Incidental learning

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Incidental learning is some form of accidental / indirect / additional / unplanned learning within an informal or formal learning situation. (DSchneider). It's opposite is deliberate learning.

Sometimes, incidental learning is also used to describe informal learning, but that should be avoided since it could be deliberate - Daniel K. Schneider 19:09, 7 April 2009 (UTC).

  • Incidental learning is also referred to as random learning, the latter term is used by UNESCO: “Random learning refers to unintentional learning occurring at any time and in any place, in everyday life” (UNESCO, 2005, p. 4). Incidental (random) learning is characterized as unorganized, unstructured and unintentional. This sets it apart from informal learning (using UNESCO's terms), which is intentional.
  • While we learn 'formally' only in some very specific situations and periods of our life (school, training), incidental and informal learning are much more important for most of the skills and knowledge we learn during the vast majority of life. (R. Borer)
  • Sandra Kerka's (2000) definition:
Incidental learning is unintentional or unplanned learning that results from other activities. It occurs often in the workplace and when using computers, in the process of completing tasks (Baskett 1993; Cahoon 1995). It happens in many ways: through observation, repetition, social interaction, and problem solving (Cahoon 1995; Rogers 1997); from implicit meanings in classroom or workplace policies or expectations (Leroux and Lafleur 1995); by watching or talking to colleagues or experts about tasks (van Tillaart et al. 1998); from mistakes, assumptions, beliefs, and attributions (Cseh, Watkins, and Marsick 1999); or from being forced to accept or adapt to situations (English 1999). This "natural" way of learning (Rogers 1997) has characteristics of what is considered most effective in formal learning situations: it is situated, contextual, and social.

Here is an example that shows the difference between incidental and informal learning provided by a commentator of this page: “Lifelong learners may attend organized and structured courses (non-formal education) or learn a foreign language from a private tutor (informal learning), both being intentional. This is different from incidentally discovering how to open a .zip file, while downloading learning material from the Internet.”

See also:

Incidental learning in education

this section needs work !
  • There are strategies to favor incidental learning

Simulation / gaming architectures

Frete (2002:92:93) quoting Roger Schank:

  • The trick is not to teach the facts at all, but rather to have the facts be along the way to getting to something the student naturally wanted to know in the first place. Using the Acquisition Hypothesis, we assume that how one learns a fact is as important as what fact one learns. Thus we should have students learn facts while engaged in a process similar to the one in which they will use the facts. We should use students' natural interest so they come across such facts incidentally, in the course of pursuing their interests.
  • The first trick in employing the Incidental Learning Architecture is to find things that are inherently fun to do on a computer. This could be any good video game for example. The second trick is harder. What the student naturally wants to learn in the video game ought to be worth learning. The problem is to change the skills to be learned from hand-eye coordination tasks to content-based tasks, where one needs to know real information in order to accomplish one's goal on the computer. This will work well if there is a natural correlation between the content-based tasks and what is inherently fun."



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  • Blandin, B (2004), Are E-learning standards neutral ? Proceedings CALIE 04: International Conference on Computer.
  • EC (2000). A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning. European Commission staff working paper SEC(2000) 1832. Brussels: European Commission.
  • Elley, W.B. (Dez 2005), [http// In praise of incidental learning: Lessons from some empirical findings on lan guage acquisition: 1997]
  • Elley, WB Vocabulary acquisition from listening to stories read aloud. Reading research Quarterly 24, 174-187: 1989
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  • Frete, Cathérine (2002), Le potentiel du jeu vidéo pour l'éducation, TECFA, Université de Genpve, Mémoire en vue de l'obtention du DESS STAF PDF
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  • Harris, R. An experimental inquiry into the functions and value of formal grammar in the teaching of English. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of London: 1962
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  • Hobbs, D.L. A constructivist approach to web course design : A review of the literature International Journal on E-Learning 60 - 65: April/June 2002
  • Kerka, Sandra 2000, Trends and Issues 2000 Alert No.18, Incidental learning PDF. (This is a very good overview article)
  • Jones, T. Incidental learning during information retrieval: a hypertext experiment.
  • Klauer, K.J. (1984). Intentional and Incidental Learning with Instructional Texts: A Meta-Analysis for 1970-1980 American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 323-339.
  • Marsick, V.J. & KJ Watkins (2001). Informal and incidental learning, New directions for adult and continuing education 89 25-34.
  • Marsick, V.J. and Watkins, K. (1990). Informal and incidental learning in the workplace. London and New York: Routledge,
  • Mathews, RC, Buss, RR, Stanley, WB, Blanchard-Fields, F, Cho, JR and Druhan,B. (1989). Learning, Memory and Cognition, J of experimental psychology, Vol. 15/6 1083-1100
  • Mayer, R.E. (2003). The promise of multimedia learning : using the same instructional design methods across different media, Learning and Instruction 13, pp 125-139
  • Mayer, R.E., Heiser, J. & Lonn,S. (2001). Cognitive constraints on multimedia learning: when presenting more material results in less understanding. Journal of educational psychology, 93 pp.187-198
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  • Reiser, R.A. (2001). A history of Instructional Design and technology: Hisstory of Instructional Design, ETR&D No.2 pp57-67:
  • Rieber, L.P 1991, Animation, incidental Learning and continuing motivation, J of educational Psychology Vol 83/3 318 - 328
  • Rieber, L.P, 1991, Seriously considering play: Designing Interactive learning environments based on the blending of microworlds, simulations and games, ETR&D Vol. 44 1996, 43-58
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  • Schacter,D. (1987). Implicit memory: History and current status, J of experimental psychology. Learning, Memory and Cognition, 13, pp. 501-518
  • Schank, Roger, C. & Ch. Cleary (1995). Engines for Education, Lawrence Erlbaum Ass. Publishers Hillsdale NJ, pp. 95-105 (Incidental learning chapter).
  • UNESCO (2005). NFE-MIS Handbook. Developing a Sub-National Non-Formal Education Management Information System. Module 1. Paris: UNESCO, Division of Basic Education.--------

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