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Chapter 7
Theories of Learning




Almost daily we see instances of people watching others and learning from them.  Little boys often emulate hero figures such as Superman, Batman and the Hulk.


One summer two boys, Alex and Jeff spent quiet a bit of time with their Uncle Pete, a large man who could pick both boys up at one time. Uncle Petes feat of strength was so impressive the boys wanted to be like him.  I could talk them into eating many foods they

had previously shunned simply by saying This is what helped Uncle Pete get big and strong.


Such learning by observation and modeling is the focus of  social learning theory.  Social learning theory focuses on the learning that occur within a social environment.  It considers how people learn from one another, encompassing such concepts as observational learning, imitation, and modeling.




Several general principles underlie social learning theory.  Lets review some of the key ideas that have shaped the evolution of social learning perspectives:


  • People can learn by observing the behavior of others and the outcome of these behaviors.


Originally it was presumed that people learned through trial and error.  In contrast, social learning theorists propose that most learning takes place not through trial and error but instead through watching the behavior of other individuals (modeling).


  • Learning can occur without a change of behavior:


As noted in Chapter 1, behaviorists defined learning as a relatively permanent change in behavior due to experience: thus, no learning can occur without behavior change.  In contrast, social learning theorists argue that because people can learn through observation alone, their learning will not necessarily be reflected in their performance.


In other words, learning may or may not result in behavior change.  Something learned at one time may be reflected in behavior exhibited at the same time, at a later time, or never.


  • The consequences of behavior play a role in learning:


  • Cognition plays a role in learning:


Learning theorist such as Bandura, Rosenthal and Zimmerman have all suggested cognitive factors play a role in learning. Awareness, Expectations, Attention and Retention have been added to their explanation of how learning occurs.



Bandura makes a distinction between learning through observation and the actual imitation of what has been learned.  As we have indicated earlier, people can learn by watching others without necessarily imitating the behavior they have seen.




Two sources of evidence indicate that this is true.  For one thing, people can verbally describe a behavior they have observed without actually performing it.


Second, people who observe a model perform a behavior may not demonstrate that behavior until some time later when they have a reason for doing so.  For example:


Children watched a model aggressively hit an inflated punching doll.  The consequence of the aggression to the model influenced the extent to which the children themselves participated in aggressive acts toward the doll.  However, later all the children were promised rewards (stickers, and fruit juice) if they could imitate the models behavior.  At that point, differences among participants disappeared.  All the children exhibited aggression toward the doll indicating they all had learned the models behavior equally well, the consequence had affected their willingness to act out that behavior.




Social Learning theorists describe the cognitive processes (i.e., thinking) that occur when people are learning.


Theorists contend that attention is a critical factor in learning.  Furthermore, they propose that people are more likely to remember information when they mentally repeat (rehearse) it and visual mental representations (memory codes) of this information.




Social learning theorists believe that, as a result of being rewarded for some behavior and punished for others, people form certain expectations about the consequences that future behavior is likely to bring.


The concept of incentivesthat is anticipating a particular reinforcement will occur if a particular behavior is performed reflects this idea of expectation.


Obviously, when people expect to be rewarded for initiating a behavior, they will be more likely to pay attention to that behavior and try to remember how it is performed.  Furthermore, they will be motivated to perform the behavior they have learned. 






According to social learning theorists reward and punishment have little effect on learning and behavior unless people are aware of the reward or punishment consequences.  Example


A student receives an F on a written assignment, with such comments as Poorly written and Disorganized noted in the margin.  For many students such feedback is insufficient to bring about an improvement in writing because it does not identify the specific part of the assignment that are poorly written and disorganized.




According to Bandura, many of the behaviors people exhibit have been acquired through observing and modeling what others do.


There are two types of modeling: live modeling .an actual person demonstrating a particular behavior, and symbolic modeling.a person or character portrayed in a film, television, book or other medium.  Example{


Many children model their behavior after football players, rock singers, or such fictional characters as Superman, G.I. Joe or the Rock.




Many behaviors are learned, at least in part through modeling.  For example students:


  • Are better readers when their parents read frequently at home


  • Solve mathematics problems more successfully when they see others demonstrate the appropriate procedure.



  • Are more likely to show intolerance of racist statements made by others when those around them refuse to tolerate such statements.


  • Begin to deal with a fear inducing situation with little or no fear after seeing a model behave fearlessly in that situation.


AggressionNumerous research studies indicate that children become more aggressive when they observe aggressive or violent models.


Morality.Many aspect of moral thinking and moral behavior are apparently influenced by observation and modeling.  Research has demonstrated the importance of modeling for such behavior as generosity, self control, and resistance to temptation.



According to Bandura four conditions are necessary before an individual can successfully model the behavior of someone else:  Attention, retention, motor reproduction and motivation.


Lets look at each of these conditions separately.                                             


Attention.  To imitate a behavior accurately, a person must first pay attention to the model and especially to the significant aspects of the modeled behavior.  If Martha wishes to learn to swing a golf club, she should watch how the golf pro stands, how her legs are placed how her hands hold the club, and so on.


Paying attention to the irrelevant parts of the model or her behavior. how the pro clears her throat or how her socks dont quite match will of course not be helpful.


I still remember my first French teacher, a women who came to my fifth grade class for an hour one day each week.  This woman always wore the same dark green wool dress, which unfortunately, turned to a turquoise color in places where she perspired.  I remember focusing on those turquoise spots, fascinated that a wool dress could actually change color just because of a little human sweat.  Yes, I was paying attention to my model, but, no, I did no learn much French, because I did not pay attention to the important aspect of the models behavior. her voice.              


RetentionThe second step in learning from a model is to remember the behavior that has been observed.  One simple way to remember what one has seen is rehearsal. repeating whatever needs to be remembered over and over again.  People store both verbal and visual information they have observed through a process called memory codes.  These memory codes later serve as a guide when people want to recall or perform the observed behavior they have seen.


Motor Reproductionis the ability to replicate the behavior that the model has demonstrated.  When an individual cannot reproduce an observed behavior due to physical immaturity, lack of strength, or disability, then motor reproduction does not exist.  For example, a child with a speech impediment may never be able to pronounce sassafras correctly, no matter how many times she hears the word spoken.


Motivation.the final necessary ingredient for modeling to occur is motivation.  Learners must want to demonstrate what they have learned. (Seeing a person use a gun to hold someone up).





  • The model is competent:  People demonstrating a particular behavior are more likely to be imitated by others if they are viewed as being competent, capable individuals. For example, a person trying to learn tennis is more likely to model the techniques of a successful tennis player than those of a friend who cannot even get the ball over the net.


  • The model has prestige and power.   Individuals that have high status, respect, and power, either within a small group or within society as a whole are more likely to serve as model for others.  A child is more likely to imitate the behaviors of a student leader or a famous rock star than the behaviors of a class dunce or a rock and roll has been.
  • The models behavior is relevant to the observers situation:  Individuals are more likely to model behaviors that have functional value in their own circumstances. For example, my son may model many of my behaviors, but he definitely would not model the way I dress.   He would be laughed out of town if he dressed the way I do.


Parents and teachers are among the people whom children most often model, particularly when those parents and teachers are seen as competent, respected, and powerful.  





Social learning theory has numerous implications for classroom practice:  Lets look at some of the most important ones.

  • Students often learn a great deal simply by observing people.


  • Describing the consequences of behaviors can effectively increase appropriate behavior and decrease inappropriate.


  • Modeling provides an alternative to shaping for teaching new behaviors.


  • Teachers and parents must model appropriate behavior and take care that they dont model inappropriate ones.


  • Teachers should expose students to a variety of other models.


  • Students must believe that they are capable of accomplishing school task.


  • Teachers should help students set realistic expectations for their academic accomplishments.




Social Learning theory focuses on the ways in which individuals learn from observing one another.  This perspective reflects a blending of behaviorist concepts (reward, reinforcement) and cognitive notions (awareness and expectations).

Four conditions are necessary for modeling to occur:  attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation.


Effective models are likely to be competent, prestigious, and powerful and to exhibit behaviors that are gender appropriate and relevant to the observers situation.






























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