Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-21, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 18 June, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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Formal learning

core definition

Formal learning is planned learning that derives from activities within a structured learning setting.

explanatory context

Formal learning is enrolling on a programme of study, attending lectures, preparing coursework, engaging in seminar/tutorial discussions.


Formal learning should not be confused with ‘formal learning theory’, which, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy reminds us, is:

the mathematical embodiment of a normative epistemology. It deals with the question of how an agent should use observations about her environment to arrive at correct and informative conclusions. … Terminology. Cognitive science and related fields typically use the term "learning" for the process of gaining information through observation — hence the name "learning theory". To most cognitive scientists, the term "learning theory" suggests the empirical study of human and animal learning stemming from the behaviourist paradigm in psychology. The epithet "formal" distinguishes the subject of this entry from behaviourist learning theory. Because many developments in, and applications of, formal learning theory come from computer science, the term "computational learning theory" is also common. Philosophical terms for learning-theoretic epistemology include "logical reliability" (Kelly, 1996; Glymour, 1991) and "means-ends epistemology" (Schulte, 1999).

analytical review

AEC (2004) defines formal learning as:

Learning typically provided by education or training institutions. It is structured in terms of learning objectives, duration, content, method and assessment and leads to certification.

Merriam & Caffarella (1999, p.21) defines it as:

formal learning takes place in educational institutions and often leads to degrees or credit of some sort.

The PROTEIN Poject (undated) website contrasts formal learning with non-formal and informal learning, drawing on a source it describes as 'A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning, European Commission, Unit E-3', it states:

Formal learning takes place in education and training institutions, leading to recognised diplomas and qualifications.


The PROTEIN Poject goes on to say:

Until now, formal learning has dominated policy thinking, shaping the ways in which education and training are provided and colouring people‘s understandings of what counts as learning. The continuum of lifelong learning brings non-formal and informal learning more fully into the picture. Non-formal learning, by definition, stands outside schools, colleges, training centres and universities. lt is not usually seen as ‘real‘ learning, and nor do its outcomes have much currency value on the labour market. Non-formal learning is therefore typically undervalued.

But informal learning is likely to be missed out of the picture altogether, although it is the oldest form of learning and remains the mainstay of early childhood learning. The fact that microcomputer technology has established itself in homes before it has done so in schools underlines the importance of informal learning. Informal contexts provide an enormous learning reservoir and could be an important source of innovation for teaching and learning methods

associated issues

related areas

See also

nonformal learning

informal learning



Association europeenne des conservatoires [Academies de musique et musikhochschulen] (AEC), 2004, Glossary of terms used in relation to the Bologna Declaration, accessed September 2004. Not available at this address 31 January 2011.

Glymour, C., 1991, ‘The hierarchies of knowledge and the mathematics of discovery’, Minds and Machines 1, pp. 75–95.

Kelly, K., 1996,  The Logic of Reliable Inquiry (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

Merriam, S.B. and Caffarella, R.S., 1999, Learning in Adulthood. 2nd ed., Jossey-Bass.

PROTEIN Project , undated, Definition of formal, non-formal and informal learning available at, accessed 18 July 2012, pge not available 3 January 2017..

Schulte, O., 1999, ‘Means-Ends Epistemology’, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 50, 1–31

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2002, Formal Learning Theory, entry by Oliver Schulte,, (substantive revision 17 February 2017), original accessed,18 July 2012, revised version still available 26 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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