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Bandura’s 4 Principles Of Social Learning Theory

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Bandura's Principles of Social learning

“Self-belief does not necessarily ensure success, but self-disbelief assuredly spawns failure.” (Albert Bandura)

Those who are new to social learning theory might not make the immediate connection to an individual’s beliefs about their own abilities; however, self-efficacy is a core tenet of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. In this segment of learning theories, we are performing a deep dive into psychologist Albert Bandura, his contributions to social learning theory, how his ideas have evolved, and how teachers can capitalize on social learning theory to increase achievement and other positive outcomes for students in the classroom.

The Man Behind The ‘Bobo Doll’

Albert Bandura was born in Canada in 1925 to immigrant parents of Polish and Ukrainian descent. He obtained his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in psychology before he was hired as a professor at Stanford University in California. There, Bandura’s research honed in on the gaps of existing social and behavioral learning theories by figures like B.F. Skinner, which did not consider the potential influence of social variables in the acquisition of new learning and responses.

Bandura is best known, perhaps, for the ‘Bobo doll’ experiment. In this study, researchers abused a doll–both physically and verbally–while pre-school-aged children observed. Later on, the children mimicked the behavior of the researchers, proving Bandura’s hypothesis that children can learn through adults’ behaviors. Bandura’s findings led him to develop what was first termed ‘social learning theory’ in the 1960s.

What Is Social Learning Theory?

As it was originally explained in 1963, social learning theory aligned mostly with previous behavioral theories–the novel component was its emphasis on imitation in learning. It stated the following:

  • When someone witnesses a ‘model’ performing a specific behavior, as well as the consequences of that behavior, they can commit the sequence of actions to memory and recall that data to guide their future behaviors.
  • People do not learn new behaviors simply by attempting them, and then succeeding or failing. Instead, they depend largely upon the imitation of action sequences by other people.
  • People choose to replicate or dismiss certain behaviors based on how they observe others being rewarded or punished for those behaviors, or the outcomes of those behaviors.

In other words, monkey see, monkey do (or do not…).

Over time, Bandura’s theory of social learning moved away from the behavioral end of the spectrum and closer toward the cognitive end. He published a significant revision to his theory in 1977, which included the concept of self-efficacy at the core of its theoretical framework. In this revision, individual choices, effort, and feelings about those choices are affected by their beliefs about their own abilities to perform certain behaviors in order to achieve certain outcomes. Bandura was the first person to make this connection, and the main pillars of social learning theory were revised to make the following arguments:

  • Learning is both behavioral and cognitive. It also occurs in a social context.
  • Learning occurs through vicarious reinforcement–observing a behavior and its consequences (which have social ramifications).
  • Learning involves observation, drawing conclusions from observations, and making subsequent decisions (that do not necessarily result in an observable change in behavior).
  • While reinforcement is critical to learning, it is not the sole cause of learning.
  • Through the concept of reciprocal determinism, cognition, environment, and behavior all influence each other and the learner

Here, we can make connections between Bandura’s evolved theory and Paulo Freire’s criticism of the ‘banking model’ of education, wherein students are regarded as passive ‘banks’ into which teachers make ‘deposits’ of information.

After almost a decade of continued research, Bandura again revised his theory of social learning in 1986. Now referred to as ‘social cognitive theory,’ Bandura purported that–in addition to the interplay among the person, their environment, and their behavior–a person’s past experiences also help determine which actions they make. Such experiences are not limited to physical behaviors, but also include previous expectations, expectancies, and reinforcements. While other theorists attribute greater influence to one of the three realms of environment, behavior, and cognition in how a person behaves, Bandura gave them equal weight in the learning process.

At this stage, Bandura would very likely have agreed with the oft-repeated quote in education: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

4 Principles: Breaking Down An Evolving Theory

Though Albert Bandura passed away in 2021, his contributions to psychology will continue to drive future research on learning within social contexts. If readers take away one thing from this post, it should be that learning is directly correlated to social models, which can be observed in person or via the media. We can summarize the latest edition of Bandura’s social cognitive/learning theory by focusing on the following four principles:

  • Attention: An observer pays attention to particular social behaviors. Their ability to pay attention depends on their accessibility to what is being observed, the relevance of the behaviors, the complexity of the behaviors, the perceived value of the behaviors, and the observer’s own cognitive abilities and preconceptions.
  • Retention: An observer retains the sequence of behaviors and consequences, which they can retrieve for future imitations of the behaviors.
  • Production: An observer repeats the behavior in a different social context and receives feedback from other observers, which they can use to adjust how they perform the behaviors in future contexts.
  • Motivation: An observer is motivated to repeat the behaviors based on the social responses and consequences they receive when they imitate a behavior.

How Can Teachers Use Social Learning Theory In The Classroom?

Perhaps the better question is, is there any aspect of the school experience where social learning does not apply? From classroom management and collaborative learning to gamification and providing feedback, Bandura’s theory is widely applicable.

  • Managing the classroom: Teachers can use positive and negative reinforcement to motivate students to perform certain behaviors (i.e., verbally praising a student who is staying on task, participating, or showing up prepared to learn on a consistent basis).
  • Making transitions or clarifications: Teachers can use physical and/or verbal cues to elicit student attention (i.e., initiating a call-and-response, using a hand signal, or pointing to an object).
  • Planning for instruction: Teachers should incorporate multimodal learning to help students retain new information (i.e., presenting new content through visual, auditory, kinesthetic modes).
  • Supporting intrinsic motivation: Teachers can use rewards and reinforcement to help students develop confidence, self-efficacy, and a love for learning (i.e., offering verbal praise or constructive feedback in regards to progress-tracking and goal-setting).
  • Incorporating collaborative learning: Teachers can create time in each lesson for students to practice and learn with diverse students (models) in low stakes activities. We know that students pay more attention to their friends and peers than to other adults. For more on this, see our post on “8 Ways To Help Students Learn More From Others Than They Do From You.”
  • Trying a flipped classroom model: In this model, sudents watch a video or lesson at home and observe others’ behaviors during the learning activities in the classroom. Through reinforcement, students can apply observations to their own learning. (*refer to flipped classroom article).
  • Applying the principles of gamification to lessons: Gamificiation naturally creates rewards and reinforcements for positive behaviors, therefore increasing student motivation. If you’re interested in learning more about how to ‘gamify’ your classroom, read our article on “12 Examples Of Gamification In The Classroom.”

When educators have a comprehensive knowledge of how social learning works, they can use integrate its four principles in all areas of the classroom to amplify positive outcomes for their students. One of the major criticisms of social learning theory is that it fails to take into account certain environmental considerations in the process of learning. Several examples include the learning environment (noise, temperature, amount of space), whether or not a learner’s basic needs have been met (like adequate sleep, nutrition, and health), and the impact of poverty on a student’s ability to learn. As teachers make conscious efforts to amplify social learning in their classrooms, they should keep these considerations in mind.

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