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

Periodic Table

Spirial of Learning

Learning may be thought of as a spiral with both steps of formal and informal learning episodes taking place.

Informal and Formal Learning

Malcolm Knowles is generally considered to have first coined the term informal learning through his book published in 1950, Informal Adult Education: A Guide for Administrators, Leaders, and Teachers. Allen Tough (1971) was probably the first person to really study how adults use informal learning through his work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The next big proponent of informal learning is probably Jay Cross (2007) who has wrote about it extensively through his blog and book

Informal, Formal, and Nonformal Learning

The terms formal and informal learning have nothing to do with the formality of the learning, but rather with the direction of who controls the learning objectives and goals. In a formal learning environment the training or learning department sets the goals and objectives, while informal learning means the learner sets the goals and objective (Cofer, 2000).

In addition, if the organization (other than the training department) sets the learning goals and objectives, such as a line manager directing OJT, then it is normally referred to as nonformal learning (Hanley, 2008). Thus, in a formal learning episode, learning professionals, such as instructional designers or trainers, set the goals; while a nonformal episode has someone outside of the learning department, such as a manager or supervisor, setting the goals or objectives.

Formal and informal learning

The formal and informal learning chart may also may also be graphed as:

Formal and informal learning

Incidental and Intentional learning

Two other terms worth mentioning are incidental and intentional learning, which basically refers to the intent of the learning objectives. An intentional learning environment has a self-directed purpose in that it has goals and objectives on what and/or how to learn (Good & Brophy, 1990).

Incidental learning occurs when the learner picks up something else in the learning environment, such as the action of a model, that causes him or her to loose focus on the learning objectives or goal and focus on an unplanned learning objective (Good & Brophy, 1990).

Thus, formal learning is normally always intentional. Informal learning is intentional if the learner sets an objective or goal for herself and incidental if the learning occurs haphazardly or serendipity.

While incidental learning is sometimes dismissed by trainers, it is an important concept because it often has a motivating effect with the learners that leads to discovery learning. So unless other considerations prevent it, it can sometimes be worthwhile to detour from the primary objectives to take advantage of an unplanned teachable or trainable moment.

The Continuum of Formal and Informal Learning

Formal and informal learning should not be thought of as completely distinct entities, but rather as being part of a continuum:

Learning Continuum

That is, while at times you be able to identify an episode of learning as being either formal or informal, at other times they will blend together. For example, After Action Reviews provide a formal learning environment, but the learning tends to be informal in that the participants choose the topics to be discussed.

While it might seem obvious to most readers that both formal and informal learning include both incidental and intentional learning, it might not be as obvious that formal learning often includes episodes of informal learning and vice versa. A two-year study calculated that each hour of formal learning spills over to four-hours of informal learning or a 4:1 ratio (Cofer, 2000). Bricks & Mortar

Bell (1977) used the metaphor of brick and mortar to describe the relationship of formal and informal learning. Formal learning acts as bricks fused into the emerging bridge of personal growth. Informal learning acts as the mortar, facilitating the acceptance and development of the formal learning. He noted that informal learning should NOT replace formal learning activities as it is this synergy that produces effective growth.

And of course the opposite also occurs in that episodes of informal learning often leads to formal learning. In addition, some learning episodes that are strictly informal may be too narrowly based in that the learner only learns part of a task or superficial skills that may not be transferable to the job (Bell and Dale 1999).

Next Steps



Bell, C. R. (1977). Informal Learning in Organizations. Personnel Journal, 56, no. 6 (June 1977): 280-283, 313. (EJ 160 136)

Bell, J., and Dale, M. (1999). Informal Learning in the Workplace. Department for Education and Employment Research Report No. 134. London, England: Department for Education and Employment, August 1999.

Cofer, D. (2000). Informal Workplace Learning. Practice Application Brief. NO 10. U.S. Department of Education: Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.

Cross, J. (2007). Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Good, T. & Brophy, J. (1990). Educational Psychology: A realistic approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Hanley M. (2008). Introduction to Non-formal Learning. E-Learning Curve Blog. Retrieved October 19, 2009:

Knowles, M. (1950). Informal Adult Education: A Guide for Administrators, Leaders, and Teachers. New York: Association Press.

Tough, A. (1971). The Adult’s Learning Projects. Ontario: Institute for Studies in Education.

Note: This page on informal and formal learning is an updated version of a series of posts on my blog: