Have you ever come across a situation where you learned skills or behaviors from observing others? You may have learned from observing a friend, a supervisor, a teacher or even strangers at times.

Let’s consider a situation where you should perform a task without having any idea of how to do it. Let it be doing an Electric Slide dance or using a machine like a self-service kiosk for a tram. What would you do in these situations?

I bet most of you would observe others performing these tasks and learn from them.

Most of the time, we humans learn unfamiliar tasks by observing others. Come on, admit it. We observe others performing these tasks and try to imitate them. This leads us to what is known as the ‘Social Learning Theory.’

The Social Learning Theory

The Social Learning Theory is a theoretical perspective in which the focus of the study is learning by observing others. Psychologist Albert Bandura proposed this theory in the 1960s. It is widely used in communication, education, and psychology domains. It states that a person gains a considerable amount of knowledge by observing others regarding experiences, social behaviors, etc.

The social learning theory explains that when people see a model performing a specific behavior, they utilize this information to steer subsequent behaviors based on their observation. It also prompts the observer to engage in behavior they have learned previously by simply watching a model. Here, a model is referred to as a person who demonstrates behavior for someone else.

We will emphasize the benefits of vicarious learning with social learning theory in the background. A vicarious learning design deals with the basic human nature of obtaining new behavior from the observed models and then bringing those behaviors into effect when the situation demands.

For example, let’s say that you are giving lessons on interviewing skills and asking learners to interview each other by forming pairs. Many of them won’t go beyond asking typical interview questions like “Describe yourself in a few sentences,” “Why should we hire you,” etc.

But when learners are asked to observe other interviews or shown videos, they will be in a much better position to acquire the skills. It is probable that the learners will understand how to uncover interviewees’ significant personal characteristics by creating hypothetical situations that they would relate to personally.

This approach is usually seen during on-the-job learning. In this type of learning, experienced professionals and new hires are paired with each other during the first few weeks or months to understand how to efficiently respond to a particular situation rather than reading an employee handbook.

Applying the Social Learning Theory to online training

As online learning is presented to a single person instead of group learning, many of you think that it is counter-intuitive to the social learning theory. However, technology enables us to provide various opportunities to utilize a social learning strategy in online learning.

Now, let’s have a look at the major principles of Bandura’s Theory and how they can be applied to online learning.

  • Observational learning

    What do you do when you want to learn something new online? Many of us visit YouTube and learn by observing. As I have already discussed, the social learning theory states that humans learn most of the things by observing others. This can be in any form like describing a particular task verbally or physically displaying a behavior.

    How do we use this in online learning

    In online learning, this experience can be recreated with the help of video and audio. The virtual classroom technology allows for instructor presentation and collaboration in real-time thus supporting this function.

    You can present videos of people carrying out a task related to a specific job and then make the learners answer queries about what worked and what didn’t. You can also include a movie clip that talks about a particular issue you want the learner to view. You can make the learners discuss the situation after watching the clip. They can do this alone or by learning from actors in the movie clip.

  • Retention and context

    You may be aware that we human beings learn by internalizing information in our memories and respond to a similar situation when the need arises by simply recalling that information. When the information has an emotional connection and a context, it is retained for a long time. Social learning plays a significant role in knowledge retention. When people get involved in an important discussion, they relate it to their personal experiences.

    How do we use this in online learning

    Online learning presents various opportunities for people to make them talk and discuss. Today’s LMSs (Learning Management Systems) consist of built-in forums which facilitate smooth communication between the learner and the instructor or even set up a social media page related to course page or share it with learners. If people find your e-learning engaging, they will discuss it (which will make sure the information is stored for a longer time).

    Effective storytelling is an ideal way to make online learning more memorable as stories make us experience information rather than just consuming it. Hence, provide ample opportunities for knowledge sharing and collaboration.


    Read more: 4 Brilliant ways to incorporate storytelling in e-learning


  • Motivation and reward

    Staying motivated is critical to student learning. The social learning theory states that motivation emerges from being rewarded, as when we are in an identical situation, we will either discard or follow the behavior based on our experience. For example, if a learner gets rewarded with extra credit for being regular to class, you might begin to show up regularly to class.

    How do we use this in online learning

    Adding gamification features to online learning is an ideal way to inspire learners through rewards. This enhances engagement and communication among the learners.


    Read more: Top 3 gamification techniques for your business training


  • State of mind

    The Social Learning Theory states that intrinsic reinforcement (internal reward) and external reinforcement have a significant impact on behavior and learning. When a task gets completed successfully, the inner feeling of accomplishment occurs, boosting the confidence level.

    How do we use this in online learning

    Implementing learning checks and creating challenging activities in an online learning setup can provide intrinsic reinforcement. You can also provide downloadable personalized course completion certificates or any other form of recognition or reward to the learners.

    That is to say, social learning enhances the chances of success. A few of the social features online learning tools may include are group chats, threaded discussions, discussion groups, etc.


Read more: 3 useful social learning tips for instructional designers


Final thoughts

The social learning is not just a buzzword in today’s era. Many progressive businesses are leveraging it to foster corporate training and collaborative learning. While the requirement for training that supports specific learning outcomes is growing day-by-day, there is a need to create social learning platforms where learners get an opportunity to share, connect, partner, and exchange ideas associated with problem-solving.

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