Quality Learning

What Makes for Quality Learning in Later Life?

SUES listens to the Voices of Later-life Learners


We may think we know how to learn; we may even think we know how to teach. After all isn’t learning natural and isn’t teaching just letting learners know what we know? However, we may not be right in what we think and we certainly may not know, even if we are right, just what makes for the most effective teaching and learning. One way to find out is to ask the only people who know how they learn best and what teaching they would most often like to experience – the learners themselves.

It can be most enlightening to ask learners what makes for teaching that they would best respond to and also how their learning should be supported to enable it to happen as effectively as possible. We may, of course, receive comments or suggestions that challenge our own perceptions; some of which we may not believe or, if we do, could not possibly act on. Other views or comments may even be seen as a criticism of what we believe or have done before. Nevertheless it is necessary if we are to truly discover what makes for ‘quality’ in such informal learning.

This document feeds back the initial outcomes of doing just that; listening to the thoughts, views and perceptions of many hundreds of later life learners to find out just what they considered to be the nature of the best learning opportunities they had experienced. In doing so, ‘voices’ of this often-neglected section of society has been captured and to add considerably to knowing how both teaching needs to be tempered to match the needs of those in later life and how learning, although essentially a similar process throughout life, can be made easier and more effective for later-life learners.

Later-life Learning

Learning has for centuries been seen as both valuable in itself and also something that has a positive effect on those learning. Mahatma Gandhi exhorted us to:

Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever’

Wise words indeed; life itself has no certainty while learning has value all the way through life. However, it is specifically ‘learning’ and not just watching, listening, being entertained, playing games or other such activities. Learning should be considered as a process and one that causes a ‘change’ in our knowledge, understanding, skills or behaviour. Through learning, a change in the mental capacity of the learner takes place so they are able to draw on that newly learned ingredient in the future.

So much of what we watch on television, for example, is entertainment and is sometimes referred to as ‘edutainment’ when, say, programmes such as documentaries are provided to increase our knowledge or understanding. However, the majority of facts are not remembered the next day and where we do retain information, there is often no lasting effect. If there is no change, then there is no lasting benefit other then the enjoyment of watching it (although this has value in itself).

However, what if learning provided that enjoyment and also caused the changes that are so beneficial to the learners, especially to those in later life? Such learning exists and it is the learners themselves who best understand it; we just needed to ask them. This is what this a study between the Institute of Education and a London-based charity did in order to enable members of the over 50’s learning community to say just what were the characteristics of informal learning sessions such as Tai Chi, French, philosophy or art, that they found most effective – ones that they would describe as making up ‘quality learning’.

The responses were numerous and very widespread but also very strongly supported across the hundreds of later life learners involved. In this way, for the first time, we might understand just what quality learning in later life looks like (or, perhaps, should look like) and how it could contribute to gaining all the cognitive, social, psychological and physical benefits that recent empirical research has shown learning in later-life can unlock.


Following discussions with a large number of learners, the ‘elements’ that make up quality learning were gradually revealed. In all, 28 such ingredients for quality learning have been identified through empirical research. Right at the outset, it was interesting to find that the learners did not say, as might be expected, that it was the responsibility of the tutor alone to provide the ‘quality’ in the learning experience. Instead they saw it as a three-way partnership between:

  • the learners
  • the tutor and
  • the organisation

If learning is truly to be of the highest quality, then the elements from across these three ‘learning partners’ need to be in place. The learner needs to arrive in a state of readiness to learn, the tutor needs to plan and deliver in ways in which later life learners would benefit most and the organisation needs to manage the learning environment in ways to support and enable ‘quality learning’ to thrive.

This is the essence of ‘geragogy’, a theory of teaching and learning for those in later life that holds with the notion that this section of society is so different from others that they need a separate and more appropriate approach than, say, pedagogy for children or andragogy for younger adults.

The Elements of Quality Later-life Learning

These characteristics of quality learning have been termed ‘elements’ to indicate there is a need to produce something unique in later-life learning sessions just as elements are joined together to make, for example, steel, brass or even 18 carat gold. Each has unique properties that otherwise would not exist. In this same vein, the 28 quality elements produce learning that just could not happen naturally; we need to understand how one element significantly affects another and how the choice of these elements will determine the real quality of the learning that’s taking place.

These characteristics arise from the ‘voices’ of learners. Whether we agree with them is not an issue; this is what learners themselves feel, think and perceive. If we are to value learning, in fact if we are to value later-life learners themselves, then we must value what they say. To truly embrace their voice we must act on what they are saying too and ensue all learning in the future has as many of the ‘quality’ elements as possible so that those who have taken the time and the trouble to learn are then able to receive the benefits they might expect and which they deserve.


This initial statement indicates some fourteen of the elements that have been identified through research analysis as contributing to quality in informal later-life learning.

(a) The Learner

The participants in the study identified eight elements, which they need to be responsible for if the learning is to be the best it can be. They demand an awareness of themselves, and their abilities as learners, articulating what they want to get from their learning. They also promote active involvement in the learning.

These elements provide a checklist later-life learners can use to consider if they are playing as full a part as possible in making learning effective for themselves and for their fellow learners. Some of these elements are outlined here. Later life learners say that, in quality learning:

  1. I am challenged in my learning
  2. I am treated with respect
  3. I am, myself, motivated to learn
  4. I take part in the learning activities

(b) The Tutor

The participants, in both the research focus groups and through the questionnaire, also identified twelve elements, which tutors need to be responsible for if the learning is to be ‘quality’ learning. This was the largest section of elements and illustrated the central and important role of tutors. The elements clarify just what teaching strategies and approaches are perceived to be present in the quality learning experiences they had been involved in.

These elements resonate with those expected of the learners but allocate some clear responsibilities, as you might expect, to the leader in the learning process.

These elements too provide a checklist that can be used by tutors to plan and deliver teaching and upon which, perhaps, to reflect on their own practices. It is not a set of standards to be judged against but can help tutors to better understand which elements need to be considered to enable quality learning to take place for older adult learners. Some of these elements are outlined here. Later life learners say about tutors, in quality learning, that:

  1. They let me ask questions
  2. The are qualified as a teacher
  3. They are experienced in what they do
  4. They involve me in learning
  5. They challenge me to learn new things
  6. They ask for my opinions

(c) The Organisation

Finally, those taking part in this research identified a further eight elements, which they considered to be the responsibility of the learning organisation itself. They are elements that together make a quality-learning environment to enable the best possible learning to take place. The learners know they have a part to play, as, they say, does the tutor, but without the ‘classroom’ environment being supportive of what they are doing, learning will simply not be anything like as good as it could be.

This list also provides a final checklist for those leading or managing the organisation to consider when setting up learning situations and classes. In addressing such elements, it would not only benefit the learners, it would say much about the quality of the organisation providing, and often caring, for them. Some of these elements are outlined here. Later life learners say that, in a quality-learning environment:

  1. The accommodation is suitable for our needs
  2. The atmosphere is safe and non-threatening
  3. The organisation listens to any complaints
  4. The organisation selects the tutors with care


This set of assertions, together with the other 14 elements, outlined on the attached list, has not been suggested by researchers or by the government or by OfSTED inspectors. These characteristics are the authentic voice of the learners themselves and say what they believe makes learning of quality. It may not be possible for all learners, tutors or organisations to fully address what has been said but that does not diminish the learners right to speak nor the need for their views to be heard and seriously considered.

The SUES Committee has adopted this set of characteristics and, as a ‘quality learning organisation’ continually reflects upon them when planning, organising and delivering learning to our members. In this way SUES will continue to provide opportunities to receive the full range of benefits from being engaged in later-life learning.

Alan Potter


The Twenty-eight Elements (Characteristics) of Informal Later-life Learning

In Quality Learning…

The Learner

  1. I learn new things
  2. I find the group friendly
  3. I am challenged in my learning
  4. I have my individual needs met
  5. I am treated with respect
  6. I am, myself, motivated to learn
  7. I take part in the learning activities
  8. I encourage others to learn too

The Tutor

  1. They make learning interesting
  2. The let me ask questions
  3. They motivate me to want to learn
  4. They make learning fun
  5. They treat me with respect
  6. They are qualified as a teacher
  7. They are experienced in what they do
  8. They involve me in learning
  9. They challenge me to learn new things
  10. They ask for my opinions
  11. They give me confidence
  12. They encourage me to keep on learning

The Organisation

  1. The accommodation is suitable for our needs
  2. The atmosphere is safe and non-threatening
  3. The equipment works well
  4. The group is not too large
  5. The group has a friendly feeling
  6. The organisation listens to any complaints
  7. The organisation selects the tutors with care
  8. The room is organised to enable everyone to see and hear