Benefits of Lifelong Learning (BeLL) study complete

Petra Herre

Bell ProjectThe EU-financed¹ project “Benefits of Lifelong Learning” (BeLL), launched on 1 November 2011, came to an end on 22 January 2014 with its final conference² presenting and discussing the key results. The project was aimed at empirical data-gathering and investigation into the subjectively perceived benefits of participants in educational events in the fields of general, cultural and political continuing education, i.e. liberal adult education.

Ten European countries were involved in the study. The project was managed³ by the German Institute for Adult Education (DIE). The “mixed” consortium included a wide range of partners: universities, private and state-funded research institutes, teaching institutions and NGOs from the Czech Republic, Finland, Italy, Rumania, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Britain (England and Wales) and Germany.

Benefits research

The project links in with research into the wider benefits of learning, as carried out over the last ten years in Britain and Finland⁴. The approach is designed to find out how individuals, groups, organisations and society benefit from continued education. Among other things the focus is on the individual, personal and social benefits and effects of learning on people’s family lives, health, satisfaction with their lives, social commitment, solidarity and networking. In other words, the benefits⁵ of taking part in adult education, mainly the non-economic ones.

The study results show that adult education helps people cope better with social challenges⁶. The BeLL study links in with this, operationalising the benefits found in previous studies and checking whether they are subjectively seen to exist by people taking part in liberal adult education courses.

The research design

Prior studies, especially that run by Jyri Manninnen, played a leading role in the development of the BeLL study design. Data was gathered using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. A questionnaire was used with 39 items to judge participants’ own views of the benefits and changes. The questions operationalise psychological concepts (locus of control, self-efficacy) and benefit-related concepts (tolerance, trust, social network, sense of purpose in life, civic and social engagement, civic competence, mental well-being, work-related benefits, physical health, health behaviour, family, shifts/changes in educational experience). There are also two open-ended questions on the “direct” and “wider” benefits. A third question is aimed at the “learning situation elements” relevant to the context of perceived benefits (e.g. the instructors, teaching methods, group, course topic, advice, novelty value of the topic).

In addition, eighty semi-structured interviews were held with eight course participants from each of the ten countries to find out what effects arise from taking part in liberal adult education events, how participants describe the benefits and what effect national / cultural contexts have on their perception of the benefits.

Altogether, 8646 questionnaires and 80 interviews were analysed.

Benefits from the respondents’ point of view

The results of the trans-European study support the significance of adult education, and their general message is in line with previous studies. Liberal adult education has a wide range of individual and social benefits. Ten benefit factors were identified during the analysis: locus of control, self-efficacy, sense of purpose in life, tolerance, social engagement, changes in educational experience , health, mental well-being, work and family.

Respondents described their learning experiences as predominantly positive. This is where the greatest changes can be seen: 86% are more motivated to learn, 87% see adult education as more important than they did previously, 80.5% are more familiar with learning and 78% would encourage others to take a course.

As well as increased motivation to learn, for 70–87% of respondents the main emphasis is on social interaction and wellbeing, general satisfaction with their lives and determining their own course in life. Other areas in which positive changes can be seen are topics related to health (58–68%) and the family (parental skills 68%, helping children learn 69%). The areas of work / career and civic engagement were mentioned more rarely (by 31-42%).

Significant differences can be seen in terms of different groups of participants. People with a low level of education benefit particularly from adult education (ISCED 1: 32% and ISCED 2: 22 %)⁷. Men place greater emphasis on work-related benefits and changes in self-efficacy; women name social engagement and the family. For young people, taking part in adult education courses acts as a springboard to taking on responsibility. For older people, adult education is a context in which they can deal with the changes and challenges of life after work, growing older and family losses. In the interviews, respondents distinguished between direct and indirect perceived benefits and long-term effects. Another aspect revealed was that liberal adult education tends to be used more to make progress on “life projects”⁸ (Knud Illeris, 2004) and less to gain individual, isolated skills.

It is interesting that changes in the areas of health care, family and work seem to be most apparent in Slovenia, Romania and Spain. These country-specific characteristics, which can be recognised in part in the study’s data records, require clarification

One factor which is especially important for learning, as stated in the reports of study participants, is the personality of the instructor and his or her professionalism (knowledge, methodological expertise). Another equally important aspect is the group (of learners) as a space for reflection and the well-founded exchange of ideas

What the study means for adult education in the context of LLL: political outlooks

The BeLL study shows that liberal adult education has positive effects. It appears to balance out disadvantages, while differences with regard to educational qualifications seem to lose their weight. According to the descriptions of the adults who completed the questionnaire and were interviewed, adult education allows people to take up learning opportunities. It improves their mental wellbeing. People who are not used to education are motivated by low-threshold courses. In this way, adult education encourages equality of education and participation and offers space for personal development and a broadening of horizons.

The BeLL study gives an impression of what adult education can achieve⁹. As such, in the eyes of those taking part in the final conference, it can be seen as a pilot study. It could also play a part in a recent shift in focus¹° (Josef Schrader) giving general continuing education its due place alongside professional education. The study offers legitimation and evidence for organised adult education and its thematic range within the concept of lifelong learning.

Adult education has an ambivalent position within the lifelong learning concept. Though it is ascribed great significance, it is not well developed (in terms of funding structures or professionalization) and receives limited financial support. There is also a great deal of competition for meagre resources: influential studies on the economics of education claim that investing in early years education and support¹¹ (James Heckmann) is far more effective. For this reason, it is of prime importance to shed light upon the benefits and effects of adult education courses.

The study’s significance in terms of education policy lies in the fact that it looks into what adult education achieves. This is also the direction of recommendations to the European Commission and its LLL policy, which are formulated on this basis


¹Funding stream: Studies and Comparative Research (KA 1)

²The author took part in the final conference in January 2014

³People in charge: Prof. Dr. Monika Kil,, Dr. Marion Fleige, Dr. Bettina Thöne-Geyer, all DIE (German Institut of Adult Education)

Center for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning (WBL) and the Institute of Education, University of London (IOE) and University of Eastern Finland: see the articles by John Vorhaus, DIE I/39 et seq. and Jyri Manninen in DIE I/2013, 26 et seq.

Such as greater productivity or a better income

Manninen’s “Wider Benefits of Learning” relate to challenges such as globalisation, active civic engagement, social capital, lifelong learning, employability, health and mental health

ISCED: International Standard Classification of Education/

Life projects mean the challenges of everyday life and might include e.g. taking action to promote social justice; being a goood mother; staying fit in old age, picking up on new topics of learning, etc. Illeris,K.. (2004), Adult Education and Adult Learning. Frederiksberg, 197

Kil, Motschilnig, Thöne-Geyer (2012), 165

¹°Schrader, J. (2011): Struktur und Wandel der Weiterbildung. Bielefeld, 40/41


Related Links:

European InfoNet Adult Education, 10.04.2014