Incidental learning is when a person learns by accident. They may be engaged in some activity for purely entertainment purposes, but they end up learning something in the process. Learning was not a conscious goal, but simply a by-product of some other activity.
Marsick and Watkins (1990) define incidental learning:
“…as a byproduct of some other activity, such as task accomplishment, interpersonal interaction, sensing the organizational culture, trial-and-error experimentation, or even formal learning” (p. 12).
Despite its unstructured format, we can identify several common characteristics of incidental learning. For instance:
- It does not take place in a formal educational setting or designated workplace.
- It is not planned or part of a pedagogical approach.
- It does not contain systematic assessment procedures such as quizzes or exams.
- It is often experienced in a “natural” circumstance of everyday life as a function of living, or maybe even survival.
Incidental Learning Examples
- The toddler and the hot plate: A toddler attempts to play with water in a pot on the stove as mom has her back turned. He places his hand near the boiling water just as his mother yells at him to stop.
- The child in the snow: Mika is only 5 years old and has never seen snow before. Today she went outside without permission and quickly learned that wearing boots and a heavy coat is a good idea.
- Vicarious learning scenario: Jenna is watching her older sister play soccer and learns some of the rules of the sport, such as when another player bumps into you, you must fall down and feign agony.
- Watching fun documentaries: Ahkeem enjoys watching the History Channel just for entertainment purposes, but usually ends up learning several historical facts.
- Spending time with another generation: A nearly retired teacher is always amazed at how much he learns from his students about today’s technology and sustainable living.
- Learning with others: Kumar was observing his friend adjust the mic levels on his sound mixer and discovered the meaning of “reverb”. We might call this observational learning.
- Group drawing session: Maria noticed that her friend uses her fingers to smudge pencil marks in her illustration to create a shadow effect.
- Watching your boss working away: Jensen saw his boss gently console one of his colleagues after a very poor sales pitch and discovered an aspect of leadership he had never considered previously.
- Cultural immersion: Danielle moved to a country with a Latin culture and learned that life is to be enjoyed instead of spending one’s entire existence working.
- Watching your mentors: Jack went to see his favorite band in concert and learned how the drummer uses his double-bass drums to create a really cool sound when hitting the crash cymbals.
Case Studies of Incidental Learning
1. The Incidental Learning Model
The Incidental Learning Model (Marsick & Watkins, 2001) describes the process of incidental learning within the workplace. The model demonstrates how learning stems from a work-related task or activity that triggers action by the employee.
The entire learning process is eventually enhanced and crystalized by critical reflection which adds structure to the whole experience.
Learning begins as a result of a trigger, either internal or external to the individual, which indicates a gap in performance. That gap is interpreted and possible solutions are examined.
The selection of a solution is heavily dependent on the individual’s learning strategies, that are in turn, effected by the availability of resources. Once resources have been factored into the equation, a solution is implemented.
That action will result in consequences that were both intended and unintended. Reflecting upon those consequences (i.e., lessons learned) leads to a new framing of the situation, thus repeating the cycle.
“The model depicts a progression of meaning making that, in practice, is often more of an ebb and flow as people begin to make sense of a situation. With each new insight, they may have to go back and question earlier understandings. The model is arranged in a circle, but the steps are neither linear nor necessarily sequential” (Marsick & Watkins, 2001, p. 29).
2. Incidental Learning Via Commercials
Did you know that commercials can be educational? If you didn’t, that’s not surprising. In fact, ad agencies would be thrilled to know that most people are unaware of how commercials are used to “educate” the consumer.
When we watch a commercial on TV, the ad agency has several goals in mind. Of course, they want viewers to remember the name of the brand and product, but they also want to inform viewers about the product as well.
For example, a jingle may contain valuable product information. Because the jingle is catchy and put to music, the consumer is more likely to commit it to memory, even though they are not consciously making an effort to memorize it. That is incidental learning in its purest form.
The above video describes the use of jingles in incidental learning and provides a few examples of some common jingles that most of us know, even without realizing it.
3. Incidental Teaching And Autism
Incidental teaching refers to when a teacher seizes an opportunity presented during an activity to provide a child with instruction. This is sometimes referred to as a teachable moment. Each classroom day is full of teachable moments that are not a structured or planned part of the curriculum.
For special education teachers working with autistic children, incidental learning is a valuable resource that has significant benefits for the child.
For example, teachers will often create an environment that sets the stage for incidental teaching, as can be seen in the above video.
First, the teacher arranges various items of interest for the child. However, those items may not be easily accessible. This creates a situation in which the child must ask for the teacher’s help.
For autistic children, this kind of social interaction can be challenging. Therefore, when a teacher can encourage this type of interaction, it will help the child learn the appropriate behaviors to solicit assistance.
The child is learning what is appropriate behavior, but in a manner that is subtle and seemingly not part of direct instruction.
4. The Baby As Master of Incidental Learning
There may be no better example of incidental learning than that which can be observed in infant behavior. For the newborn, every moment is an adventure in the unknown. The environment and all of the objects within it are simply great opportunities for learning.
Piaget illustrates this point so well in his observations of his daughter Jacqueline, who at first, accidentally submerges one of her toys while in the tub. From that moment on, she becomes a scientist and begins to explore the interaction between the toy and water.
“Observation 147. In her bath, Jacqueline engages in many experiments with celluloid toys floating on the water. At 1;1 (20) and the days following, for example, not only does she drop her toys from a height to see the water splash or displace them with her hand in order to make them swim, but she pushes them halfway down in order to see them rise to the surface (Piaget, 1956; 1965, p. 273).
What starts out as an accidental drop of a toy quickly becomes a stream of incidental learning moments. The baby turns the event into an opportunity to collect data, formulate hypotheses, and conduct testing.
See Also: Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory
5. VR Environments And Incidental Learning
Previous research has shown that learning in a VR environment increases attention and motivation (Lüddecke & Felnhofer, 2021; Maarsingh et al., 2019) and improves multisensory integration (Talsma et al., 2010). Jaap et al. (2022) were interested in finding out if learning in a VR environment would affect incidental learning as well.
The authors hypothesized that given the increased attention and motivation of people immersed in a VR setting, incidental learning would be improved.
A total of 97 participants were assigned to either a VR condition or one of two PC conditions. The main task involved the participants being presented with a variety of matched sounds and visual symbols. Afterwards they were given a variety of memory tests.
The results indicated improved memory performance in the VR group compared to the two PC groups. The authors concluded that
“…the increased transition from implicit to explicit memory during incidental learning in the VR setting is related to an interaction of enhanced task processing, rewarding processes and attentional as well as motivational factors” (p. 9).
Therefore, the enhanced environment of VR improves incidental learning.
Incidental learning is a valuable learning experience that allows us to learn without even trying. In many ways, incidental learning is just as powerful and effective as learning which occurs in the classroom.
Examples of incidental learning include going to a concert and discovering a new technique for playing a musical instrument, or watching an educational TV show for enjoyment, but learning something anyway.
Special education teachers often create incidental learning moments for their students. In order to play with an interesting toy, the student must engage in the appropriate social interaction to gain access.
Babies are naturals at incidental learning, as their main source of learning comes from exploring their environment. At the same time, ad agencies create catchy jingles that are filled with “educational” content in order to help consumers choose the right product.
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Jaap, C., Maack, M. C., Taesler, P., Steinicke, F., & Rose, M. (2022). Enriched environments enhance the development of explicit memory in an incidental learning task. Scientific Reports, 12, 18717. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-23226-5
Lüddecke, R. & Felnhofer, A. (2021). Virtual reality biofeedback in health: A scoping review. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 47(1), 1–15. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-021-09529-9
Maarsingh, B. M., Bos, J., Van Tuijn, C. F. J. & Renard, S. B. (2019). Changing stress Mindset through Stressjam: A virtual reality game using biofeedback. Games for Health Journal, 8(5), 326–331. https://doi.org/10.1089/g4h.2018.0145
Marsick, V. J. & Watkins, K. (1990). Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace, London and New York: Routledge.
Marsick, V.J., & Watkins, K.E. (2001). Informal and Incidental Learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2001, 25-34.
Piaget, J. (1956; 1965). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. International Universities Press Inc. New York.
Talsma, D., Senkowski, D., Soto-Faraco, S. & Woldorf, M. G. (2010). The multifaceted interplay between attention and multisensory integration. Trends in Cognitive Science, 14(9), 400–410. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.06.008