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Research Study Overview

Overview – The Learning Question,

CCL Research Study

Adult Learning and Meaning-Making in Guided Autobiography Developmental Exchanges


This Community-based Qualitative Research Study provides the research protocals and the collected participant’s adults’ learning reports while reminiscing, telling and preparing their life stories in guided autobiography workshops. Their learning reports were collected in workshops funded by a New Horizon Grant provided the University of Victoria. The Canadian Council on Learning funded the research study of the learning reports in Department of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia.


What is Available Here?


The qualitative research study is prepared in a book format for those interested in extracting, exploring, understanding, and further research potentials of adult learning associated with meaning-making events and activities enhancing social interactions and developmental exchanges in workshop activities.


The book includes background studies of adult learning, the context and protocols of the research study, and the collected learning reports from participants about their learning experiences in community based guided autobiography workshops. Also, the book includes the final Commissioned Research Report to the Canadian Council on Learning that provides details about the research study, the collected data set and initial findings of participants’ reports about their learning experiences.


The Learning Reports – The Data Files


The learning reports (data files) collected from participants are so robust that this initial funded study only skimmed the surface of what they might reveal. There are many perspectives on learning that might be appropriated to a research study of participants’ learning experiences in a guided autobiography workshop.


This research study is based on concepts of learning processes or outcomes and as expanding or consolidating learning experiences in guided autobiography activities. As well, there are numerous perspectives appropriate to further exploring participant’s selected learning topics and their social meanings revealed in their learning experiences.


The learning reports in this study reveal that meaning-making occurring in guided autobiography activities becomes more than knowledge exchange or construction and acquisition of information. Meaning-making expands into a social dynamic that Birren & Deutchman (1991) described as the developmental exchange – “the mutual sharing among members of who they are and where they came from, their personally important historical and emotional events” (p. 44). The developmental exchange emerging in these narrative activities extends the boundaries of making-meaning and connects of our “real-self” – “ideal-self” – “social-image self” (p. 10-13). Randall (1995) offers a diagram of the complex nature of these narrative experiences and their flow, which he describes as “the poetics of learning.”


Any data set that provides material of individual’s life experiences cannot easily be summarized completely or comprehensively by two educators. Certainly, parsing learning reports into single segments for analysis misses the developmental flow and trajectory of learning experiences. Besides, learning in the later phase of adulthood is more than lifelong and more complex than the uphill–downhill metaphor of aging in earlier perspectives. Lifelong learning involves not only “over time” but has elements of ‘width’ and ‘depth’ in changing and enriching dynamic social experiences and contexts.  All this was evident in this initial research study, which only skimmed the surface of learning processes and outcomes (Thornton & Collins, Jan 2010, CCL Commissioned Report). Thus, the collection of learning reports in Part 3 of the Research Study are prepared for further research on adult learning and meaning-making experienced by participants in guided autobiography workshops and activities of telling their life stories


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The book provides a collection of adults’ learning reports about their life experiences while reminiscing, telling and preparing their life stories in guided autobiography workshops and were submitted for the research projects supporting the workshops.  It is prepared as an educational qualitative research study in a format for those interested in exploring and extracting the potentials of adult learning associated with meaning-making events and activities enhancing social interactions and developmental exchanges. The book includes background studies of adult learning, the context of the research study, and collected learning reports from participants about their learning experiences in nine community based guided autobiography workshops. The book includes the final Commissioned Research Report to the Canadian Council on Learning that provides details about the research study of the collected data set, the initial findings of participants’ reports about their learning experiences, and two subsequent published studies. 


The Qualitative Research Study is being made available for at no cost or obligation to interested parties.


The book’s Content – 270 pages: 




Part 1: The Question: Why did I ask the question?

Part 2: Research Grant and Research Protocols

Part 3: Participant’s Learning Reports

Part 4: Research Materials

Part 5: CCL Commissioned Research Report

Part 6: Two Published Papers

Part 7: About Us.


Research Study – Guidelines


Thornton, an adult educator, organized and offered these community-based the guided autobiography workshops that provided the informal educational method and format for participant to discover their personal stories, exploring then and now, understanding past events in the present, and their goals of sharing their stories with family and others. Collins, with studies in educational research and program evaluation, established guidelines for data coding and analysis in QDA Minor, Provalis Research. This pairing of educational views on the context of learning in these workshops led to a productive interplay in conceptualizing and coding participant statements as learning processes or outcomes and as expanding or consolidating experiences.


Thornton explored initially participant’s learning statements as process or outcomes and then as expanding or consolidating. events. Collins explored typically from outcomes to emerging processes mixed with expanding and consolidating experiences. The list of topics or themes in the learning report expanded as the study developed, each likely containing sub-categories to be identified. The only agreed protocol initiated at the beginning of the coding process, and sustained throughout the study, required that all learning reports be formatted so coding was applied to each sentence or independent phrase, which accounts for the format of the learning reports by Case # in the Part 3 of the book.


The co-investigator’s complementary interests led them to undertake this exploratory study of participants’ learning scripts, initially, in their individual ways: (a) coding participant’s learning experiences as process or outcome, or (b) coding topics and themes they identified in the learning scripts, and (c) mostly, fluctuating between (a) and (b). The research project opens the window on the scope of learning processes and outcomes, enhancing growth and development that older adults experienced and reported by telling their stories in communities of peers and writing on topics and themes most meaningful to them: what they know, what they were seeking, where to begin, and where they hoped to go.  And they migrated back and forth, up and down, into and out of their autobiographical experiences.


There are many resources, source books and reference guides, available regarding adult learning and programming adult education activities.  Much of the literature is prepared for leaders and teachers and academics with a focus on better teaching for better learning. This book is focused on documenting individual’s reports of their learning experiences and their views on how, that and what they are learning, which also reveals the views on how others learn. An individual’s learning experiences in these guided autobiographical groups also reveals how various experiences enhance the collective and collaborative make-up in social learning groups.  Social groups and peer learning are essential to expanding older adults’ abilities in three major areas of growth and development – learning to learn, learning for growth, and learning for healthy well-being (Thornton, 2003a; 2003b). The research study provides a view of older adult learners that focuses on individual learning capacities as self-learners, the importance of group collaboration (Yorks & Kassel, Summer, 2002), and the social situations of self-group learning (Lave and Wenger, 1990).


The book is intended for further qualitative research studies in adult learning, adult education methods, and the social, psychological and health sciences that explore adult development and meaning-making in their disciplines and professional activities.



What I am learning in this guided autobiography workshop?


Here are five learning reports from the Vernon, British Columbia, Workshop in 2005


I am learning.…



One of the important things I have come to realize through this workshop is that it is important that I pass on to my children, and maybe others, a record of myself and my life. It is important to my sense of well being to know that this record will live on after I am dead. It will likely be the only record other than some snapshots, a few mentions in the local museum and Statistics Canada [.] (I know the record will be appreciated and valued by my children because I have asked them.) I know what the value to me would be if I had an autobiography of my parents and grandparents. Apart from being a stimulation to writing my autobiography two important things I have learned are… One: how my memory could be stimulated by thinking about the questions received for each of the themes as well as talking about my memories to others and listening to and discussing others’ memories. Two: that the process of recall can be “formalized” by breaking my life into “themes” as suggest & thus the interpretation of events in my life are as important as the events themselves. I also learned that in, memory, simplifying complex events is important if I am going to put them to pen.  M, 73 years, BCom, 2005,Vernon, BC.


 CASE #7 – GAB I

In this autobiography workshop I have learned the importance of writing about  my life. Many events and experiences that were forgotten opened up. Talking and sharing my life within this group made it easy to laugh or cry about some issues. I realize that others have also had many similar experiences…

so … behind our mask we are all the same and different. How can we be anything but understanding and compassionate. This program gave me a new start to writing about my life. I have been avoiding this task for sometime… so … thank you Jim for this enlightening experience. F, 64 years, PS, 2005, Vernon,  BC.



Good Morning, Tom [Jim] Please don’t expect from me to have the evaluation form filled out. As you may remember I don’t know who gave you my name to contact me. I was very surprised but I knew that many friends and acquaintances had asked me to write my Memoirs, specially since the interview in the Morning Star in 2003 can out. I started many times and now during this course I had to do it. But I had never thought it would be such an emotional undertaking. The small group was a blessing although I realized that my life has been so different and maybe for some people hard to apprehend. The memories which came suddenly back were often painful. I often felt I had lived on a different planet. I plan that during this summer I shall continue what I had done so far. Lately I had read some biographies, Vladimir Poznera : “Parting with Illusions”. (This could almost be the title of my biography)!!! The other one is Lee Iacocca : “Talking Straight.” Another one which sure took courage to write. As I said, I will not give up but I have to settle down. Now the Theatre Season is over and my volunteer work almost finished I shall try again. Thanks for all you taught us.Have a great summer. F, 90 years, PS, 2005, Vernon, BC.



In answer to your question “What am I learning in this Guided Autobiography Workshop? I am learning how to express my thoughts and emotions right from the heart. This my [is] story and I’m telling it my way. I’m learning to trust my intuition in what I say. I have some fear of hurting family members but ultimately the truth is better than a “pretty story”. I’m learning ways of expressing the bad times without malice. I’m learning that my story is interesting and the others pay attention to it! I’m gaining confidence in my ability to write. I’m learning that I can relive some of the bad times, particularly deaths of family members, and come out of it stronger by writing about it. I’m learning the importance of writing my story, particularly because I have lost three siblings and the only way their children will know their parent’s history is through my telling of it. I’m learning that you’re never too old to learn! I’m learning how much my own parents influenced my life and how grateful I am to them. I’m learning to appreciate my life and live from gratitude. F, 66 years, BEd, 2005, Vernon, BC.




CASE #10 – GAB I

I am learning to trust. I am learning not to judge others. I am learning to have faith in myself. I am learning to forgive myself. I am learning to have better self-esteem. I am learning to love myself. I am learning to love others. I am learning to let the small stuff go. I am healing the past. I am looking forward to the future. 2005, Vernon, BC.




Guidelines – Scope


The learning reports #1 to #142, available in the Research Study on pages 38-199, are presented here in the format that was originally used in the QDA4 Minor research project to provide space for coding each statement as a ‘single sentence’ or ‘complete phrase’. For each learning report, it was proposed that coding occur in this order to  identify – first, about learning process or outcome; second, about learning expanding or contracting developments; and third, the major topic suggest by the statement or phrase.  Each coder, Thornton or Collins, often reversed the coding order as the project developed if the report was complex and detailed. Each learning report is printed as written and is not corrected for spelling.  In a few statements or phrases, a word was added in [..] if appropriate and verified.


Information about each participant by Case # – Gender, Age, Education, Birthplace, Workshop: Year, and Location – is provided on page(s) 196-199 in the research study.


You can access the complete set of learning reports and the research and coding guidelines by downloading it from the Qualitative Research Study sub page Download Research Study.

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