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Informal learning vs. formal learning

As researchers come to understand informal learning, many different definitions have been formed. Here are definitions for both informal and formal learning:

Informal Learning

"Informal learning as anything that is not easily recognizable as formal training and performance support, such as organized classes, workshops, individualized instruction and job aids." [1] "The unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs. It can happen intentionally or inadvertently." [2] "The learner sets the goals and objectives. Learning is not necessarily structured in terms of time and effort; it is often incidental and unlikely to lead to certification." [3]

The following definition for informal learning will be used as a reference for this wiki: "Informal learning is any activity involving the pursuit of understanding, knowledge or skill which occurs without the presence of externally imposed curricular" or pressure. [4]

Formal Learning

Here are definitions on formal learning that will help you understand the concept: "Official, scheduled, and it teaches a curriculum. It means learning through a course online or in a classroom." [2] "Learning objectives are set by the training department, which also provides the learning product. Formal learning often leads to certification" [3] "Education or training which is formally structured and sequentially organized, in which learners follow a program of study or a series of experiences planned and directed by a teacher or trainer and generally leading to some formal recognition of educational performance." [4]

Informal Learning

Benefits of informal learning

Informal learning leads to increased proficiency. [5] That is the overall goal for every individual and organization – continuous improvement. Informal learning can help a new employee develop and help them get over the initial hump. [6] Informal learning can support or supplant formal learning at a cost savings to organizations. [7] In a seven country study focusing on interactive computer training for small businesses, it was discovered that informal learning was being used more than the formal training products produced. [8] Research results indicate that managers learned a majority of core tasks through informal learning. [5] "Adult learning theories, therefore, suggest adults may better transfer new learning when informally embedded in work and experience." [9]

Characteristics of informal learning

Informal learning is based on a combination of need, motivation, and opportunity. [10] Informal learning may be planned or unplanned and may not even be recognized by the learner. [11] Informal learning does not have exams, can be accomplished in private, can be accomplished with little preparation or notice, and is associated with a positive learning attitude. [7] Informal learning may take on these characteristics:

  • just in time
  • spontaneous
  • incidential
  • experiential
  • contextual
  • individualized - adjusted to the task at hand
  • personal
  • chunked
  • limited in scope
  • may be institutional or not
  • not classroom-based (but may be encouraged)
  • student-based
  • not structured
  • may be supported by organization or not
  • normal day-to-day experiences
  • some organizations may provide time, mentors, and structure to informal learning
  • planned or unplanned
  • expected or unexpected
  • self-planned or organizational initiated
  • driven by a need [9], [2], [1], [12]

Reasons why informal learning takes place

Learning occurs when individuals encounter non-routine situations, in other words, they have a problem to solve or an obstacle to overcome. [12] Informal learning is a cyclic process of responding to a trigger, taking action, and assessing the success before starting another round. [13] Informal learning begins with an unresolved problem and a trigger; this trigger may be internal or external, it is typically associated with a problem to solve. [13], [10]

Informal learning environment

Much of the on-the-job training is spent in informal learning between formal trainings. [14] People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want to. [15] Informal learning can occur at any time and place, but there must be a reason to learn. [12] The situation or environment where the individual is found serves as the "classroom" for informal learning. Informal learning takes place in a natural environment and not in a sterile classroom. [16] Informal or self-directed learning is natural compared to the controlled environment of the classroom; however, learners will take advantage of all resources to include group session and formal learning. [12] "Looked at over time, learning is trending toward the user and the moment of need." [17]

Challenges for implementing informal learning

Organizations realize there is great benefit for informal learning as a training tool, but they are not sure how to make it happen. [13], [18] Measuring informal learning is difficult because of varied content and methods; additionally, it is not easily observed and occurs in a haphazard way. [13], [3] Informal learning can be hampered by "blindspots" to what is needed or how to approach learning. [10] It can also be time consuming. [19] As a result, it is hard to develop an informal learning program because it is often done behind the scenes. [12] There are challenges in leveraging informal learning to include the need to develop the right tools, requires management buy-in, and need to change the culture. [20]

Informal learning success

Informal learning can be fostered by creating an organization setting that accepts and encourages informal learning. [7], [5] Informal learning in an organization should have little structure and it must be voluntary but encouraged. Informal learning can enhance the operations of a person, group, or organization; however, it must be clearly communicated to individuals who are decision makers. [12]

Informal learning must be supported by the assistance of others. [12] Collaboration increases the chance for informal learning. [13]

Informal learning needs to be integrated into the current formal learning strategies. [19] Informal learning should be included in an individual's learning plan. [20] Informal learners need to learn how to plan and execute their own learning. [13] Organizational trainer should contribute resources and content relative to informal learning. They also need to provide tools to facilitate informal learning. [19] Technology has made informal learning a real possibility. [2]

Informal learning networks

Informal learning is shaped by informal organizational networks. [21] A key to informal learning is social connections, it is important for learners to find key knowledge holders. [22] Informal learning networks bring communities of learners together on a common topic of interest. [23] Informal learning networks take the form in various media from newsletters to online discussion boards.

More information on this topic


  1. 1.0 1.1 Hoffman, B. (2003). Informal learning: Managing the training function. Alexandria, Va.: ASTD. Retrieved from, p. 1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Geiman, D., & Dooley, M. (2011). The Influence of Informal Learning on Staff Performance. Corrections Today, 73(4), 24 – 26. p. 24.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Mattox, J. R. (2012). Measuring the Effectiveness of Informal Learning Methodologies. T+D, 66(2), 48 – 53. P. 50.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Livingstone, D. (2001). Adults’ informal learning: definitions, findings, gaps and future research. Centre for the Study of Education and Work, OISE/UT. Retrieved from p. 4.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Enos, M. D., Kehrhahn, M. T., & Bell, A. (2003). Informal learning and the transfer of learning: How managers develop proficiency. Human Resources Development Quarterly, 14(4), 369–387.
  6. Hamilton, M. (2008). No Jacket Required: Informal Learning’s Role in Development. Chief Learning Officer, 7(5), 46 – 49.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Bell, C. R. (1977). Informal learning in organizations. Personnel J, (6), 280.
  8. Attwell, G. (2006, June 1). Personal learning environments. The Bazaar. Retrieved from
  9. 9.0 9.1 Bickmore, D. L. (2012). Professional learning experiences and administrator practice: is there a connection?. Professional Development in Education, 38(1), 95 – 112. p. 97.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (2001). Informal and incidental learning. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, (89), 25.
  11. Schulz, M., & Roßnagel, C. S. (2010). Informal workplace learning: An exploration of age differences in learning competence. Learning and Instruction, 20(5), 383–399. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2009.03.003
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 Marsick, V., & Watkins, K. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. New York: Routledge.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 Marsick, V. J., & Volpe, M. (1999). The nature and need for informal learning. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 1(3), 1–9. doi:10.1177/152342239900100302
  14. Bozarth, J. (2010). Social media for trainers: Techniques for enhancing and extending learning. San Francisco, Calif.: Pfeiffer.
  15. New Media Consortium. (2012). The NMC horizon report: 2012 higher education edition (p. 38). Retrieved from
  16. Watkins, K. E., & Marsick, V. J. (1992). Towards a theory of informal and incidental learning in organizations. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 11(4), 287 – 300.
  17. Galagan, P. (2010). Unformal, the new normal? T+D, 64(9), 29 – 31. p. 31.
  18. Paradise, A. (2008). Informal Learning: Overlooked or Overhyped?. T+D, 62(7), 52 – 53.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Walters, G. (2009). Learning integration: Can informal learning be formalised?. Training Journal, 51 – 54.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Belliveau, V. (2010). The industrialisation of informal learning. Training Journal, 50 – 53.
  21. Buchen, I. H. (2008). Contradiction or Paradox? T+D, 62(9), 48 – 51.
  22. Cross, J. (2007). Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  23. Harasim, L., Hiltz, S. R., Teles, L., & Turoff, M. (1995). Learning networks: A field guide to teaching and learning online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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