevertheless, participation rates can be found in many European reports as benchmarks and future priorities and any initiatives on that direction can be only applauded.

What emerges is to define what effectiveness in adult education is and how we measure it. Effectiveness in education, has never been a simple topic with straight forward answers. While for School Effectiveness Research where some more theoretical basis and evidence exist, the desired result is student (usually academic) outcomes, for adult education this is not the case. Non-formal and informal education has a serious lack of universal assessment mechanisms to track learning outcomes but most importantly, this is not even the desired result by its clients. As Malcom Knowles et al. (2005) and others (e.g. O’Toole & Essex, 2012) noted, adults do not seek learning opportunities to add to their academic records. In contrary, they look for practical and applicable knowledge or skills they could directly use in their daily work and civic life. In fact, each individual has different motives, demands, needs and goals while entering adult education and training. Therefore, desired outcomes are pretty much unique for all.

Adult Education is a versatile, multiform and decentralized sector in many countries. There are various elements that could determine effective programmes in adult education, such as relevance and usefulness of training and outcomes, recognition and validation of skills and competences, institutions’ technological infrastructure, teaching and instruction quality and so on. Therefore, we should be careful when drawing quick conclusions. Otherwise, we might fall into the availability bias, where we tend to perceive the “reality” with the only data we have available at a given moment.

Demos Michael is project researcher at CARDET (Center for the Advancement of Research & Development in Educational Technology) while his expertise focuses on educational research. He is interested in topics related to equity and inclusion of educational effectiveness, as well as non-cognitive processes that affect academic achievement. More specific fields of interest are motivation, achievement choices, expectancy beliefs, mindset, perseverance, persistence, self-efficacy and others. He has been recently involved in the implementation of various projects in adult education and other research activities. He believes that all individuals have a special capability on at least one domain where they can develop genius.


Boeren, E. (2017). Understanding adult lifelong learning participation as a layered problem. Studies in Continuing Education, 39(2), 161-175. doi: 10.1080/0158037X.2017.1310096

Desjardins R. (2010). Participation in Adult Learning. International Encyclopedia of Education.

Eurostat (June 16, 2020). Distribution of non-formal education and training activities by type and sex, 2016 (% share of all non-formal learning activities of adults aged 25–64) [Data file]. Available at:

Hovdhaugen, E. & Opheim, V. (2018) Participation in adult education and training in countries with high and low participation rates: demand and barriers, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 37(5), 560-577, doi: 10.1080/02601370.2018.1554717

Kim, K., Collins Hagedorn, M., Williamson, J., Chapman, C. (2004). Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: 2000–01 (NCES 2004–050). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Knowles, M. S., Swanson, R. A., & Holton, E. F. (2005). The Adult Learner: Vol. 6th ed. Routledge.

O’Toole, S., & Essex, B. (2012). The adult learner may really be a neglected species. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 52(1), 183–191.

First published on “EPALE” on “September,  2 2020”.

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