1.6.2 Behaviourism 2: Bandura and Social Learning Theory

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

- understand and explain clearly what Bandura's Social Learning Theory means

- understand and explain clearly what the Behaviourist assumptions behind this theory are, and what some key terms mean

- understand and explain how this theory applies to education

- critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory

- link this theory to educational practice

What is Bandura's Social Learning Theory?

Albert Bandura (born in 1925) is a Canadian scholar who worked mostly in the United States, at Stanford and Iowa universities. Bandura's thinking builds on some basic principles of Behaviourism, including the way in which behaviour is modified by reward and punishment. Bandura was not completely satisfied with Behaviourism and he argued that this is not the only way in which people can learn. A key observation is the way that people learn from others around them in a social setting. According to Bandura, learning does not have to come from direct experience - it can also come from vicarious experience (Bandura and Walters, 1963; Bandura, 1986). Vicarious learning means learning by observing other people and thinking what this might mean for oneself.

Bandura emphasises the cognitive and social dimensions of learning, rather than the direct, experiential element in learning. Individuals can visualise the consequences of some actions through a process of thinking about what is happening. They do not need to experience something directly to understand what the consequences of that experience might be because they can use their powers of imagination and thinking to work out causes and effects. This view of learning as a cognitive process is an extremely important insight which has major implications for the way we think about child development and all kinds of learning from infancy to adulthood. It does not reject theories based on direct experience of the world, but adds a further dimension of vicarious experience which extends the range of learning that a child can accomplish.

What are the Behaviourist assumptions behind Bandura's Social Learning Theory and how to they compare with Constructivism?

Bandura's theory owes much to behaviourism, since it uses many of the concepts and processes that were proposed in that theory, including the stimulus-response pattern and the way in which individuals learn from experiencing events in their environment. However, it goes beyond behaviourism, viewing classical conditioning, as evidenced in Pavlov's experiments, and operant conditioning, as described by Skinner, as relatively simple forms of learning that are useful to a point, but inadequate as a framework for viewing the human learning process as a whole.

Bandura's theory is different from constructivism, in so far as Bandura emphasises the way behaviour is conditioned by the social environment, and it focuses on the limitations that the immediate learning environment can place upon a child's behaviour, as well as the way in which the environment can act as an aid to children's learning. Social learning theory requires some sort of setting in which learning occurs, and a relationship between the person who is demonstrating or instructing and the person who is learning. Usually, the person observing the behaviour will be in a position of less power and influence, for example a child observing an adult or an older child.

Observing the behaviour of another person for the purposes of learning is often called 'modelling'. In Bandura's theory, children engage in imitation and identification, watching what other people say and do, and then following this example themselves. Observational learning through modelling takes place using four processes:

  • Attention (teachers often use colours and bullet points to highlight key areas)
  • Retention (learners are encouraged to rehearse what they will do in advance)
  • Production (feedback helps to correct any deficiencies in carrying out the task)
  • Motivation (learners are motivated by a sense of achievement). (Bandura, 1986).

Learners must feel that what they are doing is valuable in some way: either producing outcomes that will reward them, or at the very least, outcomes that avoid unpleasant consequences. If the task itself is enjoyable, then this may mean that working on it is a reward in itself.

How does this theory apply to education?

We have seen how Bandura's theory of social learning draws attention to the cognitive activity that is going on in a child's mind while that child is directly experiencing the word, including the social world.  It maintains that learning can take place when a student is observing a teacher, adult or other behavioural model. The student does not have to carry out the activity that the model is demonstrating, but she can understand what is happening and learn how to carry out that activity simply by watching how it is done. The reason why this happens is that cognitive activities are going on in the mind of the student while she is observing the teacher. She is making sense of the actions of the teacher, and thinking about what she would do, how she would do it, etc. Bandura (1986) turned his attention to the interactions that take place between the individual, his or her behaviour and the environment. He envisaged this as a triangle with interactions happening between all three elements. This process is described by Schunk (2012, p. 186) as follows:

"As a teacher presents a lesson to the class, students think about what the teacher is saying (environment influences cognition - a personal factor). Students who do not understand a point raise their hands to answer a question (cognition influences behavior). The teacher reviews the point (behavior influences environment). Eventually the teacher gives students work to accomplish (environment influences cognition, which influences behavior). As students work on the task, they believe they are performing it well (behavior influences cognition).

Furthermore, Bandura's theory holds that one of the key roles of the teacher or instructor is to set clear goals for learners and to demonstrate how the learners can achieve these goals. Goals increase people's cognitive and affective outcomes by focusing on some personal success that will follow from the hard work of learning new things.

However, having clear and appropriate goals in place is not sufficient, and there has to be some engagement with these goals on the part of the learner. According to Schunk (2012, p.204), "initially, people must make a commitment to attempt to attain their goals because goals do not affect performance without commitment". Once a person is committed to achieving a goal, they measure their current performance with the target they have in mind.

The belief that one is able to learn or perform actions at a specified level is known as self-efficacy. Bandura (1997) noted that self-efficacy is related to a sense of agency, or in other words, it gives people the sense that they have the power to change things in the world, or in their own lives. Success in one area can give a learner confidence to try out new things in another area, and so it is a very good motivator. Self-efficacy is not the same as the ability to do something, although it helps if a person has experience of success in the past. It has more to do with the learner's expectations of what they might, or might not, be able to achieve in the future. Failure generally reduces a student's self-efficacy, as indeed does the experience of watching other students fail at a task.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

The main strength of Bandura's theory is that it extends and modifies Behaviourism in such a way that it takes account of cognitive processes as well as conditioned responses. This allows researchers to investigate not only what learners are doing, but also why they are behaving in this way and how they process the information that they are receiving from observing the world around them. It places a much-needed emphasis on the immediate social setting for educational activities, and the cognitive processes involved in learning.

One of the main weaknesses of Bandura's social learning theory, however, is its adherence to the methods of behaviourist psychology, which means conducting experiments in very controlled settings. The theory recognises that social factors are important, and indeed focuses on the relationship between learner and teacher, or learner and demonstrator of new material or activities, but in its earliest forms at least, social learning theory does not investigate the many social and cultural factors that influence the learner from outside the immediate learning context. It has been noted that Bandura's argument on social learning theory "is conducted in a sociological vacuum" (Jarvis, Holford and Griffin, 2003, p. 50). The theory does not explain very well why children respond differently to the same learning experience. Another major weakness of the theory is that it does not explain language acquisition very well. Both first and second language learning appear to involve more than Bandura's theory suggests. When a new language is learned, there is an ability to produce much more than the often-limited language learning material that learner has observed in the environment. Modelling is certainly a part of that process, but it is not a sufficient explanation for the learning that takes place.

Finally, it has been suggested that Bandura's theory is not always very practical. It is noticeable, for example, that setting high goals does not always result in better learning outcomes. Bandura's theory argues that parent and teacher aspirations are important, but the student's own perception of how well they can achieve these goals plays an even more important role. It follows, then, that teachers should find ways to encourage the students' belief in themselves, and their ability to regulate their own learning, set their own goals and achieve what they set out to do. Having carried out empirical work on high school students and the variation in their levels of self-efficacy and academic achievement, Zimmerman, Bandura and Martinez-Pons (1992, p.674) concluded that "perceived efficacy to achieve motivates academic attainment both directly and indirectly by influencing personal goal setting. Self-efficacy and goals in combination contribute to subsequent academic attainments."

How can this theory be linked to practice?

Children and young people are exposed to many adults who can act as models. Some of these models operate within formal structures through school or other institutions such as sports clubs, religious organisations or youth organisations, while others are encountered through family and friends. The kinds of behaviour that children have the opportunity to observe can therefore vary considerably, due to factors such as location, social class, economic status and religious or cultural beliefs within the family or the wider community. Teachers cannot control the types of behaviours that children observe in their homes and communities, but they do have some control over the way they, themselves act in front of children. Bandura's theories emphasise the very important role that teachers have in learners' lives. The fact that teachers serve as models for their students, even when they are not explicitly teaching an element of the curriculum, means that teachers must conduct themselves professionally at all times.

Bandura's view of education is very commonly used now, because of the way it helps learners to deal with novel tasks and work out their own creative solutions. Modelling skills may not be of much use to a factory worker standing at a conveyer belt, and carrying out repetitive tasks every day. They are extremely valuable, however, in situations where workers have to deal with other people, such as customers, who may act in unpredictable ways, or when they have to manipulate complex sources of data, as in many information-related tasks.


This chapter we have seen how Bandura's theory provides some valuable insights into the way children and adults learn from observing others. His work has suggested some modifications of classical behaviourist theory, and it provides some useful directions for further research into major issues in education such as motivation and achievement. Many educational researchers use Bandura's vocabulary to describe teaching and learning processes, and this shows how influential his ideas have been.


Bandura, A. (1986) Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. New York: Freeman.

Bandura, A. (2012) Bandura's Bobo Doll Experiment: Modeling of Aggression. [Video]. Stanford: Stanford University and Worth Publishers. Available at:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmBqwWlJg8U [Accessed 10 December 2012].

Barbarin, O. A. and Wasik, B. H. (Eds.). (2009) Handbook of Child Development and Early Education: Research to Practice. New York: The Guildford press.

Gray, C. and MacBlain, S. (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood. Second edition. London: Sage.

Jarvis, P., Holford, J. and Griffin, C. (2003) The Theory and Practice of Learning. Second edition. London: Kogan Page.

Schunk, D. H. (2012) Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. Sixth edition. Boston. MA: Pearson.

Zimmerman, B. J., Bandura, A. and Martinez-Pons, M. (1992) Self-motivation for academic attainment: The role of self-efficacy beliefs and personal goal setting. American Educational Research Journal 29(3), pp. 663-676.

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