Adult Learning and Returns to Training

Start-end date: February 2010 - November 2013
Sponsor: Employment and Social Development Canada

Governments, employers, and individuals invest significant amounts of time and money in adult learning activities. While recent research has yielded insights on some adult learning programs, there has not been a coherent system to guide these investments in adult learning. The lack of such an organizing framework impeded decision-making at all levels of the adult learning system.

Employment and Social Development Canada engaged SRDC and the Canadian Labour Market and Skills Researcher Network to propose an adult learning framework and to conduct a number of studies to illustrate its use.

The three-year project took a systemic approach to adult learning. The approach features a roadmap to conducting comprehensive cost-benefit analyses of adult learning activities. This conceptual framework nests within a typology that describes the overall structure of the adult learning system. The toolbox also includes a practical guide to assess the quality of evidence from adult learning research and evaluation projects. Descriptions of each element of the system follow.

Read the final project report

Adult Education and Returns to Training Analytical Framework

The purpose of the framework is to organize the wide range of information on adult learning to support the measurement of economic and social outcomes, impacts, and returns for individuals, firms, and society. The framework provides a consistent means for communication across government programs and policy areas.

The analytical framework has four key components:

1. Typology

The Typology presents a system for classifying adult learning activities. It is based on an inclusive definition of adult learning and a modular definition of an adult learner. The core elements and additional criteria in the Typology can be flexibly applied, depending on circumstances. It also proposes an approach to classifying adult learning activities, according to how they are designed and delivered in practice. Finally, it describes adult learning activities in terms of key attributes such as provider, payer, purpose, duration, design, and delivery.

Taking all these factors into account, the Typology identified five categories of adult learning:

  • Foundational learning: Instruction on basic skills and learning strategies required for further learning or employment.
  • Higher education: Education or training that is offered by postsecondary education institutions and leads to a postsecondary credential.
  • Workplace learning: Learning related to the firm in which the learner is employed, that is supported by the employer, but that is not foundational or higher education.
  • Labour market advancement: Learning to improve labour market prospects, but that is not related to the firm in which the learner is employed, and is not foundational or higher education.
  • Personal/social: Learning directed to individuals in the context of their families and communities for the purpose of personal, social, cultural, civic, or spiritual growth or enrichment.

Read the Typology | View Typology graphic

2. Conceptual Framework to Estimate Returns to Adult Learning

If the time and money spent on adult learning are truly to be assessed as investments then a comprehensive approach to measuring the costs and benefits of such activities is required. The Conceptual Framework lays the foundation for documenting such costs and benefits in estimating the returns to adult learning.

The Framework contains the core elements of evaluation models — inputs, outputs, and outcomes — but encompasses the multiple actors and contexts that interact with adult learning. For example, it considers both the medium- and long-term intended effects of training for individuals, employers, and society. It also takes account of the individual and workplace factors that can help or hinder the training process. Thus it allows each type of actor in the system to assess the costs and benefits that are relevant to their own investments in adult learning.

Read the Conceptual Framework | View Conceptual Framework graphic

3. The Practical Guide and the Hierarchy of Evidence

A comprehensive cost-benefit study, as outlined in the Conceptual Framework, is dependent on the quality of the evidence applied to the analysis. The Practical Guide covers the empirical issues related to cost-benefit studies in the realm of adult learning.

Since the evidence introduced into cost-benefit studies can come from many different sources — crossing disciplines from social policy to management studies to accounting — it is essential that consistent criteria are used to judge the quality of the information. The hierarchy of evidence was conceived as a systematic way to rank research designs according to their scientific validity. It identifies those types of studies that are most likely to establish the causal links required for rigorous cost-benefit analyses and provides the tools to assess the quality of evidence provided from all types of studies. The Practical Guide is thus applicable to many other policy areas, in addition to adult learning.

Read the Practical GuideView Hierarchy of Evidence graphic

4. Dictionary

The Dictionary provides a list of key terms and definitions used throughout the other four documents.

Read the Dictionary

State of Knowledge Review

All the components of the project were applied to a State of Knowledge Review covering foundational learning, higher education, and workplace learning. For each type of learning, the review examined the inputs, outputs, and outcomes specified in the conceptual framework. The combination of learning typology and the input-output-outcome parameters created a grid to classify the 300 studies included in the review. The quality of evidence for each type of outcome was assessed according to the hierarchy of evidence developed in the Practical Guide.

The review highlighted several topics that had rarely been touched in adult training literature. Very few studies have addressed the impact of the quality of inputs and outputs on outcomes for postsecondary and foundational training programs. Similarly, research on intermediate outcomes for postsecondary study and workplace training is practically non-existent.

Many studies have documented the financial and social benefits of secondary and postsecondary education, but it is not clear whether the same returns apply to later-in-life education. And while numerous studies measure employment or earnings outcomes for training participants, they seldom feature long follow-up periods and few use state-of-the-art evaluation techniques.

Read the State of Knowledge Review

Research program

The Adult Learning and Returns to Training project also included a research program with two goals. The first was to add new insights to the empirical literature. The second was to explore innovations that could add to the resources for empirical research.

Read the Research Program Overview