Characteristics of incidental learning - Deepstash

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Characteristics of incidental learning

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

Ways incidental learning can vary. Incidental learning depends on:

  • Whether learners are motivated to learn.
  • Whether learners are aware of the learning.
  • Whether other people such as parents or teachers are aware of the learning.
  • Whether other people are guiding the learning by providing encouragement or asking questions.

How to learn incidentally

How to learn incidentally

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 a course bores you, engage in activities such as video games and watching TV shows without actively trying to learn.

Examples of incidental learning

Examples of incidental learning

  • Instead of using flashcards, someone learns new vocabulary words by watching TV in a foreign language for fun.
  • A toddler who touches something hot out of curiosity learns that it hurts to do so.
  • A kid who plays with other kids for fun learns social skills incidentally.
  • A teacher who interacts with students as part of the job learns how to communicate more effectively.
  • An athlete who watches competitions in their sport for fun learns how to perform new moves.
  • An entrepreneur who reads a fiction book to relax learns new ways to improve their business.

Incidental learning vs intentional learning

Incidental learning vs intentional learning

  • Incidental learning is learning that happens unintentionally from activities. For example, when someone plays a sport for fun but ends up improving their skills over time.
  • Intentional learning happens due to activities where learning is a deliberate and primary goal.

Neither type of learning is inherently better. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages and may be useful for different people under different circumstances.

Techniques to promote incidental learning

Techniques to promote incidental learning

  • Reverse psychology involves getting people to do things by prompting them to do the opposite. For example, if someone is misinformed about something and won't listen to you, encourage them to find evidence that will prove you wrong.
  • Protégé effect, where teaching, pretending to teach or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn that information. Encourage a disinterested student to tutor other students.
  • Combine incidental learning with intentional learning. For example, teaching key concepts after the learner learned something incidentally.

Incidental teaching

Incidental teaching

Incidental teaching involves teaching individuals in situations they're not trying to learn, such as a parent reading a historical novel to their child.

This form of teaching can be used in various situations, for example, as a naturalistic language intervention through adult-child interactions, such as play. Incidental learning is also used to help autistic people improve their social skills.

How to promote incidental learning in others

  • Teach people directly. If someone can learn something but don't try to do so intentionally, simply teach them what they need to know.
  • Help people engage in incidental learning. Ask guided questions to help someone in a situation to think through what's happening.
  • Drive people to situations where they can engage in incidental learning. If you want to help someone grow their vocabulary, encourage them to read or read intention-grabbing books to them.
  • Prompt people to engage in incidental learning. Explain to someone what incidental learning is, why it’s beneficial, and how they can engage in it.

Benefits and drawbacks of incidental learning

Benefits of incidental learning:

  • It can be more effective, for example, if someone avoids intentional learning because they lack confidence in their ability to learn.
  • It can be more efficient. For example, someone could learn something quickly and automatically through their daily routine instead of intentionally spending time and effort learning it.
  • It can be more enjoyable. For example, playing Scrabble is more enjoyable for learning to spell than memorising lists.

There are also situations where incidental learning is ineffective, such as learning specific concepts for an exam.

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