Informal & Formal Learning are part of the Periodic Table of Agile Learning:

Periodic Table


Characteristics of Formal and Informal Learning Episodes

Allen Tough, a Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, focused his research on the adult's successful efforts to learn and change; and in particular the 70% that are self-guided without relying much on professionals or institutions (informal learning). During his research, he discovered that people spend an average of 15 hours per week learning on their own (Tough, 1999).

In the late 1970s, Patrick Penland, a library school professor at the University of Pittsburgh, became quite interested in Tough's research. He performed a survey in which a section of it pertains to why learners prefer to learn on their own, rather than in a class or course (Penland, 1977). The main reasons, in ranking order, are:

What is interesting about the survey is that for the most part, it is not that learners lack resources or hate attending formal classes, for these items are at the bottom of the rankings, but rather they prefer being in charge of their own learning.

In addition, the top items in the rankings show that while learners prefer to take charge of their own learning, it does not mean that they enjoy solitary learning. Tough (1999) discovered that within each informal learning episode (where the primary motivation is to gain and retain certain knowledge and skill on a task or thing), the average learner interacts with an average of 10 people. In fact, there may actually be more social interactions during informal learning episodes than there are in classrooms. Thus, we begin to get a picture of why blended learning became the next step in the elearning evolutionary process.

While the last two items pertain to a lack of resources, the first eight items show a desire to take charge (learner control) of one's own learning episodes. These eight design characteristics control or impact most learning episodes:

The chart below shows each learner control characteristic that leads to informal learning and its opposite — the corresponding designer control characteristic that leads to formal learning.

Design characteristics for learning
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Note that these characteristics are not set in stone, but rather they are the norm. This is because formal and informal learning episodes borrow from each other, for example, some formal classrooms are self-paced and some informal learning episodes are off-the-shelf.

With the focus nowadays turning more towards the learner, learning characteristics from both the informal and formal sides have naturally gotten more informal. At times, this has interesting consequences, for example, focusing on learning style preferences, which are often incorrect for the type of learning taking place, rather than a style that will actually enhance the learning taking place (Clark, 2010).

Next Steps

Read A Strategy for Informal Learning or any of the other sections:


Clark, D. R. (2010). Metalearning and Learning Styles. Retrieved March 12, 2010 from

Penland, P. R. (1977). Self-planned learning in America. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.

Tough, A. (1999). Reflections on the study of adult learning. Paper presented at the 3rd New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) Conference, University of Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto, Canada. Retrieved January 8, 2008 from