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May 15, 2020

Teaching & Education

How Social Learning Theory Works in Education

Teacher reading book to young child

Every teacher has those students. The ones that make the classroom difficult. They speak out of turn, bully other children, and express behavioral problems that can bring a teacher to the end of their rope. While these situations can be frustrating, a student’s problems may stem from a lack of guidance in the classroom.  

“The content of most textbooks is perishable, but the tools of self-directedness serve one well over time.” -Albert Bandura  

Current and aspiring teachers know that one of their most important jobs is to provide students with the guidance they need to be better learners and people, not just to teach them lessons from books. A proper understanding of learning theories can help teachers connect with students who are acting out or having trouble progressing. The practical applications of the right social learning theory can directly address behavioral issues and make all the difference in improving a student’s educational journey.

What Is Social Learning Theory?

Simply put, social learning theory asserts that Individuals primarily learn by observing others. This learning, which is social and not merely behavioral as was once believed, can be acted on (for example, a child sees a sibling politely ask for a treat and receive it), or not acted on (for example, a teenager hears a friend describe picking a lock and they learn something new but don’t try it themselves). Especially when it comes to aggressive behavior, social learning theory plays a big role in  the way people, children, learn.  When considering social learning in the context of aggressive behavior, the theory explains how aggression emerges, the provocations linked to this type of behavior, and the results of the patterns of aggression.  

There are four elements to social learning theory: 

  • Attention. Children can’t learn if they aren’t focused on the task. A child’s attention must be captured for them to imitate a behavior. The ability to pay attention depends largely on the accessibility of the behavior being observed, the complexity of the behavior and its perceived value. 
  • Retention. People learn by internalizing information. We then recall that information when we want to respond to a situation that has elements that remind us of what we learned. In order to learn from observation, we must retain that information. By retaining the sequence of behaviors along with their consequences, the student can retrieve this knowledge and apply it to future imitations of the behavior. 
  • Reproduction. We reproduce our previously learned behavior or knowledge when it’s required. Performing the behaviors demonstrated by the model or referencing these in our actions can improve the way we respond. When a behavior is repeated under varying social contexts, a student can consider the feedback and adjust or alter the ways these behaviors are performed in future interactions. 
  • Motivation. The will to perform a behavior based on the rewards and punishment resulting from modeling the actions. When the perceived rewards outweigh the perceived cost, an individual is more likely to imitate the behavior. Social responses and consequences dictate whether an observed behavior is repeated in the future. 

Social learning theory suggests that social modeling and  good behavior are powerful classroom tools. If children see positive outcomes from an action such as paying attention to the lesson, they are more likely to perform that action themselves. Conversely, if they see negative consequences, they are likely to avoid that behavior. Behavioral and cognitive theories of learning are integral to social learning theory.  As a comprehensive model open to a wide range of learning experiences, social learning considers social context to understand that learning is not only behavioral, but also a cognitive process. This means that teachers can utilize systems of punishment and reward to help students learn from the examples of others. Social learning theory also promotes self-efficacy via constructive feedback. Students who receive positive reinforcement tend to have more confidence in themselves and their abilities—the theory argues that a positive interaction will stand out in their mind, and they will want to repeat their good behavior. 

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History of Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura (1925–2021) is the father of social learning theory. In the 1960’s, he conducted a now-famous experiment called the Bobo doll experiment, which led to his official writings on social learning theory in 1977. 

The Bobo doll experiment was a group of tests performed from 1961 to 1963. The experiments involved studying children’s behavior after they watched an adult act aggressively toward a doll-like toy with a low center of mass that rocked back after being knocked down. The most important element of the experiment was noting how the children behaved after seeing the adult get rewarded, punished, or face no consequence for physically abusing the Bobo doll. These experiments helped show how children can be influenced by learning to internalize or imitate the behavior of others. Albert Bandura’ then applied these insights to the behavioral development of students. 

Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) was also known for his work on understanding how school aged children learn from their peers, though his work was more focused on cognitive and language development. Vygotsky focused on the zone of proximal development (ZPD) which outlines the difference between what a child can do without help and what they are able to achieve with guidance and encouragement. Vygotsky’s theorizes that social interaction between the student and the model is a critical part of the learning process and is referred to as collaborative or cooperative dialogue.  

Benefits of Social Learning Theory

Much has been learned in the decades since social learning theory was introduced. From a psychological perspective to real-world exposure in the fields of social work and education, social learning has proven to be an effective tool for understanding the behavior, interactions, and attitudes of children. Social learning has also helped us to observe how cognitive and environmental factors contribute to learning and behavior. In practice, social learning theory offers a host of benefits, including:

  • Flexible. Social learning theory is foundational and dynamic enough to be applied to many behaviors, and to formal and informal learning environments ranging from the classroom to knowledge networks within the broader public.
  • Adaptable. The theory supports the idea that learning happens in various ways, including thorough observation, imitation, and direct hands-on experience. In addition, social learning theory supports the idea that most individuals thrive and are adaptable under new environments and situations. 
  • Easily Applied. Social learning theory has been applied in many settings and consistently demonstrates strong relationships between social learning concepts and behavior. 
  • Strong Outcomes. The degree, probability, and frequency of reinforcement impact imitation and produce improved outcomes, including increased engagement and better communication. Social learning theory also promotes stronger outcomes based on its ability to more easily trace specific behaviors, and create improved environments that influence how individuals learn and behave. 
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Social Cognitive Theory

Albert Bandura is also the creator of social cognitive theory, which adds a broader scope to social learning theory and is connected to the cognitive theory of learning. When examining decision-making and learned behavior, cognitive theory expands on social learning theory by taking into consideration contributing factors such as an individual’s personality and thought process, the benefits of the behavior itself, and their environment. In social cognitive theory, Bandura postulates that people are not just shaped by their environments and inner forces, but that they also strive to influence their environments and inner forces. Self-efficacy is a crucial concept within this theory.

The Importance of Observational Learning

Bandura’s groundbreaking Bobo Doll experiment proved that children learn to develop new responses by observing the behavior of those around them. Observational learning suggests that those being observed serve as models, and children aspire to be like their models, mimicking them. 

Models play a pivotal role in the development of children, and often the observed behavior impacts many of the attitudes, behaviors, and ideas a child adopts during their development. Based on Bandura’s experiment, children learn and retain the behavior they’re exposed to, which potentially determines their individual views, ranging from emulating masculine and feminine behaviors, developing antisocial or social personalities, and adopting specific attitudes and behaviors in the long term.  

Perhaps one of the most influential models in the life of a child is the role of the teacher. Teachers play a critical role in a child’s learning process, and Bandura’s theory supports the idea that reinforcement is perhaps the most important element of observational learning. Children are more likely to learn and repeat behavior based on factors including being complimented or rewarded, or by virtue of motivation to continue exhibiting the learned behavior. A teacher not only contributes to a child’s educational foundation, but also aids in providing the encouragement and reinforcement needed to persist in all aspects of their lives through childhood and into adulthood.  

How to Incorporate Social Learning in Your Classroom

While it’s one thing to study social learning, it’s another to really incorporate it into your classroom. It’s important to understand strategies for how to incorporate this theory and help students succeed with it. Empathy and care are crucial to making sure this learning theory achieves positive results in your classroom. Teachers should always remember that they can focus on reinforcement to shape behavior, model appropriate behavior, and build self-efficacy as part of their classroom model. 

The flipped classroom model. A flipped classroom model involves changing traditional learning schedules. Instead of a teacher lecturing during the school day, students watch an instructional video or read material at home. Then in class, they apply what they learned through activities or assignments that might have been homework. Teachers act as guides and coaches, helping them continue their learning. This embodies the social learning theory because students can observe the behaviors and actions of other students during the learning and activities, seeing when they are getting praised and encouraged, and apply those observations to their learning. Teachers can incorporate this model by recording themselves lecturing on a certain subject so that students can watch that video as their homework, then ask questions and work on assignments the next day.  

Gamification and simulations. Gamification and simulations help teachers turn their classroom into a more interactive experience, turning assignments and activities into games. Gamification can involve turning an activity into a competitive game with rewards for winners, creating that unique and novel spark that will attract the interest of students. 

Simulations in the classroom help add interest and fun to a classroom situation. A mock trial, a mock city, a digital simulation—these are great ways to enhance a classroom setting and keep students engaged. Meanwhile, they can learn by researching for the assignment while interacting with and learning from their peers. Teachers can begin by testing out a unit that includes a simple game or simulation, then add new games or simulations at larger scales. 

Peer coaching. Peer coaching is a great way to help students learn from each other. Students connected to each other can observe and learn, helping each other along the way. It’s important to be careful when instituting peer coaching, as you don’t want students to feel uncomfortable or insecure about another student helping them. Peer tutoring can work well for math learning, paper writing and editing, and more. To successfully institute peer coaching, carefully observe students to determine which pairs would be a good match. Older students can also fill this role, passing on what they have learned from adults as they themselves learn to teach. 

Digital Resources for Social Learning

There exist many digital resources which can help teachers  incorporate social learning in their classroom and help students improve behaviors and be successful. Using social learning tools are helpful for pedagogy and andragogy and incorporate social software to improve exchanges between individuals and systems, for example:

Google Sky: This resource is a simulation of the sky that can help students learn about astronomy. 

  • Padlet: Padlet can help students and teachers collaborate. Students can communicate and work with each other while watching instructional videos or reading articles written by the teacher. 
  • edpuzzle: Edpuzzle allows teachers to create video content for students to consume easily. 
  • quizzizz: Quizizz is a great game option that makes learning and quizzes a more fun, game option.  
  • Ward's Science: How-to videos are a great way for students to learn at home, particularly in a flipped classroom environment. 

If you're a current or aspiring educator, it's important to understand how different learning theories can benefit your classroom and help students find success.  Teachers play a pivotal role in the lives of children and serve to inspire them through example, as well as through motivation and the reinforcement given to the child. Applying the right learning theory based on the needs of each child is critical to their development and can leave a lasting impression fundamental to shaping their futures.  

If you are interested in using these theories to help change lives, then consider gaining an expert knowledge of education with a degree from WGU’s Teachers College. With a variety of highly respected undergraduate and graduate teaching degrees to choose from, WGU offers programs that are self-paced, affordable, and provide personalized support. As a proud member of 100Kin10, WGU also works in tandem with nonprofits, government agencies, companies, and foundations to address challenges and prepare more teachers for STEM positions nationwide.

Learn more about WGU’s Teachers College and how you can earn your teaching degree from home on your own schedule. Discover which of our varied online degree options best fit your goals and let WGU guide you on your career journey. Make a difference in education and discover how teaching self-directedness can shape children’s futures and impact their success. 

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