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Social Learning Theory and What Experiences Mean in the Future

Trends come and go in the learning and development space. Sometimes new approaches stick, profoundly influencing the shape taken by workplace learning and training for years to come. One such hugely influential trend: Social Learning Theory. Let’s explore how Social Learning Theory works (and why it’s more than hype), how it relates to a newer, “experiences”-driven learning approach, and how this landmark theory can have a positive impact on the future of workplace learning.

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

To understand Social Learning Theory, let’s look to its originator, psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura created this landmark theory in the 1970s to explain how we learn, which he developed after conducting his famous “Bobo Doll” experiment. For the experiment, Bandura split a group of children into three sets. The first set observed adults acting aggressively toward a doll called a Bobo Doll; the adults hit the doll with a hammer, tossed around the doll, and committed other aggressive acts. The second set of children observed adults acting non-aggressively toward the Bobo Doll; they played with the doll quietly. The final set of children made no observations and served as the control group.

Later, Bandura and his team directed each child to play with the Bobo Doll on their own. Bandura found that the children who observed the aggressive adults also acted aggressively toward the Bobo Doll, while the children who observed non-aggressive adults imitated their non-aggressive play. From this landmark experiment, Bandura theorized that we learn from each other through imitation, modeling, and observation. He also developed four components of social learning theory, claiming that all of these components must be present for learning to stick:

  • Attention: Behavior must grab our attention in some way for us to imitate it.
  • Retention: We best recall learning when faced with situations that are similar to our initial learning environments.
  • Reproduction: Learning is more likely to be reproduced when it’s reinforced.
  • Motivation: We’re motivated to learn by punishment and rewards.

Social Learning Theory and Experiential Learning: A Comparison

Social Learning Theory has influenced workplace learning design for decades, but it actually has a lot in common with experiential learning, in which participants learn new skills and behaviors by working through hands-on, game-like scenarios. Participants learn that the skills needed to win the game are the same skills they need to “win” at work.

In fact, experiential learning contains the essence of all four crucial components of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. This is how they fit together:

  • Attention: Bandura theorized that people are more focused on a task if it’s new or different in some way—and that’s what experiential learning provides. Experiential learning combines immersive activities that mimic real-world challenges with a targeted debriefing session that connects the lessons learned with the reality of the workplace. It allows participants to learn by doing, and not by just listening, reading, or watching.  Certainly it’s a different approach from traditional workplace learning, and one guaranteed to capture attention.
  • Retention: According to Bandura’s theory, people are able to recall and apply what they have learned when faced with a situation that resembles their initial learning context. This is exactly how experiential learning is designed—to mirror real workplace scenarios, without being exactly the same.
  • Reproduction: Bandura also posited that people are more likely to reproduce learning when it’s reinforced. That is why post-training retention strategies, such as coaching, one-on-one, small group meetings, and digital reinforcement, are integral to the success of experiential learning.
  • Motivation: Finally, Social Learning Theory puts forth the idea that people are motivated by punishment or reward. With experiential learning, the positive (or negative) outcomes of approaching the game in a certain way are made explicit during the debriefing session, so learners can clearly connect their actions and the consequences.

It’s clear that experiential learning shares much in common with the watershed social learning discoveries made by Bandura many decades ago. Now we can apply more current knowledge about how we learn from each other to the power of experiences. No wonder experiential learning boasts retention rates as high as 90 percent!

The Future of Social Learning and Experiential Learning

At their cores, both social and experiential learning methods are about learning from experiences—experiences that are immersive, interactive, and captivating, leading to learning that sticks. What does it look like as we move forward, this intersection of these two learning approaches? It’s time to bring experiences into the digital realm. Thanks to sophisticated software advances and an abundance of connected mobile devices, we can now learn from practically any place and collaborate with anyone, at any time.

Retention strategies, in particular, represent a new learning frontier; retention and reinforcement programs are particularly suited to involving digital elements that draw from both Social Learning Theory and experiential learning. Gone are the days when “reinforcement” simply meant emailing the slides after a presentation. For example, take the trend of gamification in reinforcement. After an in-person training event, the core teachings of the training are reinforced through online “games,” where learners are immersed in an interactive experience fueled by rewards (like digital badges or prizes). In this way, gamified retention strategies draw on both experiential learning (i.e. their immersive, interactive nature) and social learning (i.e. rewards-based reinforcement).

It’s evident that social learning and experiential learning methods are both built on the same foundational concepts. When these methods are combined, you get learning that lasts, resulting in permanently changed behaviors.


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