Informal learning

“Informal learning” is a term that people have interpreted differently and as a consequence, there is no single definition. Merriam et al (2007) describe informal learning as ‘the experiences of everyday living from which we learn something’. Unlike ‘formal learning’, which typically follows a structured programme and occurs in a classroom or teaching laboratory, informal learning may occur in a variety of contexts – in the home, in the workplace, or in the community – and is unstructured.

Two examples help illustrate how informal learning works in practice:

  • As a practitioner, an animal is brought to you with an unusual set of symptoms that you have not seen before. In order to reach a diagnosis (and quickly!), you choose to discuss the case with colleagues and do a search of the internet, as well as posting a question on an online discussion forum to find out if other veterinarians have come across such a case. This is informal learning.
  • You are a veterinary student, and a fellow student has come back from their work-based learning placement and discusses an interesting, alternative method of treatment that they observed in the practice. You may want to find out more, so you look it up on the internet and decide to discuss the merits of this alternative approach with the clinicians in your university hospital. This is informal learning.

In terms of continuing education, informal learning might involve reading journal articles, searching the internet or talking to colleagues. Hank Slotnick, a medical educator, relates learning to problem-solving (Slotnick 1996, 2000). He argues that physicians engage in formal learning (i.e. structured, organised courses) in order to compensate for a lack of knowledge and/or skills in a general area, whilst they will engage in informal learning (talking to colleagues, searching literature or the internet) when trying to solve a specific problem such as diagnosing or managing a particularly difficult clinical case. Slotnick’s view implies that informal learning is intentional. Citing Marsick and Watkins (1990) and Schugurensky (2000), Merriam et al (2007) state that as well as encompassing intentional learning in the form of self-directed learning, informal learning may also be unintentional (an accidental by-product of doing something else) or even unrecognised (tacit learning or ‘socialisation’).

The NOVICE network offers the opportunity for informal learning, by allowing you to interact with others in the veterinary field through discussion forums/boards, wikis, blogs and a chat facility, all of which may lead you to explore other internet resources.   

Note about the reliability of information on the internet  

It is important to consider the reliability of internet sources. For example, an evidence-based, peer-reviewed article found whilst doing a search of the PubMed bibliographic database is likely to yield more reliable information than a Google search which leads to someone’s anecdotal account. A particularly useful guide to judging the reliability of internet sources is:

Internet for Veterinary Medicine
This is aimed primarily at students in higher education, but may also be of interest to veterinarians in that it provides links to credible online reference works.



Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London and New York: Routledge.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schugurensky, D. (2000). "The forms of informal learning: Towards a conceptualization of the field (NALL Working Paper #19 -2000)." New Approaches to Lifelong Learning  Retrieved 13 July, 2010, from

Slotnick, H. B. (1996). How doctors learn: The role of clinical problems across the medical school to practice continuum. Academic Medicine 71(1): 28-34.

Slotnick, H. B. (2000). Physicians' learning strategies. Chest 118(2): 18S-23S.

Comments and Suggestions

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Last updated 2540 days ago by Tierney