What is Informal Learning?

Informal learning can be defined in a variety of ways. George Tressel, a predecessor at NSF, described it based on the setting: “Most people, most of the time, learn most of what they know outside the classroom.”

That shouldn’t be surprising, since most people spend only about 5% of their lifetime in school, as illustrated in this illustration by John Falk.

Only about 5% of one’s lifetime is spent in the classroom (Falk & Dierking, The 95 Percent Solution, American Scientist).

Informal learning can be defined in different ways, such as by the process: self-directed, rather than “taught,” instead of where it occurs. These definitions are somewhat fuzzy because teachers may use “informal” methods in the classroom, and informal learning institutions may offer “formal” classes. Other terms may be substituted, such as “free-choice” learning (Lynn Dierking) and “lifelong” learning”; “nonformal” has been used to describe learning situated between formal and informal. The corporate world has adopted the term “informal” to describe self-initiated learning based on the need to know in the workplace.

Another option is to view informal or free-choice learning as a constellation of attributes. This table identifies several, contrasting them with formal learning. These distinctions, each of which represent the extremes, are meant to be illustrative.

Informal LearningFormal Learning
Voluntary; “free-choice”Compulsory; required
Learner focusContent focus
Affective emphasisCognitive emphasis
Intrinsic motivationExtrinsic motivation
Interest-driven; “pull”Curriculum-based; “push”
Personally relevantMay seem irrelevant
Constructivist; personal meaning-makingTransmission model
Experiential; hands-on; interactiveLecture-based
Flexible learning stylesFavored learning style
Enjoyable; engaging; funSerious
Exploratory; open-endedGoal-focused
Ubiquitous; museums, media, etc.School-based
All ages, lifelongChildren & youth
AnytimeSet times
Episodic; often briefExtended time periods
Individual, family, or small groupLarge peer group setting
Any content, focusPredetermined content, focus
Interdisciplinary; trans-disciplinaryDisciplinary content
No tests, gradesRegular assessment
Unlimited; open-ended; flexibleConstrained by curriculum

Since being exposed early in my career to informal learning mediated by science museums, I became an advocate and have bemoaned its lack of recognition and uptake in K-12 and undergraduate education. While at NSF, I had the opportunity to enhance the visibility and credibility of informal learning by encouraging and subsequently funding a synthesis of the underlying research by the National Academies (Learning Science in Informal Environments).

Despite the inherent strengths of informal learning, it may not always be the most appropriate approach. It would be best to view learning as a continuum along multiple dimensions, recognizing that the ideal learning situation would draw from the most effective strategies based on the learner and the intended educational outcomes.

Related Articles

Ucko, D. A. (2015). SENCER synergies with informal learning. Science Education & Civic Engagement, 7(2), 16-19. http://new.seceij.net/articletype/pov/sencer-synergies-with-informal-learning/

Ucko, D. A. (2010). The Learning Science in Informal Environments study in context. Curator: The Museum Journal, 53(2), 129–136. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.2010.00014.x

Ucko, D. A., & Ellenbogen, K. M. (2008). Impact of technology on informal science learning. In D. W. Sunal, E. M. Wright, & C. Sundberg (Eds.), The impact of the laboratory and technology on learning and teaching science K-16 (pp. 239–266). IAP-Information Age Publishing, Inc. https://


Informal Learning

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