Social learning theory: Bandura's 5 key steps of the learning process

In this article we have a brief look at the social learning theory by Bandura and we also gather the principal five steps that he assures to conform the learning process.

How many times have you watched someone doing a particular task and, after having taken notice for a while, you have tried to replicate the same? Let's say you watch people play a game and pay attention to how they play and then, with the information that you recompilate, you start playing the game as well. This mimic behaviour is what Bandura believes to result in learning.

“Fortunately, most human behaviour is learned observationally through modeling from others. From observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.”

– Albert Bandura As the creator of the concept of social learning theory, Bandura proposes five essential steps in order for the learning to take place: observation, attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Let's have a look at how these work.

1. Learning through observation

The key to the social learning theory is that we observe certain behaviours and then, after a few mental processes that we will see down below, we imitate them. However, according to Bandura, observation in itself does not always guarantee the behaviour to be learned. In addition to observing, he also added other four mediational processes.

2. Paying attention

The learner needs to pay attention. If he or she is distracted, it will probably affect the quality of learning. Being focused on the task at hand becomes the first step for retaining the information and getting to acquire the knowledge. In this way, the behaviour that we are trying to imitate has to grab our attention, so that no external factors become distractions.

3. Retention

How much do you remember from what you have observed in order to reproduce it? This is what retention is based on, on how well that behaviour is remembered. It is important to have a good memory of the behaviour we are trying to imitate that we can refer to.

Social Learning Theory is key to understand the learning process
Social Learning Theory is key to understand the learning process

4. Reproduction

All of the steps above bring us to this final one, the reproduction of the behaviour/task that we have observed. After having observed, paid attention to and remembered the behaviour/task, we should be able to perform it ourselves. However, following all these steps will not guarantee the correct reproduction of the behaviour since other factors may influence the performance, such as the limitation of our physical ability. Imagine an 85 year old woman who watches a young boy doing parkour; she may be able to observe and theoretically learn how it is done, but because of her physical state, she may not be able to do it herself.

5. The importance of motivation

Of course, reproduction of the behaviour/task would not be possible without the will to do it. Motivation could be considered one of the most important principles of the social learning theory; all of the rest rely on it. Here, both reinforcement and punishment play an essential role. If the observer does not see a favourable outcome of the behaviour he or she is paying attention to, he or she will not be motivated towards imitating it.

Now that we have seen how Bandura's theory works, and in order to conclude, let's see how it can be applied to the real world, or, more concretely, to the world of education. There is no doubt that the social learning theory is highly beneficial for the educational field since teachers can provide students with positive role models for them to follow in a motivational environment. Another concept that comes from the social learning theory and which also becomes key in the learning of the students is self-efficacy. The concept, which basically means the belief in one's abilities, is highly regarded by Bandura, who says:

“In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life.”

There you have it; if we motivate students and help them build their self-efficacy, they will approach the challenges in a better light and will be encouraged to keep growing. And, although self-belief does not always ensure success, it surely adds more ballots to the lottery.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall,Inc.

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