The process of social learning

Published: 2019-09-09 07:00:00
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Social cognitive learning theory (SLT) postulates that a greater percentage of human learning takes place in a social environment. That is, individuals acquire knowledge of attitudes, and beliefs by observing how others do things. Bandura pointed out that a child acquires new behaviour by observing the behaviour of other individuals. People who are observed are known as models. Examples are parents, friends, and teachers. They are the sources of behaviours that are observed and imitated by children. In SLT, modelling is governed by four related sub-processes. They include attentional, retention, motoric reproduction, and reinforcement and motivational processes (Lefrancois, 2014).

For meaningful learning to occur, an individual must attend to the important features of a models behaviour. Attentional processes enable one to pay close attention to the model, pick the most relevant characteristics of the models numerous features, and accurately perceive the aspects they encounter. Attention to models is achieved through associational experience. That is, the kind of people an individual regularly associates with define the type of behaviours he or she will frequently observe and learn. Other factors affecting attention to models include interpersonal attraction, the functional value of a particular behaviour, and intrinsic reward of modelling. When it comes to interpersonal attraction, models with interesting and pleasant qualities are more attracted to a learner while models lacking pleasant characteristics are ignored by a learner. On the other hand, the functional value of behaviour shown by various models greatly influences the type of model an individual will observe and those to be ignored. Lastly, intrinsically rewarding forms of modelling can hold the attention of a learner for a longer period (Lefrancois, 2014).

Another key process in observational learning is retention. For an individual to reproduce the behaviour of a model, the information should have been retained in the memory in symbolic form. In observational learning, information is represented in the memory verbally or in image form. When stimuli are highly correlated, such as the names associated with people, hearing of a particular name makes one experience the image of the individuals physical characteristics. On the other hand, verbal coding of behaviour activities has been found to lead to long-term retention than imagery ones. The route taken by a model in displaying a certain behaviour can be easily acquired, retained, and reproduced more accurately by coding the visual information verbally into sequences of right and left turns than by visual representation (Bandura, 1977).

The third process, motoric reproduction, has to do with processes through which symbolic representations guide observable behaviours. Lastly, in reinforcement and motivational processes, provision of positive incentives leads to overt expression of behaviour. Additionally, reinforcement and motivational processes influence the level of observational learning by regulating what a person attends to and their efficiency in coding and rehearsal of what they have seen.

Three effects model

The social cognitive theory (SCT) acknowledges the role of self-regulatory mechanisms in the process of learning. SCT is based on modelling and self-efficacy. According to the chief proponent of learning via modelling, Bandura, modelling takes various forms. These forms are modelling effect, eliciting effect, disinhibitory effect, and inhibitory effect (Feden & Vogel, 2003). The modelling effect occurs when an individual replicates a behaviour after observing another person performing it. The model, in this case, can be real or abstract. An example of the modelling effect is learning how to play basketball after watching the coach do it or after watching a famous basketball player demonstrate the skill in a video. The eliciting effect, on the other hand, describes an instance when an individual behaves like a model but does not directly duplicate him.

In many cases, a person avoids engaging in an act of behaviour, but after observing a model perform the act and that it does not lead to any negative consequences, that individual will also begin to behave like the model. For instance, a student is more likely to act out if he sees a fellow student doing the same and does not get punished. In modelling, this is called disinhibitory effect. That is, a person engages in a previously inhibited (or avoided) deviant behaviour after observing a model. On the contrary, an individual avoids performing an act of behaviour after seeing a model being punished for taking part in that act of behaviour. In modelling, this is referred to as an inhibitory effect (Feden & Vogel, 2003). For example, a student will be discouraged from acting out if he sees a fellow student doing the same being punished.

Imitation and operant conditioning according to Bandura

In SLT, Bandura distinguishes between learning and performance of similar behaviour. According to him, observational learning can take place as a result of observation of a modelled behaviour along with cognitive activities without the need for extrinsic reinforcers. He, however, pointed out that mere exposure of an individual to modelled activities are adequate to produce observational learning. Bandura further emphasised that all the stimulations striking an individual are not necessarily noticed by them and, even if they were attended to, the effect of modelling stimuli alone is not sufficient to lead to retention in memory for any length of time (Bandura, 1977).

One of the factors influencing what a person observes and what goes undetected is the anticipation of reinforcement. When a person is aware that a certain models behaviour will lead to positive rewards or leads to escaping of negative consequences, such an individual will be more attentive to the actions of the model. For example, a student will pay a lot of attention to a teacher in a classroom so as to attain good grades in exams. Therefore, anticipated positive consequences of behaviour enhance observational learning. Furthermore, the anticipation of reinforcement motivates an individual to code and rehearse modelled responses that are deemed to have a high value. Consequently, this enhances retention. It can, therefore, be concluded that in SLT, the role of reinforcement is to facilitate learning through its influence on processes of attention, organisation, and retention. Because of this, Banduras SLT posits that a greater level of observational learning will be attained if learners are informed in advanced that adopting particular modelled behaviours will pay off in the long run (Bandura, 1977).

In SLT, reinforcement is considered to play a facilitative role in learning and not a necessary condition for learning the process to take place as numerous other factors can influence an what an individual attend to. Anticipated reinforcement is predicted to have the greatest effect on observational learning under conditions where an individual can choose a model to attend to and how intensive he or she observes the models behaviour (Bandura, 1977).


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory.

Feden, P. D., & Vogel, R. M. (2003). Methods of teaching: Applying cognitive science to promote student learning. McGraw-Hill Humanities, Social Sciences & World Languages.

Lefrancois, G. (2014). Theories of human learning: What the professor said. Cengage Learning.


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