Leveraging Informal Learning for Interns

Millennials Leveraging Informal Learning

College students spend nine months out of the year learning in a classroom style setting. The last thing they want for their summer internship is to spend the other three months doing the exact same thing.

While it might be more enjoyable for interns to ditch formal learning altogether, developing new skills in the workplace is crucial, especially for these younger workers trying to fine-tune their abilities. Striking the balance between intern engagement and effective learning can be difficult, but by leveraging social learning in the internship setting, such a balance can easily be achieved, avoiding the summer-school atmosphere altogether.

Of professional learning styles, formal learning is the most widely instituted. While there is no industry-accepted definition, formal learning is generally regarded as any type of learning in which the organization or institution controls the direction of objectives; its counterpart, informal learning, occurs when the learner controls the direction of objectives. Employee handbooks, company-sponsored seminars and workshops all fall into the category of formal learning. Self-directed or communal tasks often result in informal learning.

Millennials seem to have earned a bad reputation in the business world, with many brushing them off as lazy, self-centered, or uninterested. However, in many cases the problem isn’t that millennial-aged interns are lazy, it’s that they are bored with their learning environment. Formal learning is a way of the past for millennials, and their need for independence is best met with space for self-guided learning. The same college-aged interns who have spent most of their lives online can be easily engaged through a balance of formal learning tasks, with informal learning style independence. There isn’t much that a millennial can’t learn on their own, and this type of self-directed learning is often something that many have already been doing for years in and out of the classroom.

In order to effectively engage interns through informal learning, there are a few things that need to be kept in mind. Three main principles work in harmony to decide how an intern will learn in the workplaces, but too much or too little of any particular principle is the recipe for a bored, uninterested intern. The balances to focus on are:

  • Structure vs Independence: If there’s a task to complete, give them space to do it, but make sure they have enough to work on at a time, without becoming bored. Millennials have the power of the internet on their side, which they can use to finish tasks quickly and independently, but without supervision, Facebook and Twitter will inevitably pop up.
  • Independence vs Feedback: Having grown up in the world of participation trophies and all-inclusiveness, Millennials need quick and relatively constant feedback. Use short emails, instant messaging, and even twitter-style micro-feedback systems to keep interns on-track and focused.
  • Feedback vs Structure: Micromanagement is a surefire way to smother your intern, and in turn squash productivity. Ensure that feedback is present, but not so overbearing as to control every aspect of the intern’s day. Remember, the idea is to let interns guide themselves, rather than guiding interns. Think “gold star” instead of “to-do list”.

When the perfect balance between structure, feedback, and independence is achieved, millennial interns can flourish, and self-directed learning will come even more naturally than it already does.

Lily Vlach