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Bandura’s Social Learning Theory in Education

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Social Learning Theory: Albert Bandura

The way in which humans learn is something that has fascinated educators and psychologists alike for centuries, with the first scientific studies of learning taking place in the late 1800’s.

Since then, we have seen a surge of interest in learning concepts and theories, with various psychologists conducting studies to help them understand the way in which children receive, process and retain knowledge and skills during learning.

In this article, we will be looking at one of these learning theories – Bandura’s social learning theory.

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory is the idea that humans learn from observing and imitating the behaviour modelled by others. Bandura labelled this phenomenon observational learning. In short, it is not necessary to have a direct experience of something in order to learn. 

For observational learning to occur, there does not necessarily need to be a live observation (i.e. a real person modelling or demonstrating the behaviour). It can also take place by observing characters, real or fictional, in movies, television programmes, video games etc.

Observational learning can also occur through verbal instruction or listening to someone describe or explain how something is done. 

What do we need to know about Social Learning Theory?

  • What is social learning theory? Social learning theory is the idea that behaviours can be learned through observation, modelling and imitation.
  • Who developed this theory? Albert Bandura developed his theory following a series of now famous studies known as the Bobo doll experiments.
  • Are there any other theories linked to social learning theory? Bandura built on the theories put forward by behavioural theorists Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner of classical and operant conditioning. 
  • What are the elements of social learning theory? Bandura identified four factors (or elements) required for observational learning to be successful.
  • How can we use social learning theory in our classroom? Educators have found social learning theory to be a powerful tool for teaching, learning, motivating students and managing behaviour. 
  • Are there any criticisms of social learning theory? Some have critiqued Bandura’s theory for its limitations and narrow view.

Let’s delve into each of these in more detail to gain a better understanding of social learning theory.

Who Developed Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory was developed by Canadian psychologist, Albert Bandura. 

Bandura believed that all behaviours are learned through social imitation as opposed to genetics. In the early 1960s, he began conducting a series of now-famous studies known as the Bobo doll experiments which led to the development of his theory which he published in 1977.

As part of these experiments, a group of children were individually exposed to an adult model who was physically and verbally aggressive towards a Bobo doll.

When these children were left to play with the Bobo doll independently, many of them imitated and reproduced the behaviour that they had observed.

This experiment was replicated at a later date but this time the adult model was either rewarded or reprimanded for the abusive behaviour. 

The results of these experiments showed that children can be influenced and can learn from observing the behaviour of others.

It also indicated that behaviour that is reinforced or rewarded tends to be repeated, whereas behaviour that is reprimanded is less likely to reoccur.

What Other Theories are Linked to Social Learning Theory?

Social Learning theory is heavily rooted in Pavlov’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning.

Bandura’s social learning theory is often linked to behavioural learning theories which focus on the idea that all human behaviours are acquired through conditioning and interaction with the external environment.

Behaviourists believe that all humans can be trained to perform any task with the right environment and conditioning, regardless of their background or ability. 

In social learning theory, Bandura agrees with the behaviourist learning theories of classical and operant conditioning put forward by psychologists Ivan Pavolv and B.F. Skinner respectively.

However, he believes that direct reinforcement cannot account for all types of learning as both children and adults often learn things without ever having had direct experience with it and without demonstrating their new behaviours.  

For example, a child who has never been on a bicycle before will know that you need to sit on the saddle and push the pedals with your feet in order for the bicycle to move.

This child would have learned this behaviour by observing a model.

This model may have been another child or adult in their environment but could also have been a cartoon character on TV. 

This led Bandura to add his own two ideas when formulating his theory:

  • Behaviour is learned from the environment through observational learning.
  • There are mental factors that determine whether or not a new behaviour is acquired. 

Accepting that not all behaviours that are observed will be imitated, Bandura identified four factors (or elements) required for observational learning to be successful.

What are the 4 Elements of Social Learning Theory?

  • Attention: A lesson must engage a student sufficiently to hold their attention.
  • Retention: Students must be able to remember what they have seen or heard.
  • Reproduction: Students should be given time to practice the observed behaviour
  • Motivation: A student must be able to see the benefit of a new behaviour for long term assimilation.
Bandura's 4 Elements of Social Learning Theory. teacherofsci

Attention: In order for a behaviour to be observed and subsequently imitated, the observer must first notice the behaviour and focus their attention on it.

If the behaviour does not hold the interest of the observer or they become distracted, it is unlikely that the behaviour will be retained reproduced at a later stage.

Retention: The observer must be able to remember the behaviour they have observed and store it in their memory to be accessed at a later stage.

Even if the behaviour is imitated shortly after it is observed, this still requires significant memory skills. A student’s ability to retain can be impacted by a number of factors.

Reproduction: This involves replicating the behaviour that was observed. The ability of the observer to reproduce the behaviour will depend on whether or not they retained the behaviour following observation.

Of course, retention is not the only factor here. A person’s physical capability may also limit their ability to reproduce the behaviour. 

Motivation: In order for a behaviour to be replicated, the observer must be motivated to reproduce it.

This motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic. Reinforcement and punishment are key factors in motivation, with learners more likely to imitate an observed behaviour if it results in a positive outcome.

Motivation can also arise from observing others being rewarded for the same behaviour. 

A person’s self-efficacy or belief in their own capability to reproduce the behaviour can also have a significant impact on motivation.

How can Social Learning Theory be Applied in the Classroom?

As teachers, we want our students to be successful and to learn to the best of their ability. The way we teach and the strategies we employ, as well as our classroom environment, all have an impact on teaching and learning. 

Let’s look at a few ways in which we can utilise Bandura’s social learning theory in our classroom.

Behaviour

Good classroom management is key to successful teaching and learning. Without it, chaos can ensue and this will hinder both the teacher and the students. 

Social learning theory can be used to encourage and teach desirable behaviours in the classroom through the use of positive reinforcement and rewards.

For example, a student who is praised for raising their hand to speak will more than likely repeat that behaviour. Additionally, other students will follow suit and raise their hands after observing that the behaviour elicited a positive outcome.

Conversely, a student who is reprimanded for an undesired behaviour is less likely to repeat that behaviour, as are their peers who will also wish to avoid the negative consequence of replicating the action.

Teaching

As previously stated, one the prerequisites for observational learning to be successful is that the observer’s attention is focused on the behaviour.

Therefore, before demonstrating or modelling something to our students, it is paramount that we have their full attention. Ensuring that lessons are level appropriate and as engaging as possible will help sustain students’ attention. 

Retention of the behaviour or information modelled is also key to successful learning. As we know, individual students learn in a variety of ways.

One of the ways we can help our students to retain information and behaviours is to incorporate as many different activities into our lesson as possible. A multisensory approach to learning helps to increase retention.

For example, while teaching a lesson verbally, we can use visual aids to help reinforce the information.  

Motivating Students

As Bandura identified, in order for observational learning to be successful, the observer must be motivated to reproduce the behaviour.

Studies show that teachers who are enthusiastic and passionate when teaching can motivate students to learn as they are likely to imitate their teacher.

Teachers can motivate students extrinsically through positive reinforcement and rewards. They can also help boost a student’s intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy through verbal persuasion, positive reinforcement and constructive feedback.

Bandura’s self-efficacy theory is rooted in the social learning theory. If a student has confidence and believes that they have the ability to reproduce a certain behaviour then they are more likely to try and to succeed.

Conversely, if a student lacks confidence and does not believe that they have the ability to carry out a task, then they are less likely to exert effort into the task and may ultimately end up failing.  

As educators, it is our job to find different ways of motivating our students to learn.

Pair and Group Work

In our classroom, learning does not solely take place through students observing their teacher.

Learning also takes place through observing their peers which is why using pair work and group work in the classroom can have many benefits. 

For example, pairing a higher ability student with a student that is struggling allows for peer coaching to occur.

This is a very useful and effective strategy used in classrooms today. Students are often more likely to pay attention to their peers than to another adult. 

When facilitating group work, a teacher may place a less motivated student in a group with a highly motivated student with the intention that their influence will motivate the other student to take on some responsibility, helping the unmotivated student learn.

Each member of the group can act as a model and members of the group can learn through observing the behaviours and attitudes of their peers.

Criticisms of Social Learning Theory

While social learning theory has been praised for offering us a different perspective on how learning occurs, it is not without its flaws and has attracted criticism from those that feel it has its limitations. 

Many theorists feel that it offers too narrow a view, disregarding important environmental influences and factors such as socio-economic status.

Social learning theory suggests that a person’s actions and behaviour are determined by society and fails to take into consideration individual accountability.

It also fails to take into account the influence of biological factors such as genetics, with biological theorists arguing that some behaviours are in fact partly inherited.

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Conclusion

Social learning theory certainly has its place in our education system and offers us a greater understanding of the way our students learn. 

However, it is also important for teachers to be aware that if strategies are not implemented correctly or are used inconsistently, they are unlikely to be effective.

It should also be noted that what works for some students may not work for others regardless of how much positive reinforcement or punishment is given. There is no doubt that there are many external factors that impact a student’s desire and ability to learn.

One thing that social learning theory does show us is that observation plays an important role in shaping the knowledge, behaviour and attitudes of our students.

For this reason, teachers need to be excellent role models and ensure they are being inclusive, inspiring and compassionate towards their students.

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Social Learning Theory FAQs

What is social learning theory?

Bandura’s Social learning theory revolves around the idea that humans learn from observing and imitating the behaviour modelled by others. Bandura labelled this phenomenon observational learning. In short, it is not necessary to have a direct experience of something in order to learn. 

What are the 4 elements of social learning theory?

Attention: A lesson must engage a student sufficiently to hold their attention.
Retention: Students must be able to remember what they have seen or heard.
Reproduction: Students should be given time to practice the observed behaviour
Motivation: A student must be able to see the benefit of a new behaviour for long term assimilation.

Paul Fulbrookhttps://teacherofsci.com
Paul Fulbrook (TeacherOfSci) is a Science teacher, writer and education blogger based in Brighton, England. He started teacherofsci.com to help support teachers everywhere with the everyday struggles that they are all faced with, both in the classroom and at home.

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