Can non-formal learning be measured?

Non-formal learning, when designed in combination with formal and informal learning, can make it easier for talent professionals to measure contributions to the business.

Talent professionals know that one-and-done training doesn’t work. We’ve moved on to blended learning, learning journeys and learning clusters so we can chunk content into a more digestible bites of spaced learning delivered over time. If we are willing to navigate further into the murky area of non-formal learning, we can still measure success.

Why non-formal learning?

There are three commonly considered forms of learning: formal, informal and non-formal.

  • Formal learning occurs in a structured, systemic way. This is what talent managers primarily focus on. We foster formal learning through formal training, such as classes and courses. We focus on formal training because it is what we are asked to provide, it’s a tangible product, and it allows for easier tracking of pre/post-event learning and skill development.
  • Informal learning is something talent managers are aware of, but typically are uninvolved with, because we believe we can’t influence and measure it. This type of learning tends to happen serendipitously as learners engage in activities done with a purpose other than for learning, such as talking with others, browsing online or volunteering in a community role.
  • Non-formal learning, sometimes called informal intentional learning, takes place with guidance, but outside the formal learning environment and without being governed by an assessment or accreditation. Think of book clubs, guided self-learning programs, mentoring and job shadowing. These might include built-in rubrics, reflection tools, job aids and progression assessments. We in talent management may be avoiding non-formal training because we view it as more variable, harder to control for successful outcomes, and therefore, harder to measure.

Even though our days are full trying to meet the formal training needs, non-formal learning assets can help us deliver more for the business and employees – and we can prove that it works with effective measurement objectives.

Non-formal learning benefits

Before we dig into non-formal learning measurements, let’s look briefly at the benefits of designing non-formal learning assets, including lower talent development (TD) staffing needs, increased employee learning, increased knowledge retention and improved workplace performance.

  1. TD staffing: Designing non-formal training can take less time because the design is more skeletal in nature, with the learners’ environment fleshing out the details. Further, non-formal learning tends to be something we design, deploy and let it run, as it continues to deliver for our learners. We must check in on it occasionally, unlike synchronous and asynchronous classes and courses, which require dedicated staff for delivery and regular updates to stay current.
  2. Employee learning: Learning research tells us that people learn better when content is in smaller bites, spaced over time, with application. Formal learning by its nature doesn’t do this, but a scattering of non-formal learning assets thrown into the mix can help.
  3. Knowledge retention: People might read, watch and consider many topics, but will performance improve? Well-designed non-formal learning helps learners retain what they learned by encouraging such things as reflection, application activities, goal setting and periodic self-assessments.
  4. Workplace performance: Because non-formal learning happens outside the confines of formal learning space and time, it is more conducive to practice and give feedback in the workplace itself. Given that the goal of any workplace learning program is to improve on-the-job behavior and performance, non-formal learning is a natural fit to help talent management and employees meet their workplace goals.

How can we measure non-formal learning?

When we design learning assets, learning professionals start with learning objectives. Learning objectives are wonderful for keeping instructional designers focused on the end goal and for communicating with learners what they can expect from a learning program. Our typical structure is “By the end of this course, you will be able to ….” We can measure and prove that learners meet these objectives by building in end-of-course activities or tests.

To do the same thing for nonformal learning, apply a concept from the Learning Cluster Design (LCD) model – a strategic performance objective (SPO). It describes behaviors learners will take in the workplace, as a result of learning — actions that will positively impact a business measure. While the template for an SPO is similar to a traditional learning objective, it goes further by going outside the formal environment and linking the desired business result to a change in on-the-job behavior. Here is the template:

Figure 1: SPO Template
(from the Learning Cluster Design Model)

Once the SPO is agreed upon, instructional designers can focus on crafting a learning asset that guides people to learn on their own in a way that is consistent with their workplace context. Next, design a tool to measure for the desired behavior. For example, provide learners with a self-assessment tool, ask managers of learners for a pre/post-assessment or track the change digitally with help of the IT department or other online systems. These measurement tools are often simply tangible variations of the information already gathered to define ideal performance. The difference is the ideal performance information is being shared with learners and not just the instructors and designers. Here is an example:

The Ontime Project Delivery Project. The company was losing customers due to repeated inability of project teams to meet the project deadlines. The SPO:

By improving project time management (skill) for project teams (learners) the business will reduce late project deliveries by 70 percent (KPI). Expected changes to on-the-job behavior include:
a) all project managers using the online Stage Gate software (SGS);
b) team members access their projects on the SGS at least weekly,
c) in project meetings, team members commit to deadlines only after checking the SGS, and
d) project managers regularly update senior leaders on schedule, including specific requests for resources to address unexpected critical path issues that threaten on-time delivery.

The formal, informal and non-formal learning assets designed to meet this SPO include:


  • Class on SGS with videos by senior leader describing the criticality of on-time delivery, plus an overview of the software and practice with built-in performance support features.


  • SGS access tracking form for team members and project managers to answer the following questions: 1) How often do you think you accessed the SGS this past week? 2) Is this more or less than last week? And why? 3) What are your plans for accessing SGS for next week? and 4) What have you discovered or realized as a result of your use of the SGS? Filling in the online form is mandatory for four weeks following training to get a completion badge (though it is not graded) and is voluntary thereafter.


  • SGS job aid for project managers provides advice on how to confirm that team members are reasonably confident in the schedule commitments based on checking the SGS and how to identify red flags that need to be elevated to senior leaders.
  • On time project delivery online forum where project managers and team members can pose questions and solutions about the software and how to think about project schedules and commitments.

Imagine everyone’s delight when the percentage of on-time projects improves within 6 months after each department rolls out this training solution. These numbers encourage previously reluctant departments to quickly deploy the same training.

Note that the SPO measures the combination of learning assets, not just the formal event. As Mosher and Gottfredson said in their 2011 book “Innovative Performance Support,” “There is a huge gap between mastering content delivered in a learning event and being able to apply that content in an effective and productive way on the job.” By using the higher order strategic performance objective to measure the overall impact of formal, informal and non-formal learning, we are better able to show how learning programs are delivering business results.

Note too, in this example, the impact on TD staffing, employee learning, knowledge retention and workplace performance. TD staff could roll out an overview course plus some templates and job aids faster than they could roll out their standard two-day class to teach time management and scheduling. Employees learn over time, with reminders for the first four weeks, ongoing from the team’s project manager, and further learning through the online forum where they could post their own learnings and gain from others’ posts. Knowledge retention improves with reflection, application activities, goal setting and periodic self-assessments. And workplace performance changes as behaviors change, to deliver what the business needs.

When to design formal, informal or non-formal

Instead of focusing our design efforts on formal training and adding in other things, consider designing learning clusters instead. A learning cluster is a group of learning assets that take into account what each primary learner persona needs. While developing a learning cluster that consists of formal, informal and non-formal learning assets, it helps to identify learner needs by keeping in mind Mosher & Gottfredson’s “Five Moments of Learning Need.” Here is a map of the learning cluster for the above example.

Learning Assets (by Personas)
Project Manager Project Team Members Learning Type 5 Moments of Learning Need*
Overview Class Overview Class Formal New
SGS Tracking SGS Tracking Non Formal More
SGS Job Aid Online Forum; PM coaching Informal Apply
Online Forum Online Forum Informal Solve
Online Forum Online Forum Informal Change

Non-formal learning, when designed and measured in combination with formal and informal learning, can make it easier to measure contributions to the business. The strategic performance objective is the key. The SPO establishes our focus, aligns our multiple learning assets to observable on-the-job behavior change, and prompts us to build in measures that demonstrate how the learning cluster delivers employee and business success.