What is the Social Learning Theory? (and How to Embed it)

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Social learning has recently become a powerful tool for delivering e-learning, with organisations incorporating it as a key strategy for educating employees, partners, and clients alike. It may sound like just the latest, hip buzzword, but the concept has far more value than that.

Social learning leverages a truth about human nature that’s too often overlooked – we enjoy learning together. Savvy organisations are now using this methodology to gain a competitive advantage through continuous upskilling.

While there is still a place for formal, standardised learning and development, in many more situations, a more flexible, collaborative approach to learning is advantageous. Under this alternative methodology, learners share, collaborate and compare solutions to problems.

In this article, we explain what social learning is, the four key principles and how to embed these in your organisation.

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What is Social Learning Theory?

The theory of social learning was first proposed in 1977 by Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura at Stanford University. Bandura’s notion was that learning essentially occurs in a social context through observation and demonstration. Whereas the practice of a new activity by a learner is an important constituent, what’s vital is the sharing of skills through sensory stimuli including sight, sound, and tactile feedback.

In Bandura’s social learning theory, interaction with colleagues forms a crucial part of how skills are transferred. Our common-sense intuition backs this up – demonstrations will always feel preferable to written documents as a method for conveying new abilities and skills. We generally prefer collaborating in groups to pool skills and knowledge, to having to go it alone on an unfamiliar topic.

Social learning, therefore, is no esoteric, academic theory, but a codification of a truth we recognize in our day-to-day lives – show me will always beat tell me.

Why Use Social Learning?

Using the social learning method has many more practical applications to modern working environments than more didactic styles.

Evolution shows us that humans are one of the most social animals and have been for as long as we can measure. Social interaction becomes vital to human development from infancy. We know that our children are developing well when they begin to observe others, listen, modify their behaviour, and grow in social settings. As adults, we continue to have thoughtful conversations and incorporate new information presented convincingly to us by others.

Within companies, leveraging the huge reservoir of knowledge and skills within internal ranks conveys immeasurable advantage. Not only does it improve employee engagement, but it maximises the use of resources, saves money, and encourages future skill sharing. A virtuous cycle develops, where pooled knowledge and insights are banked and the visible improvement that occurs then engenders further sharing and learning.

In the 21st century, delivering fully involving and engaging L&D activities is a crucial contribution to the bottom line. Social learning concepts and platforms are a vital component of such activities and should, therefore, be considered mandatory by any forward-thinking, competitive workplace.

Proving Social Learning’s Efficacy

We can evangelise social learning as much as we like, but it’s also important to look at the statistics surrounding this theory.

According to research from ATD, for example, “social learning approaches have a 75:1 ROI ratio over web-based training.”

Experience gives additional evidence – an Accenture survey of businesses who have incorporated social learning into their R&D mix found that 82% planned to increase its use in the future. A recent long-term study of Gen Z Learners and the use of social learning tools found “84.6% of learners stating their preference toward the inclusion of such tools as part of the teaching-learning process.”

Stats show that social learning is a popular methodology with both companies and learners alike.

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What are the 4 Key Principles of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory?

To understand how to implement the social learning theory in an organisation, it is important to be aware of the four key principles.

Bandura elaborated his social learning theory with four key principles:

  • Attention: The environment in which learning takes place must be conducive to focused attention. Content which piques our interest with its uniqueness will tend to draw our attention and help lessons stick.
  • Retention: Information is best retained when we feel it is useful, practical, and applicable to our daily lives. When these conditions are present, we tend to internalise the observed, shared lessons.
  • Reproduction: Internalisation means that we’ll be able to reproduce aspects of learning when the circumstances require us to. A combination of mental recall and practical application helps instil lessons firmly, making them repeatable.
  • Motivation: This element must also be present, usually in the form of a “carrot or stick.” In other words, we are motivated by the promise of an advantage we can gain, or conversely by one we might lose by missing out on valuable information. Both motivators appeal to our competitive nature.

When all four elements are present, social learning has the best chance of working its magic.

Different Types of Conditioning

Bandura’s social learning theory was built upon the principles of classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, as famously demonstrated by Pavlov’s dog experiment, when we receive powerful stimuli followed by the same outcome over and over again, we begin to associate one with the other. We learn a relationship between the two stimuli and anticipate the second when the former occurs.

If we create a correlation between events in the real world and the activities we should engage in when experiencing such events, then we are conditioning learning. For instance, when we learn to drive, we associate the red of a traffic light with the act of putting on the brakes. Conditioning allows us to think with maximum safety in mind, so quickly that we barely have time to consciously notice we’ve applied a learned response.

However, such an approach is inherently mechanistic – we are not engaging our reason so much as becoming an automaton who does Y when we experience X.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a little different. In this model, learners are rewarded for correct responses, and punished for bad ones. A lot of historically didactic teaching methods used this methodology (back to the “carrot and stick”). The drawback of course is that, although subjects have been given a reason to inform their reactions, it’s not really the right reason.

In operant conditioning, we do X because we’ll be punished if we do Y. in other words, we don’t act because a course of action is effective or better, but because it is mandated.

Bandura’s Conditioning Principles

Bandura adds two important principles to the conditioning that occurs with effective learning, namely mediation and observation:

  • Mediation takes place in the space between stimuli and response. We don’t immediately respond but take a moment to consider which course of action is appropriate and efficacious. If we’re highly emotional or misguided, we can still choose a less appropriate act, but the fact remains that we do choose, and the impetus from our actions comes from within, not without. The immediate cause of our next action is internal.
  • Observation. The appropriate behaviour we then select is chosen through observation and shared experience. We can’t rely on our individual intuition alone and instead we draw upon a shared pool of wisdom and experience. This is the information we’ve taken from our social interactions, including teacher-student and peer-to-peer ones.

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How to Embed Social Learning within your Organisation

Our culture today is littered with evidence of social learning. Examples include influencers with millions of followers, YouTube videos where individuals demonstrate key skills which we might emulate, and the peer pressure to conform experienced by school children.

However, in an L&D context, this powerful method of instilling knowledge must be handled with care and attention. Next, we’ll consider how best to go about using social learning in a business setting.

To embed social learning, there must be a conducive environment and set of circumstances in place. These are linked to the four key principles that Bandura identified. Let’s take them one by one.

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Attention – Devising Interactive Course Materials and Methods

Whether it’s by means of online quizzes, video content with a charismatic presenter or in-person sessions where questions are encouraged and group activities engaged in, there are many ways to focus learner attention. The course content needs to be devised with interest, novelty, and interactivity in mind, rather than relying on flat “lecture” formats or written materials.

Here are just some of the methods commonly used to focus attention:

  • Group project work
  • FAQs and forums
  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Role play
  • Quizzes and puzzles
  • Demonstrations
  • Site visits
  • Experiential sharing (support groups use this method a lot)
  • Using an online learning platform for knowledge sharing

None of these rely on individuals reading texts and all of them require team interaction, either between individuals and the course leader, or ideally, between all members of the group, including its facilitator.

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Retention – Making Lessons Memorable, Applicable and Repeatable

Lessons should be skewed towards the practical and readily applicable. For instance, if you were teaching a course in social media marketing, giving an extensively detailed history of its invention and progress would be much less useful than demonstrating how to use social media outlets to create winning marketing campaigns.

Better still would be demonstrating this, then challenging learners, in groups, to come up with sample campaigns for a hypothetical client or situation. Learning leaders thereby imprint a memory of having gone through a vital process, in a social context, with all the sensory and mental stimuli that such a process would entail.

Background and historical context can be supplied in supplementary materials for consumption later, or in between sessions. The value of getting people together in a room (or via an online video platform) is leveraging different opinions, ideas, and questions. This cornucopia of shared experience makes the learning truly memorable, enhancing retention.

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Reproduction – Lessons Can Be Demonstrated

If social learning programs are well-designed, learners ought to be able to relay or demonstrate what they have learned when they return to their roles. Were colleagues to ask, “what did you learn?” a learner would be able to demonstrate something or explain a concept without referring to notes.

Managers can make a point of asking such questions, to help gauge whether social learning is being carried out properly or not. Learners might be asked to give a short presentation to their team about what they learned.

Early in a social learning program, learners might be set an ongoing task or project to be presented at the end of the course. This will allow the course leader to determine if their content is reproducible, while helping with the next vital element in this list: motivation.

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Motivation – Giving Learners a Reason to Remember

When learners know that there will be positive outcomes to their retaining knowledge imparted during a program, they are more likely to remember. This may be the simple satisfaction of being up to speed about a topic, or a literal reward such as new responsibility, a bonus or certification.

As we’ve seen, learners are also likely to feel motivated to learn when the information relates directly to their workplace. Sharing examples of a topic from their own departments with the group helps reinforce practical applicability.

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Observation and Mediation

It’s also important to bear in mind the two new concepts Bandura brought to bear on the outmoded notion of educational conditioning.

Observation is aided by the appointment of charismatic trainers, who are open to questions, ideas, and internal conversations where these relate to the topic at hand.

Mediation must occur, even when a charismatic leader imparts an important fact. Important lessons must be allowed a little breathing room to sink in. Therefore, good program leaders pause to let points settle. This also serves to underscore headline points.

Mediation is also helped by allowing time for questions, clarifications, and even constructive disagreement. With the best will in the world, some topics will always be contentious, with competing theories and different strategies to adopt. Discussing these issues is another way of reinforcing the consideration stage prior to acceptance of any principle.

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Other Ways to Create a Social Learning Culture

As well as online and in-person programs, informal learning can also be highly social. This type of continuous learning has many potential media including:

  • Organisational Wikis. Modelled on Wikipedia, Reddit, and their variants, these are in-house repositories of learning, tips and tricks, recommendations, and sometimes heated discussions. One major thing they accomplish is engagement, and also a sense of shared responsibility for upskilling. In using these forums, it becomes apparent that everyone has unique experiences, perspectives, and skills they can share.
  • Subject Matter Experts. These are nominated individuals (they must be happy to take on such a responsibility) who are go-to sources of information. These experts can demonstrate solutions and concepts to those who are less confident in a particular field. Such methods are considerably more likely to work than Googling for solutions.
  • Rewards and Recognition. Helping with the challenge of motivation, it is important to recognise the work which has gone into a course attendee’s education. Avoid singling anyone out in public for special praise, as this can demotivate colleagues. However, using certificates, badges, percentage scores and other signifiers of achievement, has been a long tried and tested method of incorporating gentle competition.

Social learning can be a particular challenge in this era of remote working, Zoom conference calls, virtual training and four-day weeks. However, it’s worth finding ways to get learners together to share experiences, questions, and ideas.

For more on how to instil a culture of social learning, read our posts about learning transfer, and how to create truly engaging online educational content.

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Sean is the CEO of Skillshub. He’s a published author and has been featured on CNN, BBC and ITV as a leading authority in the learning and development industry. Sean is responsible for the vision and strategy at Skillshub, helping to ensure innovation within the company.

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Updated on: 15 September, 2022


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