Shaping change such that it avoids losing potentially useful options for future development is a challenging task in the face of complex, coevolving socio-ecological systems. Sustainability appraisal methods, which open up dialogue and options before closing down and making suggestions, pay attention to the inclusion of various and conflicting points of view and address uncertainty, are increasingly used in the science, environment and energy policy domains. The quality of the process is seen as key to high quality appraisal outcomes. Dimensions of quality include learning opportunities which are seen as ways for addressing complexity and uncertainty. Participatory sustainability appraisal methods intend to support social learning among participants. Despite high expectations, social learning processes in sustainability appraisals are poorly conceptualized and empirically understudied. This paper (1) briefly reviews theories of social learning; (2) develops a conceptual framework for the analysis; and (3) presents an empirical application of the framework by use of data obtained from three energy and natural resource management case studies around Europe.