How to Apply Social Learning Theory in the Classroom

How to Apply Social Learning Theory in the Classroom

Humans are social creatures, and most of our learning, especially in the early age, occurs by example. A small child watches her mother brush her own hair. She may actually observe this several times. Ultimately, the child takes her mother’s hairbrush and brushes her own hair, modeling her mother’s behavior as closely as possible, given her age and agility. This is just one example of social learning theory.

What is Social Learning Theory?

Educational and psychological professionals understand that learning is a complex process. Children, adolescents, and even adults engage in learning all of their lives. They read, they research, and they absorb information. If the environment is conducive, they also remember a lot. The question becomes, then, what makes an environment conducive to learning?

Enter social learning theory. In short, this theory says that people of all ages learn by observing and modeling others (thus the term “social”). Of course, there are other theories about learning, such as operant conditioning and attribution theory which address such things as engagement and motivation.

Social learning is not in opposition to these theories, but, rather, adds another layer to the learning process – the relationship between an observer and a modeler.

Bandura Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory was introduced by Albert Bandura, a Ph.D. psychologist and professor at Stanford University. His work involved experiments with children and bobo dolls. Children viewed videos of people punching and abusing the dolls. Then they were put into a separate room with their own bobo dolls, along with other children with bobo dolls who had not seen the film. Those who had seen the film were far more involved in busing their dolls than those who had not.

From this experiment, among others, he developed the social learning theory – we learn as much by observing and mimicking what we observe, as we do through other learning methodologies.

Key Principles of Social Learning Theory

The primary principal of Bandura’s social learning theory, as stated above, is that humans learn by observing others and then emulating what they have observed.

Up until this time, behaviorists had a “corner on the learning theory market” by stating that human learning is the result of reward, punishment, and reinforcement. Thus, a child is rewarded when he learns his multiplication tables, reinforcing that learning and the motivation to learn. Social learning theory does not discount behavioralism but states that there are other ways to learn as well.

There are several basic concepts that underpin the cognitive social learning theory.

Learning by Observing

This does not necessarily have to be by actually observing another person doing something. It can be by observing photos of people doing things, such as in books. It can also be through another person verbally describing how to do something.

Take the example of a child learning how to swing a bat. He can watch a baseball game and observe others swinging a bat. Or he can watch a movie or instructional video of someone swinging a bat. His mother or father can show him how to swing a bat by modeling it. Lastly, someone can hand him a bat and verbally explain how to swing it.

We can also ‘learn’ emotions through observation. For example, children can observe others laughing, crying, showing love (or hate). They can observe the peace and calm that may come from doing yoga and deep breathing. Thus, they learn the “proper” emotions to display in a variety of circumstances.

Naturally, this principle has created a rather long-standing discussion of the impact of violent media and gaming on the behaviors of kids.

Observation is Not Enough – Mental State is Important Too

According to Bandura, just observing someone else doing something or explaining something is not enough for cemented learning to take place. The learner must also be: motivated to learn, to see value in that learning, and to be in a mental state of receptivity (e.g., not distracted).

While behaviorists focus on external motivations and rewards (good grades, praise, etc.), Bandura posits that there are internal thoughts and rewards (sense of accomplishment, pride) that provide cognition. Thus, Bandura’s term, “cognitive social learning theory.”

The Role Model is Important

People tend to emulate a modeled behavior if the model is similar, admired, or if the behavior being modeled is in itself valuable to the learner. For example, a teen may admire a popular singer. She sees a commercial in which this singer promotes a specific beauty product. That teen is far more likely to purchase that product.

Learning Does Not Always Change Behaviors, Though

In determining whether learning has actually occurred, behaviorists will focus on changes in behavior. Thus, a child learning his multiplication tables will demonstrate this.

According to Bandura, though, learning will not always change behaviors that are observable. People can learn things that may be “cemented” and yet not result in change. Someone may observe how a person reacts to the death of a pet, for example, but may not have occasion to react to the death of a pet himself.

Behavior is Also Controlled by Other External Observations

Bandura’s idea is that anyone’s behavior comes as a direct result of cognitive processes and the environment, through social circumstances and events.

His own example is this: If a teenager is troubled and hates school, he is often acting out in school. The reactions of his teachers and peers serve to reinforce his dislike for school, and so he continues to act out. This is what Bandura calls “reciprocal determinism.”

Social Learning Theory Examples

Many of us watch YouTube videos for instructional purposes. Thus, a video showing someone power washing and staining a deck, followed by the viewer following those same steps is one of the most basic social learning examples.

Someone accessing a recipe from a trusted cook and then using that recipe to prepare something is social learning too.

Researchers often use social learning theory in their observations/experimentation. This can bleed over to the animal kingdom. For example, in studying animal behaviors, researchers often observe how parents teach their young through modeling, and how those young begin to emulate those behaviors. Animals also “learn” their place in their groups by observing and then emulating the behaviors of the “pack.”

Strategies for Using Social Learning in the Classroom

Teachers have been using modeling in the classroom for years. Thus, they show students how to add and subtract, how to write a correct sentence, paragraph, or essay. Then they have those students practice under their guidance, and then practice on their own.

Coaches on the field demonstrate stances, moves, plays, etc. and then have their student athletes emulate those things.

An art teacher will demonstrate shading or drawing in perspective, and students will then model that behavior as they create their own pieces.

Some students successfully learn through observation and mimicking. But others may not.

These steps must occur for social learning to result in successful cognition, retention, and recall:

The Learner Has to be Paying Attention

In education, we call this engagement. Teachers who can “hook” students by making skills and content interesting, relevant, and be somewhat creative and novel in their presentations, will capture the attention of more of their students.

Continued attention to the model means that information will be stored (retained). Once it is stored and “cemented,” it can be pulled up later (recall). This may mean that the learning must be reinforced periodically in the future.

Once a student has been attentive and retained the learning from the modeled behavior, he must then perform that observed behavior. Thus, a practice that is so commonly needed, in order for that learning to be cemented and/or become habitual.

Internal Motivation Has to Be Present

Motivate students to both pay attention and imitate the behavior they have observed. If they do not see value in the imitation, they will not perform it. Rewards (and negative consequences) can serve as motivators, but so, too, can internal factors.

A student who is profoundly motivated to become an auto mechanic, for example, will stay focused on all that his teacher is modeling during those classes. Other students may be motivated by high grades, so they may get into the college of their choice.

When students feel that the presented learning is relevant to their lives, internal motivation can be present. And when a child observes another child receiving some reward – praise, award or a certificate of recognition – they may become motivated to mimic that behavior for the same reward.


Certainly, social learning theory is not the only factor in learning. But so much of a person’s life, from birth through adulthood, is spent in social experiences, and, in those experiences, we observe the behaviors of others. We learn much from those observations, and, ultimately, it shapes much of what know and can do.

Photo by Element5 Digital

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