Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning: What Are the Differences?

At the beginning, you can find the three definitions of the three different ways of learning in short. There are times when the lines between each type of learning get blurred, as well. It isn’t always as cut and dry as it seems, but these definitions give you a general idea of each type of learning.

Formal Education -

Formal Education – photo credit: National Cancer Institute

 Formal education is organized, guided by a formal curriculum, leads to a formally recognized credential such as a high school completion diploma or a degree, and is often guided and recognized by the government at some level. Teachers are usually trained as professionals in some way.

Non-formal learning – Organized (even if it is only loosely organized), may or may not be guided by a formal curriculum. This type of education may be led by a qualified teacher or by a leader with more experience. Though it doesn’t result in a formal degree or diploma, non-formal education is highly enriching and builds an individual’s skills and capacities. Continuing education courses are an example for adults.

Informal learning – No formal curriculum and no credits earned. The ‘trainer’ is simply someone with more experience such as a parent, grandparent, or friend.


Non- formal Education and Erasmus+ projects

In Erasmus+ projects (training courses, youth exchanges, seminars, etc) someone would face the Non-formal way of learning. Non-formal learning is an extensively used and intensely debated notion in the youth field. It stands for a range of core learning principles, methodologies, and approaches in the youth field.

Non-formal Education -

Non-formal Education – photo credit: Mike Erskine

The emphasis is on the learner’s intrinsic motivation, voluntary participation, critical thinking, and democratic agency. It is widely acknowledged and recognized that non-formal learning provides unique learning opportunities to millions of young Europeans.

The glossary of the European Knowledge Center for Youth Policy describes non-formal learning as follows:

“Non-formal learning is purposive but voluntary learning that takes place in a diverse range of environments and situations for which teaching/training and learning is not necessarily their sole or main activity.”

Yes, It can happen even at the campfire in the forest or somewhere at the seaside or in the mountains. Erasmus + projects do not require to be carried on 5 * Hotels or in the official meeting rooms.

Advantages of Non-Formal Education

Non-formal education has numerous advantages in personal development in comparison to traditional formal education.

The main advantage of non-formal education is its flexibility and ability to adapt to individual people’s current needs and the continual changes in society.

It can support personal development, as well as improve an individual’s professional skills.

Non-formal education, on the other hand, is often much more based on skills and also has attitude-based learning objectives. Tolerance is an example of an attitude that we often see develop using non-formal education. We should not, however, forget the important knowledge element just because formal education seems to prefer it. It will always play a very important role in education.

Learning Styles

We all have a preference regarding how to collect and process information about the world. We want to experiment by doing or reflect by watching; and at the same time, experience through feelings or theories through thinking.

Depending on our choices, we prefer one of the four learning styles:

  • looking and reflecting (reflector),
  • building theories (theorist),
  • putting theories into practice (pragmatist) or
  • doing hands-on experiments (activist).

 What is your preference? Due to these natural tendencies, we learn best when using our preferred learning style and worst when using the opposite one.

We find, however, that we learn far better if we use all of the four learning styles by accomplishing a full learning cycle. It does not matter which part of the cycle we start from, as long as we move through all of the four steps in a logical procession.

Non-formal education also has important implications for lifelong learning. It allows acquiring knowledge and expertise for people who want to learn but do not have the time or opportunity to attend formal education.

It gives people the opportunity to discover new perspectives in life and meet new people.

We must learn to perceive formal education as an important tool for developing a knowledge-based society. We must also learn to understand and accept elements of informal learning for people of every age group.

After all, each of us needs to obtain information, skills, and knowledge. Non-formal education gives us a variety of huge opportunities and the chance to translate our ideas and thoughts into reality in an enjoyable way.