Learning

What Are Informal Learning Environments and Do They Work?

Informal learning environments are all around us and can benefit us in many ways. Here’s what they are and why we should embrace them, especially in the workplace.

We all have experience spending time in formal learning environments. In fact, most people are required to spend at least 12 years of their life in one: the classroom. And many choose to continue learning in formal settings long after high school ends. But the classroom is not the only place where you can learn valuable skills to use in life. Once you leave that room with the structured learning environment, you still have a chance to learn new concepts every day, as not all learning takes place when you’re sitting down listening to a lecture. Informal learning environments are all around us and can benefit us in many ways. Here’s what they are and why we should embrace them, especially in the workplace.

What Is an Informal Learning Environment?

An informal learning environment is essentially a setting that’s not a school classroom but where you can learn, nonetheless. If you’ve ever learned a new concept outside of school, you’ve successfully experienced an informal learning environment.

There’s a wide variety of examples of informal learning environments. They range from simply asking a question to a colleague and getting an answer, to attending a workshop to learn more about your profession or even a hobby. Some other examples of learning informally include the following:

  • Reading a book
  • Looking up information online
  • Listening to a podcast
  • Reading an online discussion forum
  • Engaging in social media
  • Viewing live or virtual demos
  • Joining a club to practice or talk about a hobby or skill
  • Taking an online course
  • Talking to friends
  • Watching videos online

Looking at all these examples of informal learning, it should come as no surprise that experts say 75% of the average employee’s knowledge comes from informal learning, not information gained from a classroom setting. So if you’re wondering if you should facilitate informal learning in the workplace, the answer is yes. While formal training in the classroom definitely has its place, informal learning is a lot more flexible and tends to have more appeal to people, making them more likely to give it a try.

In fact, studies show that informal learning may increase contentment and overall job satisfaction among employees. So it’s definitely worthwhile to consider if you want to encourage continual learning in the workplace and beyond. Keep reading to see exactly why informal learning environments are so advantageous.

What Are the Benefits of Informal Learning Environments?

So, why is informal learning considered effective? One of the top reasons is that it feels natural, meaning you can learn more without the pressure you might feel in a classroom. Talking to a friend or colleague for an hour about a particular subject might not be as structured as listening to a lecture in a classroom for an hour, but it can be just as educational—and often more interesting! This allows you to learn more in an organic way, often for a longer period of time.

Another benefit of informal learning is that it can happen at your own pace. If you’ve ever found it hard to keep up in the classroom, you know that stressful feeling of being left behind as you’re still confused on a subject that the teacher assumes you now understand. This can be discouraging, causing many people to give up and either stop studying or stop attending the class altogether.

But outside the classroom, you can ask questions if you’re confused during an informal conversation, moving on to the next concept only once you understand the first one. And if you’re reading a book or researching a subject online, you can go as slowly as you want, even branching out to a related concept if the mood strikes you! This is why informal learning can often lead to even more knowledge about a subject than simply sitting in a classroom and writing down notes from a structured course, where you might feel rushed and disinterested in the subject.

Finally, informal learning environments can foster a feeling of collaboration among members of a group, such as in the workplace. In fact, one study found that students in an informal learning environment that was collaborative and allowed them to connect with their peers were more engaged and interested in the subject and understood the concepts better in the long run. If this is the kind of result you want for yourself or employees, you should make informal learning a regular part of the workplace.

How to Encourage Informal Learning at Work

It doesn’t take much planning to create opportunities for informal learning at work. After all, the whole point of this type of learning is to encourage people to build knowledge in a way that feels natural. In this way, it actually takes more time and preparation to create a formal learning environment, as it’s necessary to create lesson plans, tests, slideshows, etc., for the classroom. So a bonus of informal learning is that you’ll save time!

One of the simplest ways to encourage informal learning at work is to allow plenty of opportunities for employees to collaborate with each other. Whether it’s a break room or kitchen that’s stocked with coffee and snacks or a game room with plenty of seating, create a space where employees feel welcome to gather and talk between meetings. You can also make a habit of sharing your own tips and best practices with employees at some point each day in order to teach the skills you know in an informal way.

Feel free to use technology to encourage informal learning, as well. For example, make it easy for employees to connect with each other virtually so they can share their knowledge even when they’re not in the same room. This can be through a messaging system, a forum for employees to post on, or an internal social media network. Of course, writing blog posts and social media updates for everyone—employees and the public alike—to read can also facilitate informal learning.

Finally, consider offering workshops where employees can voluntarily attend to learn more about a specific subject. Workplace mentoring, work-related clubs, and team-building activities in the office are other ways to encourage employees to learn without setting foot in a structured classroom environment. When you use these tactics to create an informal learning environment—alongside formal learning options when appropriate—employees and the company as a whole can benefit!

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