Social learning theory is a well-documented theory of learning and cognition developed in 1977 by Albert Bandura. The theory says that people learn new concepts most effectively through imitation, modeling and observation of the actions and behaviors of others. This theory was groundbreaking at the time because it contradicted the instructor-led lecture style of most classrooms.
History of Social Learning Theory
Bandura developed his theory while studying methods to eliminate or eradicate phobias in patients. In his research, he found that patients with higher levels of self-efficacy, or belief in their ability to achieve specific goals, responded best to modeling the behaviors of nonphobic individuals when presented with the object or situation that caused the phobia. This observation led him to the further study of the powers of observation and modeling, which are the foundations of the theory.
Learning by Imitating
Imitation is the first component of social learning. A skill is demonstrated by one person, and another person mimics or copies the skill. This is the lowest form of social learning, as often there is no meaning attached to the action. Consider the preschooler who "learns to read" before school starts. Many of these children have merely memorized the placement of the words in the book or are imitating the actions of the adult who read the book to them.
Modeled Skills and Behaviors
Modeling is a very effective tool for teachers and parents. When students observe an adult performing a new skill while describing it, they are apt to learn the skill more quickly. Some students will be able to perform the skill quickly on their own, while others may need more practice. This is where the social learning component is especially helpful. Working in groups, the students who have mastered the skill will model it for the ones who have not, enabling social learning.
Learning From Observation
Observational learning is also known as vicarious learning. Bandura states that new responses are learned by observing others in new situations. Based upon the action or actions of the person being observed, people formulate their own ideas of how to react in a similar situation. For example, a child who goes on a roller coaster for the first time without fear will often scream in imitation of others, even if he is not afraid. As the child matures, he will no longer simply imitate the screaming but will exhibit fear only if warranted.
The Significance of Bandura’s Theory
Social learning theory is especially pertinent to the fields of education and psychology. When the study was first introduced, most student learning was teacher-driven, with information conveyed in lectures. In today's classrooms, more often than not, teachers employ a workshop approach to learning, which is a social learning technique. Bandura's studies have also been directly applied to cases of aggression and in the treatment of behavioral issues or problems. This is where the modeling component is key.
Bandura included some specific conditions in his theory that must exist for social learning to occur. For social learning to be successful, the learner must do the following: pay attention to the modeled behavior or action; be able to retain or remember the behavior or action; be able to repeat the behavior or action without prompting; and be motivated enough to want to demonstrate what they have learned.
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