Formal and non-formal learning spaces

This briefing introduces ideas about the relationship between formal and non-formal learning spaces and explains why this is important to student-centred teaching practice.

What are formal and non-formal learning spaces?

Learning space is usually described as being either formal or informal. Informal learning space has many meanings, and this causes confusion and ultimately makes it difficult to think about what good joined up conceptions of learning space look like. This briefing, therefore, particularly explores this and clarifies learning in terms of formal and non-formal spaces; breaking down the latter.

The following definitions (Middleton, 2018) help,

  • Formal learning space – provided for scheduled teaching and learning;
  • Non-formal learning space – the spectrum of spaces beyond the formal learning space to support non-scheduled learning, including those offered by support services, information commons, and learning hubs and connecting spaces (Dugdale, 2009) for breakout learning activities, independent study, working alongside, group study, networking, and socialising.

The latter is informed by a conception of non-formal learning (Eraut, 2000) who identifies ‘deliberative learning’ for which time is set aside,  ‘reactive learning that is near spontaneous, and ‘implicit learning’ that gives rise to tacit knowledge. Other useful ways of thinking about learning and the space it needs include incidental learning (Marsick & Watkins, 2001) which acknowledges the value of serendipitous opportunities, and connective space and in-between learning. These last ideas indicate that non-formal learning space needs to be designed so that students feel a sense of ownership over it so that individually and collectively it supports their out-of-class needs.

Adjacent space

Adjacent space is the space in proximity to the formal classrooms, labs and lecture theatres you use for teaching. They are spaces where students wait before class or pause after class. In some cases, students will gravitate to these spaces if they associate them with their course. They will expect to find peers and friends there, and they can be convenient for group work and informal tutor conversations. The idea of learning hub refers to situations where, in some buildings, these types of meeting spaces have been designed in as extensions to formal space.

In active learning, break out spaces are used during formal teaching time. Activities often require more space than is available in the classroom. It makes sense sometimes to send some groups to other spaces close-by. This gives the class extra space which can help everyone focus. It ensures that groups have the space they need to think and act in ways that they deem to be fitting.

Learning Zones

Zoning learning space feels more like something that a university’s facilities team might do, but it is a useful concept for academics to explore because the ideas can help a team to develop a rich picture of what learning means and how this is different to teaching, and it helps them to obtain some agency over them.

Why does it matter?

Knowing how students learn and what conditions help them, as individuals, is important for academics. For example,

  • If you plan to use group work, how do you imagine the group members working together and learning in-between class? If you have expectations for in-between class learning, how clear are these to your students? How feasible is this if, for example, a group is made up from a mix of local and commuter students?
  • If you plan to provide feedback on an assignment in digital form, such as audio feedback, where do imagine each student will be when they receive it and how do you expect the students will note and act upon the feedback.

Engaging in learning, especially independent and self-directed learning, is closely affected by space.

What can I do?

Here are some things to think about that may help you to engage your students as effective autonomous learners,

  • Ask your studentrs about how they learn and where they learn best.
  • As part of your assignment briefings, and in academic advising sessions, discuss with your students what you expect them to do and where they will do it so that they know what is possible, realistic and helpful for getting work done.
  • Discuss with colleagues where they think students go to learn. Consider whether there is a space that works for informal gathering – a place that academics and students might call ‘home’. This place could be online too.
  • Consider whether there are activities you can take out of the classroom to heighten associations between space and learning in the student group.
  • Consider how personal smart devices help to connect students across spaces in real time or over time. What could this mean to your course and its sense of belonging, identity and community? For example, you could explore using Google+ communities, Yammer or Facebook Groups as learning hubs.
  • Can you and your colleagues create a picture of what your course learning zone is or might be? This could lead to all kinds of useful conversations about learning activities, developing course identity and belonging, and requests to Facilities Directorate.

Further information


Dugdale, S. (2009). ‘Space Strategies for the New Learning Landscape’, Educause Review, 44(2). Online at:

Eraut, M. (2000). Non-formal learning and tacit knowledge in professional work. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 113 – 136

Middleton (2018, forthcoming). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave MacMillan.