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

Earlier this year I did some applied research on the differences between formal, non-formal and informal education in both the sciences, as well as literacy and language education.

These terms have been used by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) as well as researchers and practitioners around the globe. Here’s a simplified explanation:

Formal education – 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 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. Girl guides and boy scouts are an example for children. It is often considered more engaging, as the learner’s interest is a driving force behind their participation.

Informal learning – No formal curriculum and no credits earned. The teacher is simply someone with more experience such as a parent, grandparent or a friend. A father teaching his child to play catch or a babysitter teaching a child their ABC’s is an example of informal education.

These may be overly simplified explanations. 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.

If you’re interested, the two reports (one I wrote and the other I co-authored), they have been archived in 3 countries are available free of charge. There are links to the full reports here:

Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning in the Sciences

Formal, non-formal and informal learning: The case of literacy and language learning in Canada

Related posts:

Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning (Infographic)

Formal, non-formal and informal learning: The case of literacy and language learning in Canada

Formal, Non-formal and Informal Learning: A podcast

Breathtaking Impact of Volunteers’ Contribution to Non-formal and Informal Literacy Education in Alberta


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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

  1. Berhanemeskel Tena says:

    Compliment on the response given to
    Dr.sarah, sorry, first I dislike the word “…I am guessing…” for a teacher.
    Church education can be sometimes Non formal and informal as well.
    If the program is well planed , time bounded, after completion award certificate with loose continuity= Non formal . BUT if the program is preach for anyone who came to the compound ( Nothing will be given to the one who learn or the program is not prepared assuming the individual etc)=informal education.
    Thank you
    Berhanemeskel Tena From Ethiopia

  2. Sarannya UNarayanan says:

    Thank You….. So helpful Information


    hello!!! I just want to ask that under which types of education will football training be classified ?

    • Kago Peter. says:

      I think non-formal.The training will be done by a more qualified person and depending on the interest of the trainee,the trainer will nurture his/her skill.I however understand that there are states with football academies that produce proffessinal footballers.I believe that the trainers in these schools do not impart but nurture the skill of these already interested ‘football students’.

  4. Agboola lukman says:

    What is formal,informal and non-formal education

  5. I am highly delighted at your academic dissemination of free knowledge online. Kindly apply non-formal approach. Tnx.

  6. lovely says:

    what are the informal and formal experience did you have as a child? where they negatives and positive

  7. ernest says:

    please I could not find a clear differenciations between non-formal education and adult education

  8. Rethabile Mpo says:

    thank you for your help!Keep up the good work and God bless you.

  9. Saul Namaande says:

    Good definitions

  10. Saul Namaande says:

    Dr. why would you not advise third world countries not to over emphasize the importance of formal education in development?
    Thank you that you provide the necessary.

  11. Saul Namaande says:

    Potential answers.

  12. najlaa says:

    Thank you for your clear definitions , it was very helpful! But i would to know some real examples of the non formal education??
    Thanks in advance !

  13. Jane Gerald says:

    Compliment of the day!
    I would like to conglaturate you for research you have done but i have a question
    ‘in Tanzania this month we have a censa and there is education provided every part of the coutry before the exercise’ what do you say is it informal or non-formal

    • That’s a good question. The lines between formal, non-formal and informal are not always that clear. In a case like this, I’d call it non-formal, since it is probably sanctioned by your government, right?

  14. ken ekene says:

    pls i need a clear answer to this:non informal,formal and informal education i mean thier differences.

  15. Sarah. What about religious education generally in Muslim socieites, where families send their children to mosques to get their children learn Qur’an, some basics, like five days prayers, recitation, Fiqh, etc? May I consider it as non-formal education OR?

    • This is an excellent question. Yes, I would consider it as non-formal education. I have only been to mosque once, so I can not claim to be an expert, but I am guessing that it would be similar to the Sunday school that Christian children go to. They also learn the prayers, traditions and history of their faith, guided by adults who know the material well and love to teach children. Would it be fair to say that for the Muslim children, their learning is also guided by adults who know the Qur’an well and understand the history of the traditions… and want the children to have a solid understanding of their faith as they grow up? If yes, then I would say that although the Christian and Muslim faiths differ, it would seen that the education of the children has some similar practices… In both cases, it would be non-formal, I would say.

      I love that your question made me think deeply about this!

  16. Marzouq says:

    Brief and Clear! Thanks!

  17. Imane says:

    Thanks a lot …. It really helps me !

  18. Lanre. says:

    Dr Sarah , thanks for assisting m in my research work , God bless you.Tapping from your research tentacles from Nigeria.

  19. lisa says:

    Thank you for these explanations. They have been very helpful in mu M.A. paper.

  20. Comfort kalu says:

    Good definitions

  21. Faisal Fahad says:

    keep me up- dated in anything wit education.

  22. Ige Oyedotun says:

    What are the similarity of informal,formal,non-formal learning

  23. I need a clear differenciation between non-formak education and informal education?

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