Structured vs Unstructured Learning

Structured vs Unstructured Learning

You can break up learning into two distinct categories – structured and unstructured learning. A structured way of learning is a defined learning path with objectives, structure, or formal hierarchy.

Unstructured learning as the name suggests has no formal structure to the learning. It is a more ad-hoc, varied, and informal way of learning.

It’s important to recognize that both these types of learning exist and that learners will use both methods at different times.

What are some examples of structured learning

  • A university course or degree
  • An employee training program
  • Any training program that has multiple courses or modules
  • Any course that has key objectives, certifications, or formal learning path

What are some examples of unstructured learning

  • Google, YouTube, LinkedIn, Blog or other online resource
  • Peer to peer knowledge sharing
  • Searching through knowledge bases
  • Asking questions on an online community (internal or external)
  • Webinars or online conferences
  • Attending speaking conferences
  • On the job experience

What is micro-learning?

You may also have heard about micro-learning. Micro-learning is normally a more unstructured form of learning, however it can be part of structured program also. It is basically a form of bite sized learning that comes from normal day-to-activities, a quick Google search, or say a YouTube video.

Micro-learning can be formalized as well. You can deliver structured learning by breaking it down into very small, bite-sized pieces of content and deliver it over time. Even though it may not appear to be structured, the trainer is still defining the content and executing the delivery of it.

What works better? Structured or Unstructured?

There is no right or wrong approach, and we actually learn best by making the most of both approaches. The approach you need to take when training others is determined by the objective of the learning outcome, the proficiency of the learner (existing knowledge and skill set), and what stage of the overall learning journey the are at.

When starting out, a person needs a structured approach to learning. They need to be guided through a learning path so they can understand the topic to a certain degree, become proficient enough or obtain the relevant skill level.

However, once a certain level is reached, a structured approach may no longer get the best return on investment. The employee may look for answers through others, knowledge bases, even online- through Google or YouTube. Learning becomes ‘just-in-time’. That is, the employee will learn when and where they need to.

As a person moves towards becoming an expert, they will either take on more advanced studies in their field – (e.g. Certificates, Masters, PHD), but will also increase the unstructured amount of learning they do. As a person navigates towards becoming a thought leader, they will seek out their own answers from a variety of sources, including deep research. There is no formal learning that can be done by that stage.

The above diagram shows how structured and unstructured learning is required as a learner progresses from Novice to Expert. As you can see, as the level increases unstructured learning starts to increase. The expert will start to seek out their own answers and knowledge in order to gain more expertise and skill.

Now that you understand the differences between the two approaches. Is it time to create your own training for employees?

Here are some more tips that will help you create unstructured learning for your employees.

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