Informal Learning Settings

From cross-continental train rides to steamer ships, informal learning environments make use of an "on location" setting for instruction, often for extended periods of time, to harness student engagement in an entirely new way. When isolated together in a setting apart from the traditional classroom, students can focus more readily on the subject matter at hand. Additionally, being "in the field" allows ancillary relationships to become visible, and students can witness and explore interrelationships in a way that is impossible under standard classroom conditions.

Train in the mountains

Issues to consider include:

  • Learning objectives: how do your objectives change to harness the advantages of the informal learning environment?
  • Insurance, liability, and waivers
  • Costs, grants
  • Travel arrangements, such as reservations for dining and sleeping
  • Can you make travel mandatory for all your students?

Brief Informal Learning Setting Literature Review and Rationale

Informal Settings are typically places where learning takes place outside of a formal classroom, possibly in museums, zoos, aquaria, science and technology centers, homes, and clubs. They are also characterized as places where motivation is internal, the content is variable and possibly un-sequenced, attendance is voluntary, displays and objects are provided, learners are of all ages, and there is more diversity in the learners' backgrounds (Koran & Koran, 1988). Basically, this includes practically anywhere except the formal walls and structure of a traditional school setting.

Thus, educational studies provide a strong argument for the importance of learning in informal settings. Application of appropriate educational learning theories is critical for instruction in informal settings. A firm theoretical foundation offers teachers a starting point from which they can build a series of learning opportunities, responding to all styles and encouraging a wide range of strategies in order to encourage successful learning. Innovative approaches plus access to appropriate technologies can lead to the creation of new learning environments that are flexible and provide a custom education for each student, regardless of class size, time and distance constraints, previous preparation, and personal factors. Selection of appropriate settings and associated technologies should be defined by the desired learning outcomes and students' needs to perform tasks according to their individual styles and strategies. Learning should be interdisciplinary as students expand on prior knowledge, pursue interests, combine information in new ways to solve problems, and reach new understanding of old knowledge. Learning then becomes a dynamic, customized pursuit of new solutions rather than the acquisition of a preconceived package of facts. The proposed course would provide exactly this sort of dynamic, ever-changing yet structured and stimulating learning environment that incorporates reading, listening and viewing.

However, passively hoping that learners will be able to activate appropriate learning strategies in an informal learning environment without guidance is insufficient to ensure successful learning and development. Instead, strategy development and application can be actively included in learning opportunities. In this light, appropriate technologies can enable teachers to provide students with choices as to when, where, and how they access information.

Many educators call for more doing and less talking in our educational system. Finkel (2000) wrote about this extensively in his book called 'Teaching with your mouth shut.' Jean Piaget (1974) and many of his students have shown the importance of direct experience for students in learning. Nearly the whole of our knowledge about the empirical world has come form investigators who had direct experiences with phenomena of nature outside of the formal classroom (Keown, 1986). There is no classroom equivalent to observing a river—clean, clear and healthy as it enters a city—and later to find it green and oxygen deficient with the community of pollution organisms as it leaves the city.

Examples of Informal Learning Settings

  • Museums, parks, and other community destinations
  • Local public works/operations
  • Virtual spaces that encourage interaction or content creation (MOOCs, blogs, wikis, or various social media websites)


Dierking, L., & Falk, J. (1997, September 1). School field trips: Assessing their long-term impact. Curator, 40(3), 211-18.
Finkel, D. L. (2000). Teaching with your mouth shut. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Keown, D. (1986). Teaching science in U.S. schools: A commentary. Journal of Environmental Education, 18(1), 30-32.
Koran, J. J., Koran, M. L., Foster, J. S., & Dierking, L. D. (1988). Using modeling to direct attention. Curator, 31(1), 36-42.
Piaget, J. (1964). Part I: Cognitive development in children: Piaget development and learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 2(3), 176-186.


Faculty Spotlight View Other Award Winners

Arup Guha
College of Engineering and Computer Science Arup  Guha The ultimate goal of any educator should be to enable his/her students to achieve their potential. I attempt to attain this goal through three major techniques: creating a friendly classroom atmosphere, giving challenging and creative assignments and exams, and adapting my courses to the specific students that I h...

Michelle Kelley
College of Education Michelle  Kelley A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. - Henry Brooks Adams, AuthorHow many people can honestly say that their job positively affects hundreds, even thousands of children? I can. I am charged with preparing pre-service teachers to make a significant difference in the lives...

Thomas Wu
College of Engineering and Computer Science Thomas   Wu It is both challenging and fascinating to be a teacher. In all the courses I teach, I set high standards for myself and prepare carefully for each lecture. Besides teaching technical materials, I train students to have the capabilities to: think critically and analytically; work hard and inno...