Villar and Co-Workers Explained:

Active Aging and Learning Outcomes: What Can Older People Learn from Participation?

Reference: Villar, F., Serrat, R., Celdrán, M., & Pinazo, S. (2020). Active Aging and Learning Outcomes: What Can Older People Learn From Participation? Adult Education Quarterly, 70(3), 240–257.


What were the research questions?

The aim of the study was to explore and compare learning outcomes acquired from different active aging activities (leisure activities, university studies, volunteering, and political activism).
  1. What do older people learn from their participation in active aging activities?
  2. Do learning outcomes differ according to the active aging activity, and particularly, to its orientation (self- vs. other-oriented) and level or resources (high vs. low) involved?
  3. Are learning outcomes associated with sociodemographic variables such as gender, educational level, or income?

How was the problem approached?

  • An intentional sample of 448 people aged 60 years and older volunteered to participate in the study. At the time of the study, they were involved in one of the following four types of active aging activities:
        • leisure activities (112 participants)
        • study at a University of the Third Age (113)
        • volunteering (133)
        • active involvement in a political organization (90).
  • Participants’ average age was 70.1 years; 57.4% of the sample were female; most were married (64.0). For education level, 32.5% reported having primary (or lower) education, 33.3% secondary education and 34.2% had completed university studies.
  • The participants answered a self-administered questionnaire comprising of two sections: Section 1 elicited sociodemographic information, including age, gender, marital status, education level and income level. Participants were also required to answer three questions: how many years they had been involved in the activity, how many hours they devoted to it each week, and how important it was in their life. The second section of the questionnaire included open, open-ended, and standardized instruments in relation to the activity, their life and their social connections.
  • Used content analysis to analyse the results and statistical analysis for the quantitative data.

What did they find?

  • The vast majority of the participants (97.5%) stated that they had learned something valuable from their involvement in the active aging activity
  • Responses were distributed in two main first-order categories: self-focused learning and other-focused learning

Self-focused learning

  • Self-focused learning included answers that expressed having learned something with a clearly personal orientation, that is, the individuals themselves benefited from participation in the active aging activity. This category of self-focused learning was divided into two subcategories, one related to self-knowledge and the other to the acquisition of instrumental skills
  • The second self-focused subcategory was called “Knowing Oneself”. This was more general and less closely related to the activity carried out by participants. It reflected their capacity to understand and value themselves, improving management of their emotions, experiencing feelings of usefulness and personal worth, changing or reinforcing personal values and even reformulating their life philosophy as a result of their involvement in the active aging activity.
  • Participation in active aging activities had helped increase their confidence and self-worth

Other-focused learning

  • Learning as a result of participation in active aging activities reflected a benefit that extended beyond the participants themselves and involved others and how the participants related to them, either in specific terms or in more abstract and general terms
  • Two subcategories were identified within this category: the acquisition of interpersonal knowledge and the other concerning social or community knowledge
  • Interpersonal knowledge: These answers reflected the reformulation of relationships with other people and included an increase in social networks, aspects related to the quality of relationships and the development of a wider and more in-depth understanding of others
  • Being involved in active aging activities also helped participants learn about the importance of team and collaborative work
  • For some participants, being involved in active aging activities had led to an appreciation of the importance of considering and truly understanding others’ opinions
  • Social Knowledge: two different aspects. First, to learning about community values, including solidarity and altruism, and second, to more abstract learning about how the social system or society as a whole works.

Quantitative analysis

  • Participants in leisure activities and in the University of the Third Age tended to mention self-focused learning more often than volunteers and particularly activists
  • Such differences arose mainly from the Instrumental Skills category, which was far more frequent among the leisure participants and students than the volunteers and activists
  • Sociodemographic variables were not significantly associated with Self-focused learnings: age showed a small, but statistically significant, relationship with Social Relationships
  • The older the participant, the less probability the category would be mentioned, and education was related to Social Knowledge
  • Instrumental Learning was more frequent among leisure and university participants than among volunteers and activists

How did the researchers interpret their results?

  • The results showed that regardless of what was specifically learned, older people were able to mention important learning types as a result of their participation in a variety of active aging activities
  • Participants in active aging activities seemed to view the activities as a learning experience that goes far beyond any formal educational objective, and were able to draw lessons that they consider important to their own life
  • These “life lessons” may, in turn, be key to understanding their involvement in the activity
  • Knowing the learning types associated with active aging activities leads to a better understanding of the meaning of these activities for older people and the reasons underlying their involvement and their interest in continuing their participation.
  • The very nature of the activity seems to be the key factor that determines the learning type acquired
  • The more educated a person, the more she or he is likely to identify social knowledge as an outcome, which suggest that achieving the abstract, deep understanding of society involved in the category Social Knowledge is facilitated by having a certain level of education.
  • Considering active aging in a generic way masks the fact that the qualifier “active” conceals a wide range of activities that may share few similarities and may have a diverse impact on people, not just health-related, psychological, and social outcomes, but also the experience of participating in and learning from the activity.
  • This diversity is key to designing better-tailored interventions aimed at involving more older people in active forms of aging and ensuring that older people remain engaged in the activities in which they take part
Supporting Resources


Key Messages




Links to the research paper


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