Social learning theory: what it is, origins and applications

Social learning considers not only the environment in which a person develops but also their motivation and personal attributes when...
3 August 2023

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Social learning theory: what it is, origins and applications

Social learning considers not only the environment in which a person develops but also their motivation and personal attributes when assimilating knowledge. 

In this approach, the role of updating learning with new ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) becomes highly relevant. 

Given its importance, let’s explore what social learning is, from its origins to its applications in education.

What is the main idea of social learning theory?

Social learning is a theory that states that education occurs through the observation of the environment and reactions to stimuli of reward or punishment. 

In this way, the learner assumes an active role at the center of the educational process, while the teacher transforms their informative role into an educational one, guiding the student in participating in their own evolution.

Social learning theory: what it is, origins and applications

Types of social learning

The three types of social learning combine to create the experience of knowledge assimilation:

  1. Observational learning: It occurs when a person observes the behavior of another individual and imitates it.
  2. Punishment-based learning: A specific behavior leads to negative reinforcement to prevent its recurrence.
  3. Reward-based learning: The aim is to motivate an individual to repeat a behavior by providing incentives.

Social learning implies a paradigm shift in knowledge acquisition, where the learner is placed at the center and the role of the teacher moves away from being a mere transmitter. 

In other words, the teacher gradually influences the student’s education to hand over control of their learning.

In this process, the teacher is no longer a source of information but a facilitator of evolution.

The origins of social learning theory: Albert Bandura

The theory of social learning originated in the 19th century through the work of Cornell Montgomery and his four phases of learning:

  • Close contact with the environment.
  • Observation and imitation of other people.
  • Conceptual understanding.
  • Behavioral patterns to follow.

However, it was propelled by Albert Bandura in the second half of the 20th century. This psychologist concluded that an individual learns through imitation and that the person’s characteristics and motivation come into play to make that behavior repetitive.

What is the main idea of social learning theory?

The Bobo Doll Experiment

During the development of his theory, Albert Bandura conducted the Bobo doll experiment. 

He used three groups, although the test was conducted individually to limit stimuli and distractions:

  1. A group exposed to an aggressive social context motivated by an adult.
  2. A group not exposed to a violent environment, where the adult would not engage in violent behavior.
  3. A control group where no adult would participate.

Different toys and distractions were placed in the experiment room, including a test doll or Bobo doll, an inflatable toy about one meter tall made of resistant materials such as plastic or vinyl.

The experiment concluded that the group exposed to a context where the adult displayed aggression towards the doll imitated those behaviors to a greater extent than in the other contexts.

Based on the results obtained through a social-cognitive approach, Albert Bandura determined that human behavior results from the interaction between the individual and the environment. 

Thus, the social learning theory considers that both external and internal factors interact in the learning process, distinguishing between active learning (learning by doing) and vicarious learning (learning by observing others).


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Principles of Social Learning Theory

It is important to understand that, according to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, for a behavior to be accurately imitated, four principles must be fulfilled:

  1. Attention: The learner must pay attention to the model they are imitating.
  2. Memory: The person learning must be able to retain the observed information in order to reproduce it.
  3. Reproduction: The student must have the appropriate context to reproduce the behavior, which doesn’t necessarily have to be identical.
  4. Motivation: Without interest, the chain of social learning breaks. To reinforce it, a reward or objective that gives meaning to the behavior reproduction needs to be introduced.

According to Albert Bandura, this reward can take different forms:

  • Past reward or punishment: In response to a behavior that has been performed.
  • Average reinforcement or punishment: Incentives sought by engaging in an activity.
  • Vicarious reinforcement or punishment: The individual desires to achieve or avoid what they see others receiving.

In this way, we are referring to social and emotional learning, in which individuals acquire knowledge, understand and manage emotions, and develop skills such as empathy, anticipation of outcomes, responsible decision-making, and the reinforcement of autonomy, among others.

Social learning is a theory that states that education occurs through the observation of the environment

Applications of Social Learning in Education

Considering everything discussed thus far, it is easy to see the value of applying social learning in education, especially in light of the learning revolution brought about by ICTs. 

It becomes a tool that can help students become active participants in their learning, setting goals to guide their educational development. 

At the same time, it strengthens the bond between teacher and student, fostering a positive attitude towards learning and managing frustrations.

Through virtual classrooms, video tutorials, social networks, and Learning Management Systems (LMS), E-learning plays a vital role in generating new ways of acquiring knowledge, such as ubiquitous learning.

At Smowltech, we aim to be part of this educational revolution by offering highly customizable proctoring plans to our clients. Discover how we can assist you by requesting a free demo.


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