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Ever sat across from a client or Subject Matter Expert (SME) as they asked you to help create “training,” “education,” and “learning”—all in the same breath? While these terms might sound academic and share some DNA, they’re not interchangeable. They all have slightly different meanings. Failing to clarify and build a shared understanding of these terms with your clients can contribute to misunderstandings and rework later. 

So let’s unpack the meaning of each of these terms—training, education, and learning—and place them into a workplace context. Understanding them will help ensure that you and your clients are on the same page right from the start!

What is training?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives many different definitions for the word “training,” but the most applicable is “to undergo instruction, discipline, or drilling.” And when you look up the synonyms for training, it shows “drill,” “exercise,” and “practice.” 

Hmm. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a pretty clear mental picture of a runner being trained by a coach. Training a runner is the act or process of instructing them to improve their performance. It’s a form of education that’s focused on a defined goal or task—in this case, making it through a marathon and shaving a few minutes off the time. 

Taking an example from a workplace setting: let’s say your sales team needs to learn to use new software to process returns. This is a task-specific goal that can be easily addressed with training. 

What is education?

If training is a form of education, what’s the difference between being trained and being educated?

Turning to my trusty ol’ dictionary once again, we see that “education” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “knowledge and development resulting from the process of being educated.” Development implies a change that happens over time as you absorb knowledge. That means that, unlike training, education isn’t a task-oriented one-off experience.

Another key difference between training and education is that education is more conceptual in nature. The skills and knowledge we acquire through education are often more theoretical and less practical. 

Again, using our new software example, most of us would agree that it’s probably not the best use of company time and resources to send learners who only need to know how to process returned merchandise on a new system to a multi-week, intensive sales education program. 

So, if the goal is discrete and skills-based, like learning new software to perform a task, training is a more appropriate solution than education.

What is learning?

If training is the act or process of formally instructing someone on how to perform a task or perform it more efficiently, and education is the long-term process of developing knowledge, what is learning? 

Learning is the desired outcome of training—and the path to being educated. And the best part of learning is that it happens naturally through life experience. Of course, the likelihood of learning something new can be increased by our environment, upbringing, work, and mindset, among many other factors.   

In a workplace setting, learning occurs when people internalize information or skills, retain it, apply it, and then make additional connections to something else they’ve learned. It’s that connection of knowledge to ideas and experiences all woven together that forms the fabric of learning.

Not only do we learn all the time, people learn in different ways—through formal training or, more often, informally, through their own experiences, or through the shared experiences of others. 

Regardless of how people learn, the process of learning equips them to take on more complex challenges. For instance, if we use our new software training example once again, a team member who’s been successfully trained to use the new software to process returns is a training win. But even better is the employee who’s learned how to marry their knowledge of the new software with their understanding of the latest changes to your company’s 30-day return policy and uses their customer service skills to do what’s right. That kind of layered, dynamic thinking and problem-solving is where training, education, and learning all intersect.


If it feels like the devil is in the details, you’re not wrong! These terms are similar and related but with slightly different meanings that might escape all but the nerdiest of instructional design pros. Understanding these nuances can be helpful for navigating tricky client conversations with ease and confidence.

What other common threads do you see with these terms? Would you define them differently? Let me know with a comment below, or strike up a new conversation in the Building Better Courses forum and hear from all our resident e-learning pros!

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