Training vs. learning – the difference

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Two of my previous blog posts have been about learning & development, a topic I’m very passionate about. Besides talking about resources to support L&D at work, I also wanted to talk about the difference between training and learning, and why it’s important to distinguish the two.

Learning can happen in many different ways, and it doesn’t have to take place during a formal training. On the other hand, training is a specific point in time at which a teaching is delivered or knowledge is imparted. In general, a training session also follows a set structure rather than being ad-hoc, with a specific outcome set for the end of the session.

Both learning and training are important, but I believe that understanding the (subtle) differences helps to better adapt the way we think about L&D. It’s particularly important to think of these differences if you deliver a training so you can think about what might make it most effective for those in front of you. Similarly, if you are in charge of L&D for your company, you will want to know the different ways you can support people in their training.


Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge or skills on a certain topic. You can learn to do all sorts of things: just think about your childhood! How many different activities did you try? Not to mention the development phases from childhood to adulthood including learning speech & motor skills.

As a professional, I tend to view learning as an active process: you’ve taken an interest in something and you’re actively trying to gain an understanding of how it works, or of a specific topic. You’re trying things out, consciously doing brain gymnastics.

There are different ways you can learn: some might be more self taught, whilst some might be more formal. You may decide to take a course, go back to university or attend a training. But the desire to learn has to come from you – even when it comes down to on the job learning.


Training is the process of sharing knowledge with others, or teaching them how to do something new. In essence someone is responsible for delivering the training to others – which is why I tend to consider attending a training as more “passive”. You spend your time listening to what that person has to say (this can vary depending on how interactive the session is).

As I had to deliver my first trainings at work, it really forced me to think about how I could make it valuable to the person I was teaching. Similarly, I started to ask myself what I had enjoyed about particular trainings I’d attended in the past to see if there was anything I could replicate. One of the most important things was for the trainer to be engaging and convincing, someone who was good at presenting and passionate about their subject.

But the truth is, even sitting in front of a good presenter, anything longer than a 2h training starts to be intense. Not only that, but as I was thinking about the trainings I had to deliver, I was wondering what the best way would be to ensure people actually learnt the skills and took on ownership – rather than me sitting there telling them what to do.

Learning styles

If you’re going to deliver a training, or if you’re responsible for L&D, it’s important to consider that everyone learns differently. What works for you probably doesn’t work for others. Some people have a visual memory, whilst others learn best by repeating, and sometimes you may even have a crossover in different styles.

The are a variety of different learning models that have been developed over the years, but some of the most frequently cited learning styles are:

Of course this is not an exact science, especially considering that learning styles have been the cause of some debate. But nonetheless it’s safe to say that people have different ways of interiorising knowledge and acquiring new skills.

If you are going to deliver a training, make sure you think of adapting it to your audience. If possible, try to make it interactive so they are not passive. You don’t want to be telling people what to do as if they were robots.

For a long time professional trainings have been a replica of what we have known in school: people sitting in an auditorium listening to an expert. And while that can be effective in some cases, it’s time we started adapting. We should stop seeing learning & development as another box to check without putting much thought into it, and consider it as an active part of someone’s career path and professional development. It should be something we look forward to.

As a trainer but also as a manager, ask yourself: do you want to simply tell people what to do, or do you want them to really take ownership of the task at hand? That they aren’t just mindlessly repeating what they saw?

These are the reasons why I wanted to make the distinction between learning & training, as while they are linked I still feel that the subtle nuances make the difference between a good and a bad experience. Between something you will remember and something that goes in one ear and out the other.

Do you feel there’s a difference between the two? What has your experience been of L&D at work?

Published by emmacdo

Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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