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The Relevance Of Social Cognitive Theory to Online Learning


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.

 – Albert Bandura, Canadian-American psychologist

Have you ever been in a situation where you were compelled to use a machine with no clue about how to run it? It might have been at a self-check-in counter at an airport that had its default language set to a language you didn’t know. Or it might be at a self-service kiosk for a tram that required you to share information to print your ticket.

Thinking what would you do in such a situation, I bet most of you would try to look over, see what others are doing to take a cue. Although the situation can be quite awkward, this proves an important point that many times we humans prefer to learn unfamiliar tasks based on ‘observation.’

This leads us to the social cognitive theory.

In this blog post, apart from other points, we’ll be looking at how you can apply this theory to online learning systems to achieve a better outcome. Take a look.

What is the Social Cognitive Learning Theory & Who Developed It?

The social cognitive theory of learning is a theory attributed to distinguished Canadian-American psychologist, Albert Bandura. It began as a ‘social learning theory’ in the 1960s after which Bandura further developed it.

To define social cognitive theory in detail, it states that one of the ways people acquire knowledge is through observation and imitation of fellow human beings’ behaviors in different environments and settings.

In other words, the theory dwells on how, when people see a model performing a specific action, based on their observation, they use this information as a guide for subsequent behaviors. Merely watching a model prompts the observer to engage in similar behavior.

This method of learning through social influence can take place in a classroom or outside of it. The theory finds applications in the field of psychology, education, and communication.

Components of Social Cognitive Theory

The social cognitive theory is composed of four essential components:

  1. Self-ObservationIndividuals can inform and motivate themselves by observing themselves.
  2. Self-Evaluation –This relates to how one assesses one’s present performance in relation to the expected goal.
  3. Self-Reaction –Reactions, either positive or negative, to one’s performancecan be motivating by nature. Example: Happiness on progress made, and the urge to work harder on less-than-optimal performance.
  4. Self-Efficacy –It is about an individual’s belief in himself or herself as far as their capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce a specific result is concerned.

Vicarious Learning Theory

The cognitive learning theory gave rise to another term vicarious learning. So, what is vicarious learning? It means more or less the same thing as social cognitive learning. It is ‘learning by watching.’

A vicarious learning design emphasizes on the innate human nature of acquiring new behaviors from observing models. They watch and re-enact those behaviors when the situation demands.

For instance, if you teach interviewing skills by pairing learners and allowing them to interview each other, most of them won’t go beyond the usual questions, “Tell me something about yourself,” “Why do you think we should hire you,” “Tell me about your strengths and weaknesses,” and so on.

But when learners are shown videos or asked to observe other real interviews, they will be able to absorb the skills in a better way. It is likely that they will be able to understand how to uncover important personal characteristics of interviewees by developing hypothetical situations that they would relate to personally.

Another case in point is raising awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. You can use the role-playing method to educate learners on the topic by showing aggressors and victims in real-life scenarios.

On-the-job learning follows this approach. Many times, new hires are paired with experienced employees during the initial few weeks or months so that they can understand how to react to specific situations more effectively as compared to reading an employee handbook.

Importance of Social Learning Theory

Bandura’s social cognitive learning theory is significant from at least two angles:

  1. It marked a turning point or an advancement in the studies of human psychology and behavior as it relates to their learning & development. Learning by observation was already there since the time of early man as seen in their habits as hunter-gatherers. But it was the theory that documented those behaviors and paved the way for future research in that direction.
  2. It was because of this theory that teachers and trainers are applying social learning principles in the design, development, and implementation of online learning systems. Learning methods such as peer-to-peer learning are a manifestation of this principle, and it is known to be an effective social cognitive theory model in different learning environments.

Social Cognitive Theory in Education

One of the best ways to see cognitive learning theory at work is in education systems, whether online or offline.

To give an example, when an instructor gives an assignment or project of an above-average difficulty level, students tend to come together and collaborate with each other towards a common objective.

This collaborative exercise through knowledge sharing and joint problem solving enables learners to achieve the learning objectives faster and more effectively than if they were left to fend for themselves.

Of course, you need to provide the right collaborative tools to the learners to facilitate better learning experiences.

Watch: How to Enable Collaboration & Discussions in Your Course

How to Apply Social Cognitive Theory to eLearning

Most of the social eLearning strategies we see today can be traced to social cognitive theory. With the use of the right tools, you can offer varied social learning opportunities to learners.

Here are some of the ways you can leverage Bandura’s theory in an eLearning setup:

Observational Learning

Don’t you prefer to visit YouTube when you want to learn something new online? Social learning theory says that humans learn best by observing others. This can be in the form of someone physically displaying a behavior or even describing a specific task verbally.

So, how to use it in eLearning? The use of both audio and visual in online learning is capable of recreating this experience. The virtual classroom technology supports this function by allowing real-time collaboration.

You can display videos of individuals performing specific job-related tasks and then make your users answer queries about what worked and what didn’t. Incorporate a movie clip that displays a specific issue you want the learner to watch. It can be followed up with interactive activities where learners discuss the situation. This can be done independently or by learning from actors in the movie.

Retention and Context

Are you aware that human beings learn by internalizing information in their memories, and when the time arises in a similar situation, they simply recall that information? They tend to retain information for a long time when it has a context and emotional connection.

Social learning plays a key role in knowledge retention. When people discuss something important, they relate it to their personal experiences.

How to use it in eLearning?

There are diverse opportunities in online learning, where people can discuss different topics. Leading learning management system (LMS) tools such as ProProfs Training Maker come with built-in forums that facilitate real-time collaboration among learners. When you make eLearning engaging with such a social learning LMS, learners are more likely to engage in group discussions and knowledge exchange, which ensures the retention of information for a longer duration.

Motivation and Reward

Students learn better when they are motivated. According to Bandura’s social learning theory, motivation originates from the expectation of rewards.

How to apply it to eLearning?

By adding gamification features including learning paths, scores, badges, and certificates to online learning. It is an excellent way to inspire learners. This improves the learning experience and makes it more engaging.

State of Mind

Bandura stated that it’s not external reinforcement alone that impacts human learning and behavior, but also the internal reward (intrinsic reinforcement). The internal feeling of accomplishment comes only when a task has been successfully completed, boosting the confidence level.

How to use it in eLearning?

In an online learning environment, creating challenging activities and implementing learning checks can offer intrinsic reinforcement. One can also offer the learners with a personalized and downloadable course completion certificate or any other form of reward and recognition.

Social learning improves the chances of success. Some of the key social features of eLearning tools include threaded discussions and group chats.

Future of Social Learning

The adoption of online social learning practices is rising at a consistent pace, thanks to the increasing availability of online tools that support this type of learning. The future will unfold more instances of peer-to-peer learning.

Online learning communities found in LMS will find enhanced learning experience through the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

Social learning will be one of those features that would define tomorrow’s training and education system. We will see more of social learning-friendly LMS like ProProfs Training Maker in the coming days.

Be a Part of the Social Learning Trend!

Today, social learning is a buzzword. Many forwarding-looking businesses are leveraging it to foster collaborative learning, give better learning experience, and achieve results.

While there is a growing requirement for training that supports particular learning outcomes, there is a need to create platforms for social learning where students get an opportunity to connect, share, partner, and exchange ideas.

Does your eLearning tool support social learning? Please share your thoughts below.

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About the author

Kamy Anderson is an online training expert and a product manager. He leads the product vision and strategy of ProProfs Training Maker. Kamy blogs about trends in eLearning, online training, employee training, gamification, LMS, AI, and more. His articles are published in eLearningIndustry, TrainingMag, Training Zone, and Learning Solutions Magazine. You can connect with Kamy on LinkedIn.