Informal learning refers to learning situations that are unstructured. It usually takes place outside of a traditional classroom setting. There are no formal goals or educational objectives, and the learning process is usually unplanned and often self-directed by the learner.
“Informal learning is characterized by a low degree of planning and organizing in terms of the learning context, learning support, learning time, and learning objectives” (Kyndt & Baert, 2013, p. 274).
Cerasoli et al. (2017) suggest that as much as 70-90% of adult learning is informal learning and occurs outside of educational institutions (see Clardy, 2018).
Informal Learning Examples
- Siblings playing outside: Unstructured play is hugely educational for children, even though there is no clear learning goal set for the children.
- Video games: Video games may seem to be time-wasting, but children informally learn things like reaction time, problem solving and even (for online games) social skills.
- Microlearning: Microlearning involves learning for 10-15 minutes per day, such as through playing language apps on your phone.
- Reading in your spare time: Joanne takes a lot of pride in reading books on leadership styles in her spare time.
- Learning from your parents: Mika’s mother is a strict grammar guru and is always correcting her English.
- Learning from social media posts: Jenna is an active member of her department’s nationwide social media group. She regularly posts information for others regarding industry news and trends.
- Attending trade shows: Ahkeem enjoys attending trade shows. It gives him a chance to network with other professionals and share insights regarding the industry.
- Rotating roles at work: A large corporation implements job rotation across several departments a few times a year. It gives employees an opportunity to see collaborative projects from the perspective of people in other departments.
- Playing around in the shed: Kumar learned how to fix the engine on his mini-bike on his own because it was old and always breaking down.
- Discussions in the hallways: Maria is a bubbly, cheerful employee that looks for any excuse to consult with her colleagues on how she’s going and get some quick tips.
- Playing around in the kitchen: Jensen has refined his recipes over a period of more than 20 years. A lot of times he discovers a new seasoning or a new way to prepare a meal completely by accident.
- Learning from cultural immersion: Danielle moved to a country with a Latin culture and learned the value of enjoying life and living in the moment.
- Learning in a summer job: Javier takes a different summer job every year while in college so he can learn about different trades and pick up new skills.
Case Studies of Informal Learning
1. Work Simulations
A work simulation is an experienced based activity designed to resemble a real on-the-job scenario. The parameters of the simulation are meant to be as close as possible to what an employee might encounter on the job. Different employees play different roles in the simulation in order to learn about a new perspective, but in the safety of a simulated environment.
The simulation is usually observed by a more experienced professional or specially trained consultant. After the simulation has been completed, that person then provides constructive feedback to participants.
Work simulations are great for allowing employees the opportunity to make mistakes without the company suffering the negative consequences of those mistakes.
Work simulations are commonly used in leadership programs and emergency management occupations because they are very effective at helping participants improve their skills in a safe environment.
Mentoring is when an experienced professional decides to work one-on-one with a junior employee. The goal is to help the new member of the organization learn the ropes of the business and develop the necessary skills to have a long and successful career in the company.
Mentoring can be a very time-consuming endeavor. It requires a lot of patience and the ability to persuade the mentee to engage in different behaviors than what might come naturally to them.
The relationship between the mentor and the mentee can evolve to become quite personal. The growth process sometimes involves delving into the underlying psychology that might be holding the employee back from developing to their fullest potential.
Because there is no formal instruction or class assignments, the learning process is very informal.
3. Watching YouTube Videos
Although most of us consider YouTube to be an entertainment platform, it also offers an incredible range of educational opportunities. A person can type in a few key search terms and within seconds have a list of dozens of informational videos that can provide all kinds of helpful tips and cautionary advice.
The topics are endless and can range from serious to silly. For example, if you want to know how to set-up a home-security system that you can monitor on your phone, you can find several videos that will walk you through the entire process step-by-step.
Or, if you just want to know which espresso machine will last the longest without blowing your budget, there are many videos that will help you find just the right one for your needs.
4. Guest Speakers
Many large corporations will often hire a famous speaker to deliver a speech to selected departments or employees. The guest speaker is usually someone that has an incredible resume and an impressive list of accomplishments. They may or may not be someone that has direct experience in the industry of the corporation which hired them.
For example, an accomplished sports coach might be hired by a computer manufacturing company to talk about leadership and teamwork. Or, a large corporation going through a business transformation might hire someone that is famous for enduring hardship or overcoming incredible challenges in life.
As employees listen to the words of wisdom of the guest speaker, they may feel inspired by seeing someone so accomplished. They might learn a few insights about collaboration or determination that they take to heart and will be affected by for many years to come.
Although the learning is informal, the impact can be substantial.
Socialization generally refers to when people learn about the values, attitudes and beliefs of the culture they are raised in. Socialization starts in childhood and continues through early adulthood and beyond. It can also refer to situations in which a person joins a particular social or political group and begins to understand the values and beliefs of those groups.
One key concept in socialization is called internalization. This has to do with the extent to which a person adopts the values of the group as their own. Internalization is not always a given.
For example, a person can live in another country for several years, become exposed to the values and beliefs of that culture, but may not necessarily internalize those values so that they become part of their own belief system.
There can be many socialization agents. Even though there are no textbooks or classroom instruction, the amount of learning that takes place over a person’s first decades of life can have lasting effects.
Advantages of Informal Learning
There are numerous advantages to informal learning. For instance, since it is often unplanned, there is a great deal of flexibility as to when informal learning occurs. It is often spontaneous and can occur at any moment.
Because informal learning is self-directed, it means that it is highly adaptable to the needs of the individuals directly involved.
Learning outcomes can also be easily transferred to practice or on-the-spot problem-solving situations such as those occurring in a workplace setting.
Informal learning can come from anywhere. It refers to learning that takes place in an unstructured and unplanned situation. There are no set educational objectives or assessment procedures.
A great deal of informal learning comes as a result of just living one’s life, either in the home, in the workplace, or when traveling to another country.
Examples of informal learning include a mother correcting their child’s grammar, a colleague helping their coworker, or a senior executive serving as a mentor for a junior employee.
Socialization agents include the school, parents, social groups, one’s ethnic background, and of course, the ever-present media.
Bruce, L., Aring, M. K., & Brand, B. (1998). Informal learning: The new frontier of employee & organizational development. Economic Development Review, 15(4), 12-18.
Cerasoli, C. P., Alliger, G. M., Donsbach, J. S., Mathieu, J. E., Tannenbaum, S. I.; Orvis, K. A. (2017). Antecedents and outcomes of informal learning behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(2), 203-230. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-017-9492-y
Clardy, A. (2018). 70-20-10 and the Dominance of Informal Learning: A Fact in Search of Evidence. Human Resource Development Review, 17(2), 153–178. https://doi.org/10.1177/1534484318759399
Kyndt, E., & Baert, H. (2013). Antecedents of Employees’ Involvement in Work-Related Learning. Review of Educational Research, 83(2), 273–313. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654313478021
Macià, M., & García, I. (2016). Informal online communities and networks as a source of teacher professional development: A review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 291-307.
Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (2001). Informal and incidental learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2001(89), 25-34.
Yanchar, S. C., & Hawkley, M. (2014). “There’s got to be a better way to do this”: A qualitative investigation of informal learning among instructional designers. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(3), 271–291. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-014-9336-7