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Incidental learning or informal learning is learning that takes place without any intent to learn. In a research study, the participant is not aware that he or she will be tested for their memory of the material.


Informal learning can be characterized as follows:

  • It does not take place in special educational establishments standing out from normal life and professional practice;
  • It has no curriculum and is not professionally organized but rather originates accidentally, sporadically, in association with certain occasions, from changing practical requirements;
  • It is not planned pedagogically conscious, systematically according to subjects, test and qualification-oriented, but rather unconsciously incidental, holistically problem-related, and related to situation management and fitness for life;
  • It is not unrealistic stockpile-learning, but is experienced directly in its "natural" function as a tool for living and survival.

International perspectives

In international discussions, the concept of informal learning, already used by John Dewey at an early stage and later on by Malcolm Knowles, experienced a renaissance, especially in the context of development policy. At first, informal learning was only delimited from formal school learning and non formal learning in courses (Coombs/Achmed 1974). Marsick and Watkins take up this approach and go one step further in their definition. They, too, begin with the organizational form of learning and call those learning processes informal which are non-formal or not formally organized and are not financed by institutions (Watkins/Marsick, p. 12 et sec.). An example for a wider approach is Livingstone's definition which is oriented towards auto didactic and self-directed learning and places special emphasis on the self-definition of the learning process by the learner (Livingstone 1999, p. 68 et seq.).

At least eighty percent of how people learn their jobs is informal. . Workers learn much more from watching others, trial and error, asking colleagues, calling the help desk, and happenstance than from formal training.


To fully understand informal learning it's useful to define the terms "formal" and "informal". Formal learning happens when knowledge is captured and shared by people other than the original expert or owner of that knowledge. The knowledge can be captured in any format—written, video, audio—as long as it can be accessed anytime and anywhere, independent from the person who originally had it. Examples of such formal knowledge transfer include live virtual-classroom courses with prepared slides, self-paced off-the-shelf instructional CBT courses, books, video- and audiotapes, team rooms in which documents are stored, digital libraries and repositories, a real-time seminar on the Web (or webinar), electronic performance-support tools, programs accessed during a job or task, instructor- led courses that follow an outline, repeatable lecture labs, a recorded Web-based meeting, or even e-mails that can be forwarded. Formal learning often requires prerequisites, pre-and post-assessments, tests, and grades, and it sometimes results in certification. It is often presented by an instructor, and attendance and outcomes are tracked.

Informal learning is what happens when knowledge has not been externalized or captured and exists only inside someone’s head. To get at the knowledge, you must locate and talk to that person. Examples of such informal knowledge transfer include instant messaging, a spontaneous meeting on the Internet, a phone call to someone who has information you need, a live one-time-only sales meeting introducing a new product, a chat-room in real time, a chance meeting by the water cooler, a scheduled Web-based meeting with a real-time agenda, a tech walking you through a repair process, or a meeting with your assigned mentor or manager.

Experience indicates that almost all real learning for performance is informal (The Institute for Research on Learning, 2000, Menlo Park), and the people from whom we learn informally are usually present in real time. We all need that kind of access to an expert who can answer our questions and with whom we can play with the learning, practice, make mistakes, and practice some more. It can take place over the telephone or through the Internet, as well as in person. But if informal access is not built into the formal learning process, the chances of getting past knowing to doing will be difficult at best.

A study of time-to-performance done by Sally Anne Moore at Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1990s, (Moore, Sally-Ann, "Time-to-Learning", Digital Equipment Corporation, 1998) and repeated by universities [How to reference and link to summary or text], other corporations [How to reference and link to summary or text], and even the Department of Health and Human Services [How to reference and link to summary or text], graphically shows this disparity between formal and informal learning.

File:Ttp samoore.gif

To illustrate the difference between formal and informal learning, consider the game of golf. If you want to learn to play golf, you can go to a seminar, read a book about the history and etiquette of golf, watch a videotape of great golfing moments, and then you can say you know something about golf. But have you really learned to play golf? You can then buy and enjoy a great e-golf game, find a golf pro, take lessons, take a simulated swing on a simulated golf course, practice putting, slice and dice balls at the driving range all weekend. After all this, you think you can do it, but have you really learned to play golf?

From your first tee shot on your first hole, it takes hours of adopting and adapting, alone and in a foursome, in all sorts of weather and conditions. You discover what you know and can do, swing all the clubs, ask all sorts of questions, fail and succeed, practice and practice some more, before you have really learned to play golf. Real learning, then, is the state of being able to adopt and adapt what you know and can do—what you have acquired through formal learning—under a varying set of informal circumstances. It accounts for about 75 percent of the learning curve.

This has come to be widely known as the 75/25 Rule of Learning. Learners get only about 25 percent or less of what is used at work through formal learning. The majority of companies that provide training are currently involved only with the formal side of the continuum. Most of today’s investments are on the formal side. The net result is that companies spend the most money on the smallest part - 25% - of the learning equation. The other 75 percent of learning happens as the learner creatively adopts and adapts to ever changing circumstances. The informal piece of the equation is not only larger, it’s crucial to learning how to do anything.

In terms of learning in the workplace, where everything is focused on performance and performance is everything, the informal element of learning needs to be factored into the equation for any real learning to take place. Companies need to add those accidental, informal intersections of learning and performance into the process. They need to understand that the informal side of the equation requires real people in real time: mentors, coaches, masters, guides, power users, subject-matter experts, communities of practice. What needs to happen is that companies - and schools as well - need to foster informal moments of knowledge transfer. One way to accomplish this is to create collaborative learning environments, where the formal and informal learning are seamlessly knit together . Technology can also be used to facilitate the informal as well as the formal transfer of knowledge by including expert locator's, e-mail connections with instructors, real-time Internet meeting places, virtual-learning support groups, instant messaging, expert networks, mentor and coaching networks, personal e-learning portals, moderated chats, and more. The goal would be to create the 100 percent learning solution, in which the proscribed formal learning events and the serendipitous learning moments are given equal value.

See also

Additional reading

  • Coombs, Ph.; Ahmed, H. (1974): Attacking rural Poverty. How nonformal education can help. Baltimore
  • Cross, Jay. (2006) : Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways that Inspire Innovation and Performance. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
  • Grebow, David. (2002): From the Watercooler of Learning. The Darden School Foundation, Batten Institute. Reprinted here with permission of the Author.
  • Livinstone, D. W. (2001): Adults’ Informal Learning: Definitions, findings, Gaps and Future Research. Toronto: NALL Working Paper 21/2001. Auch: (30.8.03).
  • Livinstone, D. W. (2002): Mapping the Iceberg. NALL Working Paper # 54 – 2002.
  • Marsick, V. J./Watkins, K. E. (2001): Informal and Incidental Learning. In: New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education Nr. 89, S. 25-34
  • Overwien, Bernd: Informal Learning and the Role of Social Movements. In: International Review of Education, Vol. 46, 6, November 2000, S. 621-640
  • Schugurensky, D. (2000): The Forms of Informal Learning: Towards a Concep-tualization of the Field. Draft Working Paper October, NALL Working Paper 19/2000. (August 2003).
  • Sommerlad, E. & Stern, E. (1999): Workplace Learning, Culture and Performance. London.
  • Watkins, K./Marsick, V. (1990): Informal and Incidental Learning in the Workplace. London

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