Incidental Learning: Learning Without Trying to Learn


Incidental learning is learning that occurs unintentionally, from activities where learning is not a conscious goal for the learner. For example, when someone plays a sport just for fun, but ends up improving their skills over time, they’re engaging in incidental learning.

Incidental learning can be beneficial in various contexts, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about incidental learning, and see how you can use it yourself, as well as how you can encourage it in others.


Examples of incidental learning

An example of incidental learning in the context of language acquisition is someone who learns new vocabulary words by watching TV in a foreign language for fun. This is contrasted, for example, with someone learning new vocabulary words by intentionally using flashcards in a language-learning app.

In addition, the following are examples of incidental learning in various other domains:

  • A toddler who touches something hot out of curiosity, and learns that it hurts to do so.
  • A kid who plays with other kids for fun, and learns social skills.
  • A person who watches a historical TV show for entertainment, and learns new facts.
  • A teacher who interacts with students as part of the job, and learns how to communicate more effectively.
  • An athlete who watches a competition in their sport for fun, and learns how to perform new moves.
  • An entrepreneur who reads a fiction book to relax, and learns new ways to improve their business.

Note: Incidental learning is crucial in certain contexts, such as the early stages of native language acquisition.


Characteristics of incidental learning

The defining characteristic of incidental learning is the lack of intention to learn by the learner.

Other than that, incidental learning can vary in many ways, such as the following:

  • Learners’ motivation, in terms of whether learners are motivated or unmotivated to learn.
  • Learners’ awareness, in terms of whether learners are aware or unaware of the learning.
  • External awareness, in terms of whether other people (e.g., parents or teachers) are aware or unaware of the learning.
  • External guidance, in terms of whether other people (e.g., parents or teachers) guided the learning (e.g., by providing encouragement or asking questions).


Difference between incidental and intentional learning

Intentional learning is learning that occurs as a result of activities where learning is a deliberate—and often primary—goal for the learner. For example, someone who reads research articles in order to understand a scientific phenomenon is engaging in intentional learning.

The difference between intentional learning and incidental learning is that intentional learning has learning as a deliberate goal, while incidental learning doesn’t. Accordingly, incidental learning is sometimes also referred to as non-intentional learning.

Neither type of learning is inherently better; rather, each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and may be more beneficial for different people under different circumstances. For example, in a situation where a professional in some field needs to quickly understand a deeply technical topic, intentional learning will likely be better. Conversely, in a situation where a relatively unmotivated individual needs to improve some life skills slowly over time, incidental learning might be better.

Finally, note that additional definitions are sometimes used for these types of learning, particularly when it comes to distinguishing between them. For example, one study described incidental learning as learning that is unintentional and that doesn’t involve awareness of the learning itself. Similarly, another study described intentional learning as “learning which occurs as a result of specific training accompanied by instructions to learn”, and stated that incidental learning is distinguished from it “by the absence of any specific training”.


Benefits and drawbacks of incidental learning

There are several potential benefits to incidental learning, compared to intentional learning:

  • It can be more effective, for example if someone lacks confidence in their ability to learn, and consequently avoids intentional learning.
  • It can be more efficient, for example if someone would need to spend a lot of time and effort in order to learn something intentionally, but could learn the same thing easily and automatically through their daily routine.
  • It can be more enjoyable, for example, if someone doesn’t like making an effort to learn things actively, but does enjoy making progress.

Accordingly, incidental learning can sometimes be preferable to intentional learning, which is why it’s often used deliberately in teaching, for example through educational games, which help students learn material in a fun and intuitive way.

However, there are also some potential drawbacks to incidental learning, compared to intentional learning. Specifically, since the potential advantages of incidental learning are highly dependent on situational and personal factors, there are cases where intentional learning is better, in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, or enjoyability, or some combination of them.

Most notably, there are many situations where incidental learning is ineffective, meaning that it won’t enable learners to achieve their desired goals. For example, if a student needs to learn advanced statistical concepts for an exam, it’s unlikely that they will be able to rely on incidental learning in order to do this.

In addition, this also means that there are situations where incidental and intentional learning are better in different ways. For example, this can happen when intentional learning is more effective and efficient, but incidental learning is more enjoyable.

In such cases, it’s important to consider all the potential benefits and drawbacks of each approach, in order to choose the most appropriate one to use. Furthermore, when doing this, it’s important to remember that in many cases, it might not be necessary to choose one form of learning over the other, as the two may be used to complement each other.

Overall, incidental learning is sometimes more effective, efficient, and enjoyable than intentional learning. However, this depends on various factors, so there are situations where intentional learning is better, or where it’s better to use a combination of the two approaches.


How to learn incidentally

Since incidental learning is unintentional, it’s technically impossible to engage in it intentionally. However, from a practical perspective, you can use incidental learning by placing yourself in situations where you can learn without actively trying to learn. For example, if you want to learn a new language, but actively learning it (e.g., through a course) bores you, then you can use incidental learning instead, by engaging in fun activities that involve the language, such as playing video games and watching TV shows, without making an active effort to learn.

When doing this, you can also improve your ability to learn incidentally in various ways. For example, you can eliminate background distractions, to ensure that you focus on the activity from which you will learn, or you can precommit to engaging with that activity, to ensure that you stick with it for enough time.

Finally, when deciding whether and how to use incidental learning, you should also consider using intentional learning, either instead of incidental learning or in addition to it.


How to promote incidental learning in others

There are several ways you can promote incidental learning in others (e.g., if you’re a teacher, mentor, or parent):

  • Teach people directly. For example, if you see someone in a situation where they can learn something but aren’t trying to do so intentionally, simply teach them what they need to know.
  • Help people engage in incidental learning. For example, if a child is in a situation where they might learn something new, you can ask them guiding questions to help them think through what’s happening.
  • Drive people to situations where they can engage in incidental learning. For example, if you want to help someone grow their vocabulary, you can encourage them to read a book that will help.
  • Prompt people to engage in incidental learning. For example, you can explain to someone what incidental learning is, why it’s beneficial, and how they can engage in it, so they can do so on their own.

There are various techniques that you can use to help with these approaches to promoting incidental learning.

For example, you can sometimes benefit from using reverse psychology, which involves getting people to do things by prompting them to do the opposite. This can be helpful, for instance, if you know that someone is completely misinformed about something, but they refuse to listen to what you have to say, so you can prompt them to try and find evidence that will prove you wrong, in order to get them to learn more about the topic.

Similarly, you can take advantage of the protégé effect, which is a psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn that information. This can be helpful, for instance, in a situation where you encourage a gifted but disinterested student to tutor other students in the class, as a way of getting the gifted student to improve their understanding of the material.

Finally, remember that you can combine incidental learning with intentional learning. This can be beneficial, for example, when you use encourage intentional learning initially, to learn key concepts, and then supplement that with incidental learning, to internalize the applications of those concepts.


Incidental teaching

Incidental teaching involves promoting incidental learning in individuals, by teaching them in situations where they’re not trying to learn intentionally. For example, a parent can engage in incidental teaching by reading a history book to their child.

This form of teaching can be used in various situations. For example, it’s used as a naturalistic language intervention, which aids the acquisition of spoken language through naturally occurring adult-child interactions, such as play. Similarly, incidental learning is also used as an intervention that can help autistic people improve their social skills.

The previous section provides insights on how to engage in incidental teaching, and how to promote incidental learning.


Additional information

Incidental learning is closely associated with a number of related concepts, beyond intentional learning.

One such concept is informal learning. In general, informal learning is learning that lacks the defining features of formal learning, such as having a structured curriculum, being taught by designated teachers, and involving assessment or certification of the students. Incidental learning is generally viewed as a subset of informal learning, which is unintentional. As one study notes:

“Informal learning, a category that includes incidental learning, may occur in institutions, but it is not typically classroom-based or highly structured, and control of learning rests primarily in the hands of the learner. Incidental learning is defined as a byproduct of some other activity, such as task accomplishment, interpersonal interaction, sensing the organizational culture, trial-and-error experimentation, or even formal learning. Informal learning can be deliberately encouraged by an organization or it can take place despite an environment not highly conducive to learning. Incidental learning, on the other hand, almost always takes place although people are not always conscious of it…”

— From “Informal and incidental learning” by Marsick & Watkins (2001)

In addition, the concepts of intentional and incidental learning are also associated with implicit and explicit learning:

“In the applied linguistics literature, the terms incidental and intentional learning are sometimes used in connection with the terms implicit and explicit learning. Although the meanings of incidental and implicit learning and the meanings of intentional and explicit learning overlap, they refer to different constructs in different domains of inquiry. The terms implicit and explicit learning are used in current theories of second language acquisition (and in cognitive science in general) to refer to, respectively, the unconscious and conscious learning of facts or regularities in the input materials to which subjects in learning experiments are exposed. In second language acquisition studies, the regularities usually pertain to grammatical phenomena (e.g., a morphosyntactic rule). Implicit knowledge is believed to be spread out over various regions of the neocortex, while explicit knowledge is assumed to reside in a particular area of the brain (the medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus), independent of the areas where implicit knowledge resides. In this (neuro)cognitive domain of scientific inquiry, implicit and explicit learning are sometimes said to take place incidentally and intentionally, but these two labels do not play a crucial role in theoretical accounts of learning, simply because the behaviorist learning theories of the previous century have lost their prominent role.”

— From “Incidental learning in second language acquisition” (Hulstijn, 2012)

Finally, the terms “incidental learning” and “intentional learning” are sometimes used with different meanings in different contexts. This is especially noticeable in the context of experimental settings, compared to educational ones, particularly from a historical perspective:

“The terms incidental and intentional learning were originally used in the middle of the 20th century in the heyday of American behaviorist psychology, conceptualizing learning in terms of stimulus-response contingencies (Postman & Keppel, 1969).

Researchers experimentally investigated human learning by providing human subjects with information (such as a list of words) under two conditions. In the intentional condition, subjects were told in advance that they would afterwards be tested on their recollection of the materials to which they were going to be exposed. Subjects in the incidental condition were not told that they would be later tested. Thus, originally, the terms incidental and intentional learning referred to a methodological feature of learning experiments, pertaining to the absence or presence of a notification whether subjects would be tested after exposure.

Later, psychologists used incidental-learning experiments in combination with different orienting tasks. For instance, Hyde and Jenkins (1973) asked subjects to rate each word in a word list as to their pleasantness (a semantic orienting task) or to record the part of speech of the words (a nonsemantic orienting task). When subjects were later given a surprise recall task (i.e., in an incidental-learning setting), subjects in the semantic condition were able to recall more words than those in the nonsemantic condition.”

— From “Incidental learning in second language acquisition” (Hulstijn, 2012)

Note: incidental learning is also associated with a number of other concepts and terms, including latent learningexperiential learning, and learning “en passant”.


Summary and conclusions

  • Incidental learning is learning that occurs unintentionally, from activities where learning is not a conscious goal for the learner.
  • Examples of incidental learning include someone who learns new words while reading a book for fun, someone who learns social skills while playing with others, and someone who learns historical facts while watching a TV show for entertainment.
  • Incidental learning can be more effective, efficient, and enjoyable than intentional learning, but this is highly dependent on situational and personal factors, and there are cases where intentional learning may be better, in one or more ways.
  • To use incidental learning, place yourself in situations where you can learn without actively trying to learn, and help yourself learn more effectively by doing things such as eliminating background distractions.
  • To promote incidental learning in others, you can teach them directly in an incidental manner, help them engage in incidental learning using techniques such as asking guiding questions, push them to situations where they can engage in incidental learning, or prompt them to engage in incidental learning by explaining what it is and why it’s beneficial.