Informal learning

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Editors: Vyara Dimitrova and Paul A. Kirschner, Centre for Learning Sciences and Technologies, Open University of the Netherlands


Informal learning is any learning which is conscious or unconscious, intentional or non-intentional which takes place without an externally imposed curriculum or specific intended outcome.

Comments on the history

The term "informal learning" first appeared in Knowels’ (1950) book Informal adult education, but it was not until the 1990s when, based on a number of exploratory and descriptive studies, Marsick and Watkins (1990) succeeded in delivering a structured definition of the concept. They defined informal learning as:

"[…] a category that includes incidental learning, [it] may occur in institutions, but is not typically classroom-based or highly structured, and control of learning rests primarily in the hands of the learner. Incidental learning is defined as a by-product of some other activity, such as task accomplishment , interpersonal interaction, sensing the organizational culture, trial-and-error experimentation, or even formal learning." (p.12)

Nevertheless, most of the term’s history is marked by discussions on its precise meaning, and consequently, users of the term informal learning have not yet agreed upon a unified definition. This underscores the challenges accompanying efforts for clear-cut discrimination between formal, non-formal and informal learning on the one hand, and different types of learning within informal learning itself (e.g., incidental learning, social learning, workplace learning, etc.). The debate goesso far as raising voices against the validity of the concept as being an all too general categorization of any type of learning which is not formal (Eraut, 2000). This account, however, once again demonstrates the necessity for understanding informal learning as a hyper-category of learning which allows for diverse modalities varying per learning situation.

Related terms

Formal learning, non-formal learning, self-directed learning, experiential learning, workplace learning, learning organization

Translation issues


Disciplinary issues

The term has been broadly accepted in the field of Human Resources Development (HRD henceforth) and adult learning. According to Garrick (1998), informal learning as concept in HRD represents a wholesale theory of workplace learning and assumes

"[…] effects of workplace practices on one’s learning […] there are indeed rich sources of learning in day-to-day practice situations and that what is learned from experience is dynamic and open to multiple configurations." (p.1)

It is a matter of fact that workplace learning is often seen as a form of informal learning. In the area of teaching, for example, informal learning traditionally refers to the professional learning resulting from activities which teachers undertake at work (Lohman, 2006). Studies into learning to teach demonstrate that a great deal of teacher learning comes about through execution of everyday work activities or actions related to them, suggesting that most informal learning is an unintentional and unconscious by-product since it is embedded in these very activities/actions (e.g., Kwakman, 2003). This fact prompts some researchers to base the concept on that learning which emerges from not-learning-intended activities generalizing it to all everyday situations (van Merrienboer et al. 2009).

Nevertheless, a complete account of informal learning should also deal with those occasions, however rare, in which expert learners based on their highly developed domain knowledge and skills exhibit sufficient self-regulation and metacognitive skills to determine themselves the how, what and why of their learning process (e.g., Glaser, 1985), since the fundamental condition of no present external curricula is fully satisfied here. Therefore, an exhaustive informal learning definition should reasonably include unconscious and unplanned instances of learning as well as instances in which learners alone are actively in control of their own learning.

Key references

[1] Eraut, M. (2000). Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70(1), 113-136.

[2] Garrick, J. (1998). Informal learning in the workplace: Unmasking human resources development. City: NY: Routledge.

[3] Glaser, R. (1985). Thoughts on expertise. (Techincal report No. 8). Learning Research and Development Center. Pittsburgh, PA.

[4] Kwakman, K. (2003). Factors affecting teachers’ participation in professional learning activities. Teaching and teacher education. 19(2), 149-170.

[5] Lohman, M. C. (2006). Factors influencing teachers’ engagement in informal learning activities. Journal of workplace learning, 18(3), 141-156.

[6] Marsick, V. J. & Watkins, K. E. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. City: NY: Routledge.

[7] Van Merriënboer, J. J. G., Kirschner, P. A., Paas, F., Sloep, P. B., & Caniëls, M. C. J. (2009). Towards an integrated approach for research on lifelong learning. Educational Technology Magazine, 49(3), 3-15.