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Difference Between Formal and Informal Learning

Difference Between Formal and Informal Learning

With the development of modern teaching methods and information society, learning opportunities have become larger, limitless and instantaneous. Nowadays, learners can learn as well as acquire new and improved skills and competencies in an array of ways in contrast to the traditional methods i.e. formal learning. In the world of learning, there is always a question: a formal or an informal learning platform is the right and best way to go? In this article, we’ll help you understand the difference between formal and informal learning and make a decision that fits your goals best.

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Guiding the symphony of instructional design, Olha orchestrates harmonious learning experiences that resonate with the audience, transforming complexity into clarity with each educational masterpiece.

Difference Between Formal and Informal Learning

Whereas formal learning happens in a training-based organization, workplace, mobile devices, classrooms, online over the internet, and through e-learning portals, informal learning is based on practical and lifelong learning. Informal learning is a crucial concept, especially for individuals who must stay abreast with rapid technological and economic changes. While informal learning symbolizes a key to entering the world of employment, it also represents the steps in building a successful career.

A Closer Look at the Formal and Informal Learning

By definition:

Formal learning occurs in a structured and organized environment like training/education institution or on the job. It is explicitly designed as education in terms of time, objectives and resources. It is purposeful training from the perspective of the learner, leading to degrees and certificates. Formal instruction is a structured model that presents a rigid curriculum that complies with laws and regulations. It is more of a presentation education.

On the other hand:

Informal education is education that goes beyond the constraints and takes place outside of a traditional formal educational setting such as a university, school, or college. It is an education that is seen as a learning which goes on in our daily life or learning projects undertaken by us to teach ourselves.

This training is based on daily life experiences like peer groups, family, media, or any other influence in the learner’s surroundings. This learning platform covers a range of activities: researching the collection of the International Gallery, studying culinary skills at a community center, participating in a project on a volunteer basis, etc.

In other words, informal training often involves learning things without being aware of the learning process. This may include picking up information from TV, over the internet, films, direct interaction with individuals or any other informal way.

To understand the difference between formal and informal education approaches, think of these two approaches as riding a bike vs. riding on a bus.

  • If you are on a formal learning bus, the bus driver decides the destination of the bus or where it is going. However, the passengers are just along for the ride.
  • If you are on a bike of informal learning, the rider decided the destination, the route, and the speed.

In other words, if you have to make a choice between the informal and formal learning, it is valuable to make a distinction between what is learned intentionally and what is learned by accident.

The clearest distinction between the two approaches to education comes down to whether it is unexpected or intentional.

Unexpected education occurs when a learner learns something in the course of daily life activities that they never expected. Intentional education, on the other hand, is an approach where learners set out to learn a particular thing and successfully achieve that goal.

Formal and informal learning methods

Both formal and informal methods offer unique advantages, and understanding the differences between them can help individuals and organizations choose the most effective approach for their needs.

Formal learning methods

Method 1: Classroom-based learning

One of the most common formal learning methods is classroom-based learning, which takes place within a structured educational environment. This method typically involves an instructor who delivers lessons, assigns homework, and assesses the progress of learners. Classroom-based learning often includes a mix of lectures, discussions, group activities, and individual work.

Method 2: Online courses

Online courses are another example of formal training, which involves delivering educational content through digital platforms such as learning management systems (LMS) or MOOCs (massive open online courses). Online courses offer greater flexibility and accessibility than traditional classroom-based learning and often include multimedia content, quizzes, discussion boards, and other interactive elements.

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Method 3: Workshops and training programs

Formal learning also encompasses workshops and training programs, which are typically shorter and more focused than traditional classroom-based courses. These training experiences often target specific skills or knowledge areas and are led by expert facilitators. Workshops and training programs can be delivered in-person or online, depending on the needs and preferences of the learners.

Informal learning methods

Method 1: Self-directed learning

Self-directed education is an informal method of study in which individuals take the initiative to define their educational goals, develop a plan, and seek resources to achieve their goals. This method often involves reading books, watching videos, or researching online to acquire new knowledge or skills.

Method 2: Social learning

Social learning is an informal approach to education that relies on interaction with other people, such as colleagues, friends, or mentors.. This method can involve learning through conversations, networking events, online forums, or social media platforms. Social learning capitalizes on the power of shared experiences and diverse perspectives to foster knowledge acquisition.

Method 3: Experiential learning

Experiential education is a hands-on, informal method of training that involves teaching through real-life experience and practice. This approach can include job shadowing, internships, volunteering, or simply trying new tasks or projects at work. Experiential education emphasizes the importance of training by doing and encourages learners to reflect on their experiences to improve their skills and understanding.

How to Settle On a Formal and Informal Learning Approach?

How to Settle on a Formal and Informal Learning Approach?

As stated earlier, the choice between the formal and informal learning approach comes down to the intention, objective, challenges and how any of these learning patterns facilitates the learner in developing a successful career path and to perform at their full potential.

There are three major areas on which either of these learning approaches can be tested from both the learner and instructor’s point of view, including;

  • Content development
  • Targeted audience
  • Tracking of performance

In addition, each of these training patterns offers different values in the lives of the learners. Again, the choice between the two comes down to the objectives and intent of the learners.

As with just about every other methodology, formal and informal learning approaches also have differences when it comes to studying basics, let’s discuss these basic differences separately.

Organized learning environment

Formal learning is about having a designed and structured course outline. This educational approach is formulated, pre-defined and has a deadline.It is limited and is best suited for those who have just started their basic training or need to acquire a specific set of skills in a certain amount of time. Informal education does not mean ill-conceived or unorganized. It simply does not have clearly defined rules or formulas. It can be occurring anywhere, anytime and in different contexts including surfing the internet, work or leisure activities.It’s not about communicating training results in advance, but about balancing a clear path of study with informality.

Eager and self-motivated Learners

In the formal learning environment, the learners are usually motivated and eager to learn in the initial stages of the training course. However, gradually and in the absence of any specific activities to keep the audience engaged, the learners start losing the eagerness to excel. In other words, formal learning requires a strategically engaging content to maintain the motivation level of the learners throughout the course

Unlike formal learning, informal learners are always motivated, more attentive and eager to learn the skill. Since they learn in a contextual environment and from experiences, they are not only interested in gaining deeper knowledge but they get a better understanding of the subject under discussion.

Spontaneous Learning

Informal learning is spontaneous and happens anytime and anywhere. The learner is self-motivated and eager to gain knowledge about any specific topic or may get an impulse to get familiar with a new topic. From an instructor’s point of view, during informal learning, the instruction is conscious about the need to share the skill or knowledge with the learner in a particular context.

For instance, if a new employee has no idea about operating a copy machine, some other colleague may instantly demonstrate it in practice and how to get the job done. This informal way of obtaining knowledge is a quick help for the new worker and one of the best example of spontaneous and informal learning context.

However, in formal education, instruction is planned, direct, non-contextualized, and formulated. The instructor and learners take up the training course intentionally and with a clear objective in mind. Training is limited in time and has certain boundaries, which makes it impossible to fully control the educational process.

Lifelong learning process

While formal learning serves specific objectives within defined time frames, lifelong learning offers a dynamic and continuous educational journey. Take, for example, a certification course with a two-month duration; it’s designed for a particular goal within a set timeframe.

In contrast, informal learning is a spontaneous and lifelong activity that evolves with age. We start out as curious children teaching our parents, grow up studying with our peers and colleagues, and even continue to learn from younger generations as technology evolves. This ongoing process keeps individuals vibrant, engaged, and mentally active, contributing significantly to intellectual self-development.

At Raccoon Gang, we embrace the value of lifelong learning. Our Continuous Education Solution empowers institutions to foster this enriching journey, providing the tools and support needed to nurture intellectual growth throughout life. Visit our Continuous Education Solution page today.

Quantifiable Learning

The formal learning is always quantifiable. It is measurable and formulated. It is a learning or transfer of knowledge in a proper university or classroom setup, offered by skilled instructors and up to a certain degree. For example, if you need to take a particular course, you must take the beginner, advanced or master level courses to gain the required knowledge. The outcomes are measurable and you know the skill set that you can achieve after taking a certain level of formal education.

The informal learning is, however, quite difficult to quantify. It is not measurable or pre-designed to achieve a particular set of skills in a set time frame. Since it is not a tangible training approach hence, there are no tracking or exams to gauge the skill set just like certifications or degree courses. The outcomes are difficult to measure. This is indeed one of the biggest challenges of informal learning i.e. the validation and recognition of the informally obtained knowledge in order to make it valid, valuable and visible to other for its proper utilization.

The Future Relevance of Formal and Informal Learning

So which of these two learning approaches are most relevant in the future?  There are some difficulties in combining both of these teaching methods. Both offer their own distinctive educational experience, so it all comes down to the student’s learning goal.

In an informal learning, learner gets the ability to develop more capacity for self-directed approaches towards enduring learning. Anyone who does it and develops these skills gains a great advantage over others who are persistently reliant and submissive to various influential figures to tell them when to learn, how to learn, what to learn and when to stop learning.

Considering the corporate perspective, there may be some jobs that would praise for following the guidelines or commands of a micro-managing boss, but the growing corporations are now shifting this trend.

In today’s competitive environment, it is all about taking the initiative. This is the era of working in a contextual environment than the theoretical world. To deliver and handle the problem upfront and pursue solutions right away.

That is why it is important for a learner to make a smooth transition from formal to informal. This transition promises the idea of ‘continuity’. In other words, the open or informal education system can easily be adopted in the traditional structure of schools. It is all about offering learners a chance to determine the learning pace. They should be set free to move around and search for the best sources to learn with full motivation and keenness.

The key is to let them make the most of the available means to master the subjects that catch their interest. Likewise, gradually suppressing the basic features of a formal learning approach that may include granting the learners total freedom as to the subject choice, activities and content that must be carried out along with the time duration that needs to be granted at each stage.

In a nutshell, in going from formal to informal education, we are actually perforce displacing our ‘center of gravity’ form the processes of traditional or formulated school systems to that of students learning objectives.

In this evolving educational landscape, another crucial dimension is emerging—mobile learning. As traditional boundaries blur and learners seek dynamic, accessible, and on-the-go education, mobile learning has become an integral part of the modern educational process. It offers the flexibility to access education materials anytime, anywhere, meeting the unique needs of today’s learners. Just as the shift from formal to non-formal learning is important, so is the seamless integration of mobile learning. It empowers learners to embrace continuous education while adapting to the ever-changing demands of the digital age.

The Final Word

We can conclude by saying that when the interest and needs of the learners are taken into consideration, learners will be more willing and interested to participate in the learning activities. The basic reason why institute and organizations are now adapting informal learning approach is that the formal learning is perceived as an obeying and punitive learning approach.

It is dependent on the pre-defined norms of the institutions whereas the learners’ interest and needs fade away. Conversely, an informal learning approach succeeds to convert the needs and interest of learners in a more adaptive and flexible formation.

The content developers must recognize and consider the range of training opportunities in course design. They must iron out the objectives and needs of the learners first and then design a custom eLearning solution that makes the most sense for learners. In this way, they can find the optimal approach to education that combines both formal and informal learning.


What is an example of informal learning?

An example of informal learning is acquiring cooking skills by watching YouTube videos.

What do you mean by formal learning?

Formal learning refers to structured, organized education with specific goals, often leading to certification or degrees.

Why is both formal and informal learning important?

Both formal and informal learning are important because they provide a balanced, well-rounded education experience and cater to a variety of training styles.

What are two examples of formal learning?

Two examples of formal learning include attending university courses and participating in a professional training program.

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