Social Learning Theory


Social learning theory focuses on “the learning that occurs within a social context. It considers that people learn from one another, including such concepts as observational learning, imitation, and modeling”. Albert Bandura and Lev Vygotsky are the main contributors to this theory.

General principles of the social learning theory:

1. People learn by observing the behaviors of others and the outcomes of those behaviors.
2. Learning can occur without a change in behavior. Behaviorists say that learning has to be represented by a permanent change in behavior; however, 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 behavior change.
3. Cognition plays arole in learning. Over the last 30 years social learning theory has become increasingly cognitivein its interpretation of human learning. Awareness and expectations of future reinforcements or punishments can have a major effect on the behaviors that people exhibit.
4. Social learning theory can be considered a bridge or a transition between behaviorist learning theories and cognitive learning theories.

Important Contributors

Lev Vygotsky
“Every function in a child’s development appears twice: first on the social level and later on the individuals level; first between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attentions, to logical memory, and the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.”

Vygotsky lived during Russian Revolution and his work was largely unknown until 1962. He focused on interactions between people in a sociocultural context. Suggested that culture shaped the tools ,such as reading and writing, that people utilized to survive in their environment. These tools are originally developed by children simply as a way to communicate needs. Higher mental processes, such as problem solving, are initially developed through shared activities. (talking to yourself) which he considered to be "higher thinking skills." Eventually, these skills become internalized. Importantly, Vygotsky believed that children's development was fostered through interaction with individuals who are more advanced in their thinking - teachers, for instance.

  • The role of adults and peers:
    • The discovery of cognitive operations by a child it assisted or mediated by family, teachers, peers, software.
    • Most guidance is through language.
  • Assisted learning:
    • Requires scaffolding; giving information, prompts, etc. and the right time and amount then gradually allowing students to do more and more on their own.
    • Teachers can assist learning by adapting lessons or equipment to student’s CURRENT level.
  • Strategies to scaffold complex learning:
    • Thinking out loud.
    • Regulating difficulty.
    • Utilizing reciprocal teaching. Teacher provides support to students as they learn to lead discussions and ask their own questions.
  • Teaching with technology:
    • -Learning theorists have begun to view the computer, in particular the social connectivity afforded, as a tool that can be harnessed to create powerful learning environments.

  • Teaching in the magic middle;
    • Neither bored no frustrated.
    • Students must reach to understand, but where support from a teacher or peer is available.
    • Sometimes the best teacher is a student who has just figured out solution since they are probably functioning in the Zone of Proximal Development.
  • Guidelines: Applying Vygotsky’s ideas into teaching
    • Tailor scaffolding to needs of students.
      • Provide a lot of help when beginning new tasks or topics. Eventually wean support.
      • Give choices about level of difficult or degree of independence in projects.
    • Capitalize on dialogue and group learning.
      • Experiment with peer tutoring, teach to ask “good” questions and provide feed-back.
      • Experiment with cooperative learning strategies

Alberta Bandura
"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action."

A Canadian psychologist recognized as the originator of the social learning theory and the theory of self-efficacy. Currently, Bandura is the most-cited living psychologist, widely touted as the greatest living psychologist, and one of the most influential psychologists of all time.

Bandura's Social Learning Theory has three core concepts:
Observational Learning
Three basic models of observational learning has been identified:
  1. A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.
  2. A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.
  3. A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.
Intrinsic Reinforcement
In addition to external, environmental reinforcement, Bandura acknowledged intrinsic reinforcement - pride, sense of accomplishment - as a form of reward.
Learning does not necessarily lead to a change in behavior.
Contrasting behaviourism, which believed that learning necessarily led to a permanent behaviour change, observational learning postulates that people are able to learn new information without altering behaviour.

Bandura understood that not all observed behaviour would be retained. Following are factors involved in the observational learning process:

The Modeling Process
  • Attention:
    In order to learn, you must pay attention. If what you are observing is interesting you are much more likely to pay your full attention, and therefore to learn.
  • Retention:The ability to store information is also an important part of the learning process. Retention can be affected by a number of factors, but the ability to pull up information later and act on it is vital to observational learning.
  • Reproduction:
    Following the previous two steps, you have enough information to replicate the action; this may still require great amounts of practice.
  • Motivation:
    For observational learning to be effective, the learner must be motivated to imitate behaviour. In order to achieve this final step, reinforcement and punishment may be beneficial. These external motivators can be effective, but simply witnessing them may be enough; for instance, if a peer is given five minutes longer at recess for being on time, you may be motivated to come to class early.

Types Of Groups

There are two main types of groups that teachers can use when using social learning in their classroom. The first is heterogeneous grouping. This is when students of different ability levels are combined. The definition of heterogeneous grouping could also be expanded to include grouping together students of different ages and races. This approach can be especially useful at the beginning of the school year so students get to know each other.

The second type of grouping is homogenous grouping. This means grouping together students that are similar. The similarities may refer to ability, race, or age. As a teacher, you may be able to identify students of similar ability levels by referring to your past assessment scores. The groups will likely change according to the lesson. This approach can be useful to group students together that may need extra help so the teacher can work more closely with them, while the students who need no extra help can be grouped together and work on something different.

Read more:

Ways Interpersonal Social Learning Can Be Addressed in the Classroom
In the classroom as teachers, we will be faced with a great variety of students with a great variety of learning styles. Learning to balance the teaching styles we use will be crucial to the successes of our pupils. Social learning in particular has endless possibilities in the ways we can utilize group work within the classroom. Some concrete examples include:

  • ROLE PLAYING- Role-playing is a technique that works well with others, whether its one on one or with a group of people. For example, have the students be assigned a SLO, and have them act it out for the classroom. Another example might be to role-play with one person being the instructor and the other being the student.
  • DEBATING A TOPIC- Debates are conducted when one group of students are assigned one side of an issue while another group argues for the other side. You can then have the groups switch roles and argue the opposite side. Finally, you may have all the students drop their advocacy and come to a consensus about the topic, or develop a report that takes the best evidence and reasoning from both sides. Debates are a great way to teach about Social Studies events.
  • CREATE QUIZZES- Get students into small groups and give each group a small segment of your lecture material. Ask each group to prepare a short quiz on their assigned segment. You can then have each team quiz the other groups, or collect the quizzes and give each student a package of all of the quizzes and allow the students to use them as study material. *This method will only be truly useful for the students if you go over the questions and provide the proper answers.
  • GROUP TEST TAKING- Create a test that can be in-class or take-home. The group is expected to collaborate on answers, and each student reviews the score of the group.
  • MIND MAPS- Mind maps and systems diagrams are great to work on in class as a group. Have one person be the appointed drawer, while the rest of the class works through material and suggests ideas. The group may have varied views on how to represent some ideas, however this is a positive part of learning in groups. Natural leaders will become apparent through this approach, which can help the teacher form balanced groups in future tasks.

external image MindMap1.jpg

Patterns of Group Interaction

When we put students in group work settings, it is important that we monitor the ways they interact so that one student is not overpowering, or another is not left out of the activity. Some definitions of group interaction include:
  • Maypole- when the leader is the central figure and communications occur from the leader member and from the member to the leader
  • Round Robin- when members take turns talking
  • Hot Seat- when there is an extended back-and-forth discussion between the leader and one member, while the other members watch
  • Free Floating- when all members take responsibility for communication, taking into consideration their ability to contribute meaningfully to the particular topic

Benefits of Group Work
"The great thing about teamwork is that you always have others on your side"- Margaret Carty

Group work provides a means of reducing cognitive load while encouraging task behavior. This can help increase student engagement and their understanding of material necessary for progressing on to more complex issues. Research has shown that group work and peer interaction can be effective strategies in helping to build trust and reciprocity among students in the classroom and allows for each student to be able to participate in an environment that is less stressful on them.

Working interdependently also gives students a support system when working on assignments and projects that can deliver even better, well thought-out work. Positive interdependence brings students together in search of common goals and allows for them to get to know each other and find commonalities, which in turn may lead to a greater atmosphere and can help bring a sense of community to the classroom.

It has also shown that the presence of others in different settings can increase performance on many types of tasks, including jogging, shooting pool, lifting weights, and solving problems. Working together in a group also helps students foster teamwork and social skills as well as cooperation which is a valuable trait not only in schools, but also in everyday life.

Group work allows for students to work to their strengths and weaknesses. For example, a group may have a student who is quieter but a strong writer, another who is not afraid to talk and is very creative, and another who may be a good drawer. All these strengths can be utilized in a group environment under the right assignments. With the power of the group students are not at a disadvantage for not being as strong in a particular area because they have a support system who can aid in the work, therefore taking a lot of stress off of one individual. Furthermore, Working interdependently can be a major source of motivation for students because the mark is now not only a reflection of their own work independently, but of their peers as well.



When students are assessing their own work and that of their peers, they will use what is called self- and peer assessment. This evaluation inside the group is a complement to the evaluation from outside made by the teacher. Self-assessment can be used to assess cognitive skills about cooperation and attitudes in the group. This means that the students: (a) assess their own work in the group; (b) assess their own role in the group; and (c) make suggestions for improvement (i.e. at both the individual and group levels). Self-assessment can be used after the activity through discussions in the classroom as well as in individual reports.

Assessment done by Teachers:

Students should be made aware of assessment before starting the project

  • assessment method
  • criteria (product and/or process)
Product vs. Process
  • assessing the product - measuring the quantity and quality of individual work in a group project
  • assessing the process - evaluating individual teamwork skills and interaction
Assessment by instructor vs. by group members
  • by instructor - instructor assigns all marks
  • by group members - group members evaluate their contributions to the group and assign marks

Product assessment by instructor
Equally shared mark
  • All group members receive same grade
Exam questions
  • Questions should be specifically about the project, and are answerable only by students who
have been thoroughly involved in the project
Splitting tasks
  • Project must be divisible into multiple tasks of the same complexity
  • Each student is responsible for one task
  • Final mark is part group mark (e.g., 50%) and part individual task mark (e.g., 50%)
Direct evaluation
  • Instructor individual merits
  • oral interviews
  • periodic reports
  • meeting minutes
  • observation
Process assessment by instructor
Direct evaluation of team behavior using teamwork logs - sample questions:
  • what steps have you taken to organize your teamwork?
  • what steps have you taken to monitor the effectiveness of your team?
  • what steps have you taken to improve the effectiveness of your team?
  • what problems have you encountered in working as a team and how did you tackle them?
  • if you were to embark on a second, similar task as a team, what would be different about the way you go about working, and why?

Assessment done by peer

Issues with peer evaluation:
  • Should we use self-assessment?
  • Should instructor adjust marks?
  • Should it be done individually or collectively by consensus?
Distribution of a pool of marks
  • Award the group a mark equal to (group mark) X (no. of group members)
  • Let group divide marks among themselves
Individual weighting factor
  • Points awarded for a list of tasks
  • Individual mark = (group mark) X (peer assessment factor)
Process assessment
List of skills to assess, such as:
  • adoption of complementary team roles
  • cooperative behavior
  • time and task management
  • creative problem solving
  • use of a range of working methods
  • negotiation
Process assessment by peer evaluation
  • Individual assessment (see Appendix for example)
  • how members view each member of the team
  • use lists of key group work traits
  • average of individual marks must be the same as the group mark

Assessment Resources:

Student assessment checklist:
Methods for assessing group work:
Group and self-assessment tool:
Group self-assessment rubric:
Group work rubric and checklist:
Tools for teaching : Collaborative learning, group work, and study teams:
Assessing Group Work