Keep it Social: Using Social Learning Theory to Improve Instructional Strategies

I’m going to come right out and say it: learning is social.

All learning occurs in a social context. Whether it is the social pressures/motivators for pursuing an education, the interactions between students and teachers, the interactions between students and peers, even the interaction between students and the class content (books, movies, pictures, handouts, materials, etc. are all created or organized by people for the social purpose of transmitting information from one person to another), our learning is wrapped in a social context. And, it is not just the nature of the material that makes learning social, it is the fact that learning as a cognitive process takes place in a social context (Bandura, 1963).

But, not all classrooms are equally social. Modern day classrooms are no longer limited to face-to-face classes but instead are becoming more diverse to include technology enhanced classrooms, MOOCs, combined ITV classes, hybrid classes, and personalized learning. While differences in classroom delivery can affect the socio-cultural environment of the classroom, ultimately our instructional practices can help or hinder the social learning process.

Social Learning Theory

But, let’s take a step back and return to my original statement: learning is social. According to Social Learning Theory, learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context through observation and modeling (Bandura, 1963). We learn by observing a behavior and the positive or negative results of that behavior. Based on these observations we extract information concerning the observed behavior, and then make decisions based on that information (modeling). The learner plays an active role in this process and does not simply receive information, but the learner’s behavior affects their environment just as the learner’s environment affects their behavior (reciprocal determinism).

Bandura (1977) identifies three modes for stimulating this observational and modeling learning process:


1. Live Model 

A live model demonstrates the actual behavior for students. This not only includes the behavior, but also the positive or negative consequences that follow the behavior.




2. Verbal Instruction

This is where a person describes the behavior to students in detail, as well as how students should engage with this behavior.




3. Symbolic Model

In a symbolic model, students are able to observe the behavior through media, such as TV, books, radio, or the internet.



Technically a traditional classroom lecture is an example of verbal instruction just as having students read material is an example of a symbolic instruction. But, are these the most effective ways of stimulating modeling behaviors? Probably not.

Live models, verbal instruction, and symbolic instruction only describe methods for providing observable examples to our students. But the cognitive and behavioral side of social learning is what can help us determine if our strategies will result in our desired learning objectives. The conditions for effective modeling rely on the following cognitive and behavioral process:

  • Attention
  • Retention
  • Reproduction
  • Motivation


Are you able to capture your learners attention? If not, how will they model behavior later? Capturing and maintaining your students’ attention is key. Without their attention they could miss key elements in their observation and extraction of information, which will definitely affect the way they model behavior down the road.

Attention can be a tricky thing. 1) Our attention can shift voluntarily or involuntarily, 2) our attention is very limited, and 3) we often overestimate how well we are able to pay attention (Miller, 2014). And, while we are vying for our students’ attention, we are also competing with many other attention-grabbing things, such as their mobile phones, their friends, entertainment websites, or even their own internal thoughts.

So how do we compete? One easy solution is to limit the amount of things that could distract your students’ attention as well as discourage divided attention. But this will only take you so far. Instead, encourage students to take an active role in the classroom and their own learning. Ask them questions frequently, provide safe environments for modeling observed behavior, or try some Connectivism approaches. Not only will students be more engaged and attentive, you will also be providing them the opportunity to shape their own learning environment, as well as model for other students.


Not only do students have to pay attention in order to successfully model, they also need to remember what they were paying attention to. And, not just over a short period of time, often we want students to retain this information for long periods of time or make it habitual. Some of the strategies we discussed for attention can help improve student retention, but adding elements such as frequent test-like activities, spaced study, and scaffolding can aid in student memory (Miller, 2014).


Students also need to successfully reproduce and demonstrate behavior for effective modeling. This won’t always happen on their first attempt. Students also need the opportunity to try, fall short, and learn from that attempt. Then, lessons-learned from previous attempts can inform their future efforts. Providing students with a safe place to carry out these attempts is important to this process. But, not just providing the opportunity for the attempt. We also need to work feedback in and allow for multiple attempts to help our students successfully reproduce behavior.


Your learners also have to have a good reason or motivation to reproduce the behavior. Understanding what gets your students to class everyday can be tricky and it differs for every student. As an instructor, I like to ask students what their motivations are for being in my class and I like to challenge them to think about how topics in class may affect other aspects of their life. As an instructor this helps me understand what motivates my students better. Other strategies for increasing motivation are offering early and often assessments with feedback, making rubrics and expectations for assignments clear and transparent to your students, and incorporating peer-review into your class.


Understanding the cognitive learning process and it’s relation to social context can help us better plan instruction and the social environment of the classroom. Rather than sending students off in groups or on social media, we first need to ask ourselves how this activity is aiding students in attention, retention, reproduction, and their motivation. Likewise, when we plan activities that limit social interaction, we need to ask ourselves if this is helping or hindering our students learning.

Do you have suggestions for activities that help with student attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation? Share them with us in the comments below!


Additional Resources

Bandura, Albert (1963). Social learning and personality development. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston

Bandura, Albert (1977). Social learning theory. Oxford, England: Prentice-Hall.

Miller, Michelle (2014). Minds online: teaching effectively with technology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Alex is a dual-hatted (or should I say hooded) academic with Master’s degrees in both Anthropology and Educational Technology. Alex specializes in understanding the interactions between learners and technology, the socio-cultural learning environment, Web 2.0 learning strategies, and creating interactive, technology-enhanced learning experiences.

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