Social learning

30 December 2016

At every stage of life, we learn skills by observing people around us. It could be in an informal or formal environment. Things like dance, body language, playing a game, etc…we observe and learn these from our friends, family, teachers, etc. This kind of learning which occurs within a social context is called Social learning.

In a classroom environment, social learning is defined as an approach where students are able to socially interact with other students, as well as instructors. In essence, learners work together in order to expand their knowledge of a particular subject or skill. This is typically done through live chats, message boards, or instant messaging.

General principles of the social learning theory

  • People learn by observing the behaviours of others and the outcomes of those behaviours.
  • Learning can occur without a change in behaviour. Social learning theorists believe that because people can learn through observation alone, their learning may not necessarily be shown in their performance. Learning may or may not result in a behaviour change.
  • Cognition plays a role in learning. Social learning theory has become increasingly cognitive in its interpretation of human learning over years. Awareness and expectations of future reinforcements or punishments can have a major effect on the behaviours that people exhibit.
  • Social learning theory can be considered a bridge or a transition between behaviourist learning theories and cognitive learning theories.


Social learning


Alberta Bandura’s theory

Canadian psychologist Alberta Bandis recognised as the originator of the social learning theory and the theory of self-efficacy. His theory has three core concepts:

A) Observational Learning

He has identified three basic models of observational learning. These are :

  • A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behaviour. 
  • A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behaviour.
  • A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviours in books, films, television programs, or online media.

B) Intrinsic Reinforcement

In this concept, Bandura acknowledged pride, sense of accomplishment, as a form of reward, which he terms as intrinsic reinforcement. 

C) Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behaviour

The third concept argues that people are able to learn new information without altering behaviour. 


Models play a critical role in the learning process. There are different types of models which help in social learning. One of them is live models. Most of our learnings and observations come form them. These are individuals whose behaviour is observable in real life. For example, teachers, friends, peers, and supervisors.  The second type of model is the symbolic model. These are real or fictional characters that influence an observer’s behaviour. These types of models could be real or fictional characters portrayed in books, movies, and other media. Researchers do not indicate which type of model is best, as long as the model possesses certain characteristics to make them effective. What are these characteristics that make a model ideal for learning? A model should possess the ability to be competent. People like to imitate behaviours of models who do something well, not poorly. In the classroom, a teacher could either demonstrate correct behaviour or choose student models that are at or above the observer’s skill level to display these skills correctly. Popularity, success and power, are other qualities needed to be able to become a model. For example, students may look to renowned athletes or world figures for behavioural cues. In the classroom, a teacher might highlight popular actors or sports figures as models for certain behaviours.

We have seen how social learning can be a powerful e-learning tool as it offers enriching learning experiences to learners, encourages interaction among them and help them benefit from one another’s strengths. However, like every other e-learning platform, the it’s success also depends on how effectively it is implemented.