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  • Writer's pictureColleen Nelson

Personal Development - Formal and Informal Learning

Learning is an important part of Personal Development. Before you start planning your learning path, I recommend reading through Personal Development - Self Discovery ( You may also find Personal Development - Finding Your Fit ( helpful in looking for the company you will want to work for. I recommend starting there and then coming to review this post. Having a solid understanding of yourself and a good company fit will make building your learning path more effective.

Building a meaningful learning path will involve research, commitment, and adaptability. It is important to explore formal and informal learning options. Integrating both forms or learning will require you to stay committed to work you cannot see and constantly review your plan to adjust your timeline.

Formal Learning

Formal learning is a structured format where there is a presenter of prepared material who is sharing their knowledge with at least one other person. From the learner’s perspective this form of learning is an efficient way to learn more on a specific topic. It is focused on conveying facts making it very one dimensional.

University / College

Universities or colleges may seem the most obvious path for learning. For some career paths you may find out you need a traditional bachelor’s degree or more. Some career paths may ask that you have an associate's degree. These learning institutions offer a variety of options to learn. From full-time course load to night classes, and then to online learning. You may also find an offering for certification programs. If you are looking for somethings specific talk to an admission counselor who can help you build a learning path to make the most of your time and money.

Trade Program

Trad programs offer a learning environment specified to learning a specific trade skill. The intent is to teach you what you need to learn and then get you out into the workforce for that trade. If your career requires completion of one of these programs, then getting enrolled and starting classes is an obvious first step.


Some professions require certification programs. This is something a career counselor can help you identify or even a simple google search. These can be in person or online. Many of them require a testing process to complete the certification. Some will require documented project work that is observed by a certified professional in the field. Be aware of your time commitment and the timeline for these courses and plan accordingly.

Continued Learning

The professions that require a specific type of certification or degree may also require continuing learning credits each year. You can often find a professional network to join who will host lunch and learn sessions or conferences where you can attend and gain these learning opportunities. You may be able to find some of these courses as online learning opportunities. As you are deciding or even entering.

Informal Learning

Informal learning is a more organic and multidimensional way of learning. The content is usually not prepared or focused on one area. Informal learning typically takes content already learning in a formal setting and puts it in an applied setting. Rather than learning facts this is a great way to learn soft skills.


Having a mentor can be an incredibly effective way to learn from someone who is already in the field you want to work in. They can also give you guidance from a more advanced position in the field you are working in. To obtain a mentor you should first identify someone who performs their work in a way you want to emulate. When contacting a potential-mentor explain the strength they have that you want to grow for yourself. If the mentor agrees set up a schedule and timebox the length of the engagement. Mentoring can be a learning experience for both the mentor and the mentee.


If you are considering your next job opportunity shadowing can give you great insight. Asking a person, you respect to allow you to shadow them for a day lets you see firsthand what is involved in that job. You may find your perception of a job is very different than the reality. You can experience firsthand the good and the bad while asking questions to someone who does this work every day. When asking someone to shadow them explain why the role interests you. Set a date and time to meet.


While mentoring and shadowing can be a time investment for another person, a secondary option would be allowing you to interview them. This can be set up for an hour or even two over coffee or a meal. The key to this form of learning is to research ahead of time and build a list of strong open-ended questions. A strong question is one that will encourage the interviewee to share a story or further elaborate on a key topic. Coming away from the interview you should have a list of actions to enhance your personal development.

Special Project

Talk with your direct supervisor to find out if there are upcoming projects or initiatives in a team or department of interest. This will require a long-term commitment of your time. But these projects allow you to have some hands-on learning, build connections with other employees, and gives you an opportunity to learn about other departments. These projects also allow you to contribute to the company beyond your day-to-day work.

As you are planning your development find ways to incorporate formal and informal learning opportunities. Be honest about the time you must commit. If you spread yourself too thin you will not do any of them well. You want to allow yourself time to reflect and digest the experience. I recommend building out a two-to-five-year learning plan. As you build out this plan create milestones by planting key questions for yourself. These questions should be focused on decisions you want to make by that point in your plan.

Take sometime today with a blank slate and layout options for each of the above forms of learning. Start to build your path based on resources available and what excites you. Then, start your learning adventure!

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