Formal or informal learning? The types of learning and how to choose the best for your training program
Instructional Design

Formal or informal learning? The types of learning and how to choose the best for your training program

, Former Content Marketing Manager

Should you develop structured formal learning courses that feature synchronous sessions? Or should you go for informal training activities that promote social interaction? In this guide, you’ll find out how to choose the best approach for your online training program, pondering on formal and informal learning.

Choosing between formal and informal learning

When you design new online training content, do you consider whether to feature formal or informal learning elements? Probably not. Most of us would consider an online training course to be part of the “formal” learning bracket: it’s not classroom-based, but it comes with a set of learning objectives, an eLearning storyboard, assessment, and a completion target. And it provides structure and points online learners in the right direction.

But we need to reword how we think about that “informal”, or unstructured training. An informal learning approach to all those standard aspects of online training can be a powerful way to make learning engaging and memorable.

The background: Formal, informal and other types of learning

Formal learning is usually an organized activity in a classroom setting. Informal learning, on the other hand, is usually unstructured, spontaneous, and, very often, unintentional. If informal learning comes consciously with a defined purpose, it becomes non-formal. That’s really where online training should sit: a formal transfer of knowledge, with elements that feel unstructured and more like a game.

There’s a reason this approach works so well. It’s the benefit of using technology to create an immersive learning experience.

Formal eLearning tools include infographics, assessments, video, and audio content; interactive in some ways, but still traditional approaches. Informal learning includes gamification, experiential learning, and social learning. Instructional Designers need to use all the design tools available to them to ensure the right balance of formal and non-formal learning elements.

Blending an informal approach with structured training

Online training can take place anytime, anywhere. That gives corporate learners the freedom to choose how they interact with the training content. But it also presents a barrier: how do you keep their attention?

You need to engage corporate learners with absorbing training content and immersive design elements. Otherwise, you risk losing them. When you design a course and use informal tools to reinforce the formal elements, it’s the blended approach that helps the most. The beauty of adding informal learning elements is that it allows your corporate learners to try out their skills safely.

They can absorb the information, then get a chance to try (and sometimes fail) in a risk-free environment. They can also engage with their peers to see things from a different perspective and broaden their knowledge outside the formal training environment.

What formal and informal learning is and how to choose - TalentLMS blog

Formal or informal? 5 questions to ask

You might think it’s as easy as referring to the source material. However, choosing between formal and informal learning is not that easy. Legal, health and safety, and security online training tend to be formal. Customer service, software or product knowledge online training may or may not be formal.

But this is the basis for an approach that misses the mark. Sometimes, the driest topics are the ones that demand the most creative approach. So, what should you be looking for in your next eLearning course design? Ask yourself these 5 questions:

1. What training content should I cover formally in a text, video, audio, or graphic element?

For example, how will the online training content support the learning objectives and outcomes? How will it accommodate corporate learners’ needs? How can you supplement this activity with an informal learning experience to improve retention?

2. How can I improve the online training experience by adding informal immersive elements like games or simulations?

Keep in mind that every online training activity must support the goals, instead of merely offering entertainment value.

3. Where can I add a social element to the material? Which social media platforms are online learners already using, and how can you motivate them to engage?

For instance, will YouTube videos encourage them to interact in the comments section, and possibly even produce their own videos to share with peers? Or is the subject matter better suited to blog posts that prompt self-reflection?

4. Can I turn part of this course into microlearning?

For example, create a moment-of-need microlearning library that allows corporate learners to explore the subject matter via group debates or bite-sized blog posts.

5. Are there certain topics or tasks that lend themselves to one approach over another?

For example, should you stick with a more formal training strategy for your ‘safe handling procedures’ online course to avoid compliance violations? If so, you might be able to supplement the scheduled event or online training course with just-in-time resources to broaden their real-world experience.


The blended approach to eLearning allows users to feel comfortable in their surroundings while experiencing learning in a real-world environment. Getting that blend right for your training content gives you a new approach to design decisions.

You should aim to include a balance of approaches in every online training course you design. The decision is yours to make. Just remember that variety is the spice of life; and in online training, appealing to all tastes is essential.

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Eleni Zoe - Former Content Marketing Manager

Eleni Zoe spends most of her day advocating for clear and easily readable content. She believes in paperback books and lifelong learning.

Eleni Zoe LinkedIn

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