Title page for ETD etd-10162007-224008

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Silva, Polly M.
URN etd-10162007-224008
Title Epistemology of Incidental Learning
Degree PhD
Department Human Development
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Callahan, Jamie L. Committee Co-Chair
Wiswell, Albert K. Committee Co-Chair
Boyle, Jon Committee Member
Combs, Paul William Committee Member
  • Incidental Learning
  • Workplace Learning
Date of Defense 2007-10-01
Availability unrestricted
The study explored incidental learning in the workplace. Three research questions guided the study:

1. What is the nature of incidental learning in the workplace?

2. How does professional context impact incidental learning?

3. How do incidental learners know they know in the workplace?

A series of three interviews were done with seven human resource professionals and with seven engineers following Seidman’s phenomenological interview protocol. The first interview focused on the participant’s life history concentrating on the context of the participant’s early learning experiences and their professional choices. The second interview provided details of the participant’s current incidental learning experiences and an example of their current professional tasks. The third interview provided an opportunity for the participants and me to explore the meaning of their experiences.

Analysis of individual experiences was done via profiles, and an analysis of thematic findings was done across all participants.

Findings showed that in the “lived world” the experience of the participants and the nature of incidental learning is mediated by the individual’s conception of learning and by the individual’s learning style. At a professional level, frames and reflection-in and on-action further guide the focus of and validation of the incidental learning. For the researcher – and perhaps for co-workers or for participants themselves – incidental learning is easy to overlook; lessons learned often appear to be simply common sense after the fact. This may, in part, be due to the fact that the stories of incidental learning ultimately had successful outcomes. This study confirmed and expanded the importance and impact of context on incidental learning, showing how the elements of an individual’s personal and professional context also impact incidental learning.

Recommendations for future research and implications for practice were provided. Recommendations for future research included: replicating the study to explore incidental learning in more professions and to explore of the impact of formal higher education on incidental learning. Process recommendations include studying incidental learning as an adjunct to other studies of organizational learning and as a part of an action research project. These methods allow the researcher to study the construct indirectly and as it happens.

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