Intentional Learning: Setting Learning as a Deliberate Goal


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.

It can be beneficial to understand intentional learning, in order to better understand how people learn, as well as how to optimize learning and teaching. As such, in the following article you will learn more about intentional learning, and see how you can engage in it yourself, as well as how you can promote it in others.


Examples of intentional learning

An example of intentional learning is when someone who wants to learn a new language reads a book in that language and looks up new words that they encounter, in order to improve their vocabulary. This is contrasted, for instance, with a situation where the same learner picks up new words while talking with someone in the target language, without attempting to actively learn new vocabulary.

In addition, other examples of intentional learning appear in various domains of life. For instance, the following are all examples of people engaging in intentional learning:

  • A student who asks their teacher about a mathematical concept, because they want to understand it better.
  • A novice athlete who watches an expert perform a move, because they want to know how to do it too.
  • A programmer who reads a book about a new programming language, because they want to understand it.


Common characteristics of intentional learning

The defining characteristic of intentional learning is that it involves learning as a deliberate—and often primary—goal. However, intentional learning often also involves the following common characteristics:

  • Motivation to learn. This motivation can be intrinsic, such as when a learner wants to understand a certain concept better for the sake of knowing more, or extrinsic, such as when a student wants to understand a concept better so they can get a good grade.
  • Specific learning goals. For example, a learner may read a statistics book with the goal of learning about a specific concept that they’re interested in.
  • Attempts to improve the learning process. For example, this can involve using various learning strategies, such as interleaving and reflection, in order to make the learning process more effective.
  • Analytical engagement with relevant material. For example, this can involve actively trying to analyze new things that one encounters, as opposed to relying only on one’s intuition.

Accordingly, intentional learning is associated with learning that’s active and autonomous, and that involves planning, executing, and monitoring one’s learning process. Accordingly, intentional learners often engage in the following actions as part of the learning process:

  • Questioning things such as experiences and facts, including through deep questions that go beyond superficial clarifications.
  • Organizing new knowledge and ideas into useful systems of facts, concepts, and principles that the learner can use, while enhancing the learner’s understanding of what they’ve learned.
  • Connecting new and old knowledge, and integrating what is learned into broad patterns of understanding.
  • Reflecting on what, how, and why the learner is learning, while seeking to understand their needs, abilities, and preferences, and formulating plans regarding which learning strategies to use.
  • Adapting to new situations and needs.


Difference between intentional and incidental learning

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.

The difference between intentional learning and incidental learning is that intentional learning has learning as a deliberate goal, while incidental learning doesn’t. 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 of intentional learning

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

  • It can be more effective, for example if a student needs to learn an advanced mathematical concept for an exam, which they’ll be unable to learn incidentally.
  • It can be more efficient, for example if someone can easily learn a certain concept in an intentional manner, but will need to spend much more time and effort to learn the same concept incidentally.
  • It can be more enjoyable, for example if someone enjoys actively engaging in the learning process.

However, there are also situations where intentional learning is less effective, efficient, or enjoyable than incidental learning, so incidental learning is preferable. Furthermore, there are situations where neither type of learning is preferable to the other, for example because one type of learning is more effective but the other is more efficient.


How to learn intentionally

The key to engaging in intentional learning is to set learning as a deliberate goal when you engage in some activity. However, there are several things that you can do beyond this, in order to make your intentional learning as effective as possible.

First, you can encourage the main antecedents of intentional learning. These include recognizing and developing your need to learn, your motivation to learn, and your belief in your ability to learn. By doing this, you can increase the likelihood that you will stick with intentional learning, and also improve your ability to do so.

Second, you can clearly identify your goals. This can involve, for example, figuring out what concepts you’re trying to learn, how well you want to understand them, and by when you want to learn this. When doing this, it can help to consider what you do and don’t know, and what you’re especially curious about or could benefit from knowing. In addition, it can help to focus on cognitive goals, such as what you want to learn, rather than on task goals, such as what grade you want to earn.

Third, you can plan your learning. This can involve, for example, figuring out where and when you will learn, and which learning strategies you will use. When doing this, there are several things you should keep in mind:

  • Your plan should fit you and your circumstances. Specifically, you should account for both personal factors, such as your strengths and weaknesses as a learner, as well as for situational factors, such as the circumstances under which you’ll learn.
  • You can usually modify your plan over time. For example, if you find ways to improve the learning process as you make progress, then you can modify your plan accordingly, and there’s generally no need to stick with an initial plan if you know that you can improve it.
  • The planning stage shouldn’t be overwhelming or serve as a way to procrastinate. Ultimately, the goal of planning is to facilitate your learning, so if it becomes a hindrance, you should either change the way you plan, or move directly to learning. Note that you don’t have to plan everything perfectly from the start, and that it’s fine to have some gaps in planning or to make some mistakes along the way.

In addition, you can also use techniques that encourage intentional learning. These can involve, for example, actively questioning information that you encounter, going through information multiple times while examining different layers of it each time, and prioritizing knowledge-building over rote repetition of material. In doing this, it can be beneficial to engage in reflective learning, by actively monitoring and assessing your knowledge, abilities, and performance during the learning process.

Overall, the key to intentional learning is to set learning as a deliberate goal, but you can make it more effective by doing things such as increasing your belief in your ability to learn, increasing your motivation to learn, identifying your goals, planning your learning, and using effective learning strategies (e.g., questioning information you encounter).


How to promote intentional learning in others

Because intentional learning can be beneficial, particularly in educational contexts, you may want to actively promote it in others. This might be the case, for example, if you’re a teacher who wants to promote intentional learning in your students, a coach who wants to promote it in your athletes, or a parent who wants to promote it in your kids.

There are many similarities between how you should promote intentional learning in others and how you promote it in yourself. Accordingly, the following are the key things that you can do to promote intentional learning in others:

  • Develop the antecedents of intentional learning. This includes helping people recognize the need for learning, helping them increase their motivation to learn, and helping them develop a belief in their ability to learn.
  • Help learners clearly identify their goals. For example, this can involve helping them figure out what concepts they want to learn, and how well they want to understand those concepts. In doing this, it can help to encourage people to consider what they do and don’t know, and what they’re especially curious about or could benefit from knowing. In addition, it can help to have them focus on cognitive goals, such as what they want to learn, rather than on task goals, such as what grade they want to earn.
  • Help learners plan their learning. For example, this can involve helping people figure out where and when they’re going to learn, and which learning strategies they will use. When doing this, encourage them to create a plan that takes into account their personal and situational factors, while noting that the plan doesn’t need to be perfect, and can usually be improved later if necessary.
  • Encourage the use of effective learning strategies. This can involve, for example, encouraging students to actively question new information and go over it multiple times.

The way you should promote intentional learning depends on factors such as your role, the number of learners you’re trying to help, and the attributes of the learners. For example, if you’re working with a large group of autonomous learners, you might only need to give them general guidance on what intentional learning is and how to engage in it, whereas if you’re working individually with someone who’s isn’t autonomous in their learning, you will likely need to give them much more help.

In addition to the above, there are further things that you can do in order to promote effective intentional learning in people. For example, you can make knowledge-construction activities overt, by explicitly discussing problem-solving as a key deliberate stage of learning. You can also treat gaps in knowledge in a generally positive way, by viewing them as opportunities to learn, rather than failures.

Finally, remember that you can combine intentional and incidental learning. As such, consider using these forms of learning in a complementary manner, for example by focusing on intentional learning when doing so is most advantageous, and relying on incidental learning during other times. Furthermore, keep in mind that incidental learning may be more beneficial in some situations, and when this is the case, it may be preferable to rely on it entirely, rather than on intentional learning.

Overall, to encourage intentional learning in others, you should help people recognize the need to learn, increase their motivation to do so, and develop their belief in their ability to learn, while also helping them identify their goals, plan their learning, and use effective learning strategies. In addition, you can also make knowledge-construction activities overt, treat gaps in knowledge in a generally positive way, and encourage the complementary use of incidental learning.


Intrinsic and extrinsic triggers for intentional learning

Intentional learning can be triggered by both extrinsic and intrinsic factors:

  • Extrinsic factors come from outside the learner, as in the case of a teacher who explains why a certain topic is important.
  • Intrinsic factors come from the learner themself, as in the case of the learner being inherently interested in a certain field.

Though both extrinsic and intrinsic factors can lead to effective intentional learning, intrinsic factors can sometimes be preferable, particularly in the long term, so you should consider finding ways to promote them where possible.


Related types of learning

There are several types of learning that relate to intentional learning, beyond incidental learning.

A key related type of learning is autonomous learning. In the paper that popularized intentional learning, these two types of learning were contrasted as follows:

“Thomas and Rohwer (1986) propose the term autonomous learning with much the same meaning. We prefer intentional learning, however, because autonomous unfortunately suggests freedom from external direction. We think it is important to be clear (and in their discussion of the topic Thomas and Rohwer are clear) that the kind of learning we are talking about can occur, and indeed should occur, in both self-directed and teacher-directed learning situations.”

— From “Intentional learning as a goal of instruction” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989)

Furthermore, the concepts of intentional and incidental learning are associated with those of 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)

In addition, the terms “intentional learning” and “incidental 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)

Finally, note that there are various other types of related learning styles, such as planned learning and self-initiated learning, that share some similarities with intentional learning.


Summary and conclusions

  • Intentional learning is learning that occurs as a result of activities where learning is a deliberate—and often primary—goal for the learner.
  • Compared to unintentional (incidental) learning, intentional learning can sometimes be more effective, efficient, and enjoyable, though there are also situations where incidental learning can be better in one or more of these regards.
  • Whether intentional or incidental learning is preferable depends on various personal and situational factors, and there are situations where a combination of the two is the best solution.
  • To engage in intentional learning, you can increase your belief in your ability to learn, increase your motivation to learn, identify your goals, plan your learning, and use effective learning strategies; you can also use similar techniques to promote intentional learning in others.
  • When planning intentional learning, make sure that the plan takes into account relevant personal and situational factors, that you improve it if necessary as you progress, and that the planning doesn’t become overwhelming or serve as a way to procrastinate.