Model-directed Learning. Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Learning Theory and its Social-psychological Significance for School and Instruction

Term Paper, 2006

23 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Social cognitive learning theory
2.1. Theoretical framework
2.2. Learning from role models
2.3. Theory of behavior modification

3. Social-psychological aspects in school and instruction
3.1. Social relationships in the classroom
3.2. Teacher-student-interaction
3.3. Social learning in school and instruction
3.4. Teacher as model

4. Summary: Pedagogical implications of the social cognitive learning theory for school and instruction


1. Introduction

This term paper explores the subject „Model-directed Learning, Bandura’s social cognitive Learning Theory and its social-psychological Significance for School and Instruction“. The topic touches on several complex scientific areas that cannot be exhaustively discussed and in part can only contribute in a more generalized form to the scope of this term paper. Hence, there is the challenge of setting boundaries at first. The main focus of this paper is on the social cognitive learning theory according to Albert Bandura, with its central statements serving as the theoretical foundation of the paper as a whole. The aim is to investigate, which basic principles Bandura is adopting from human behavior, how he does explain and analyze this approach. This theoretical rationale should be set up in the socio-psychological context of school and instruction. Hence, a main goal of this paper is to establish a theory-practice relevance. In other words, the focus is to investigate which consequences are arising from the social cognitive learning theory for school, teaching, education, and studying.

A key aspect of the social cognitive learning theory is model-based learning, thus, the assumption that human learning can happen through observation and imitation of others. In a society, in which humans strive for individuality and originality, imitation and simulation are associated with negative characteristics. Nevertheless, imitation behavior plays an important role even in every day situations. A person’s aggressive behavior or drug habit is often rationalized with the assumption that this behavior was copied from friends, or was due to the influence of others, or being surrounded with the wrong people. This term paper attempts to show the scientific reasoning behind this “everyday wisdom”, to in part rebut and analyze it. Social-psychological aspects in school and instruction will be used to characterize the relationship between social interactions at school, social learning at school, and learning through imitation, including the role of teacher behavior in this context.

Researching this topic will serve as a reflection for my goal to become a teacher.

I would like to emphasize that this work does solely focus on central general scientific data. Of course, many of these results can be refined in a way that is specific to a situation.

2. Social cognitive learning theory

In general, the social cognitive learning theory by Albert Bandura focusses on questions as to how human beings learn behavioral patterns and how they interact among themselves and with their environment. Hereby not only the reaction of the individual to his environment plays a pivotal role, but also the thought processes, i.e. cognitive operations resulting from human interaction with the environment.

Consequently, Bandura’s social cognitive learning theory attempts to integrate behaviorist and cognitivist educational theories, allowing to explain, to analyze and to understand complex social learning. Per definiton social learning is learning of certain behavioral patterns that are causing social recognition or social disdain. Which interaction processes between individual and environment during this learning of behavioral patterns take center stage is the subject of social cognitive learning theory. This chapter focusses on the theoretical principles of the social cognitive learning theory, as described by Bandura in his 1979 publication of the same title.

2.1. Theoretical framework

In order to be able to comprehend Bandura’s theories of social cognitive learning and to understand its significance for the complex field of research encompassing education, a classification of learning theory contexts is necessary at first. Learning theorists of the brand of radical behaviorism focus their research mainly on the environmental impacts that human behavior is subjected to (though in their experiments the test subjects were predominantly animals, for example see Skinner). Consequently, the perception was created that an individual was randomly at the mercy of the environment, defined by it and could be arbitrarily manipulated via external intervention. This precisely refers to the idea that human behavior could be arbitrarily conditioned, as supported by experiments conducted in animals and humans. However, this concept of learning theory is biased in terms of seeking to control the environment only, while inadequately allowing an explanation of social learning. Bandura’s learning theory is based on behavioristic learning theories, does expand those with numerous aspects and does attribute a pivotal role to innerpsychic factors, as well as the interaction between individual and environment. According to Bandura, learning is a process that allows for active and cognitive processing of experiences, combined with the ability to learn from the experiences of others (symbolic and substitutional learning). Human learning comprises processes of motivation, sensation, and thought. Symbolic, substitutional and self-regulatory processes are of central importance here. Human beings learn by observing the behavior of other humans, but also the consequences ensuing their behavior: „Die Fähigkeit, durch Beobachtung zu lernen, ermöglicht den Menschen ausgedehnte, integrierte Verhaltensmuster zu erwerben, ohne sie langwierig und mühsam durch Versuch und Irrtum aufbauen zu müssen.“ (The ability to learn from observation imparts the human being the ability to acquire expansive, integrated behavior patterns, foregoing the need to tediously and arduously build them through trial and error. Bandura, A.: Sozial-kognitive Lerntheorie. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 1979, p. 22). Not only does observational learning enable the human being to immediately internalize behavioral patterns, but according to Bandura this skill is vital for survival. The conception that appropriate behavior patterns are the result of their consequences and are discovered through success or failure can have fatal ramifications, for example when learning how to drive a car. In this situation, possible mistakes can even be deadly. The essential realization of the social cognitive learning theory is that learning does not solely occur through direct experience of contingencies, but also through watching other people. Bandura observed that human behavior is largely relayed through social role models. Social role models include not only real models (for example teachers or parents), but also symbolic models (for example the media), through which social learning can occur. Based on this belief, Bandura developed the theory of modeled learning, which will be addressed in more detail later.

At first, Bandura assumes that the human behavioral repertoire is not inborn, but has to be learned through own or observed experiences. Moreover, behavioral patterns are influenced in their potential by genetic conditions. Nonetheless, Bandura postulates it is impossible to explain behavior patterns alone with theories of heredity or the environment. Bandura is in fact convinced „(…) dass die Einflüsse aus Erfahrung und Physiologie auf vielfältige Weise interagieren und so das Verhalten bestimmen. Sie lassen sich deshalb kaum voneinander scheiden.“ (... that the effects of experience and physiology interact in various ways and so determine behavior. Hence, they can be barely distinguished from each other. Bandura, A.: Sozial-kognitive Lerntheorie. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 1979, p. 25). Furthermore, Bandura refrains from separating inherent and learned behavior and rather seeks the explanation of a complex behavioral pattern in the analysis of its combined determinants. Learning by reinforcement is according to Bandura a vital aspect in learning and retaining certain behaviors, while others are discarded. Human behavior is guided by the consequences it elicits. These can be positive (success, praise, acknowledgement) or negative (failure, disdain, punishment, trouble) and affect subsequent behavior: „Durch diesen Prozess differenzierter Bekräftigung werden schließlich erfolgreiche Verhaltensweisen ausgewählt und unbrauchbare aufgegeben.“ (Through this process of differentiated reinforcement, successful behavioral patterns are eventually adopted and useless ones are abandoned. Bandura, A.: Sozial-kognitive Lerntheorie. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 1979, p. 26).

Bandura attributes three central functions to reactional consequences: the informative, the motivational and the affirmative function.

The informative function: due to their behavior, respectively their reactions, human beings gain information about the effects their reactions leave behind und consequently realize which course of action is appropriate for a given situation and select satisfactory conduct over non-satisfactory: „Die Kognitionen werden also selektiv durch differenzierte Konsequenzen gestärkt oder widerlegt, die in einem gewissen zeitlichen Abstand auf die Reaktionen folgen.“ (Thus, cognitions are selectively strengthened or refuted due to differentiated consequences ensuing the reactions within a certain interval of time. Bandura, 1979. p. 26). This processing of information happens via cognitively regulated processes and can lead to a modification of behavior, provided the acting person is cognizant which type of behavior will also be reaffirmed in the future. Motivational functions serve to look out for behavioral consequences in the future. When a person experiences consequences due to own behavior, a set of expectations opposite future behavioral consequences in similar situations is developed, as well as the ability to evaluate those as promising or ineffective and steer clear of unpleasant situations. This insight can create behavioral motivation, simultaneously existing with proactive thinking and leading to the adjustment of present behavior to future situations. Affirmative functions allow for the probability to rise, that the affirmed behavior would occur more frequently and is apt to regulate already learned behavior patterns. However, they do not sufficiently explain how behavioral patterns are learned.

2.2. Learning from role models

The central idea of the social cognitive learning theory is the theory of learning from role models (modeling), putting forward the assumption that social learning primarily occurs through imitation of others. Synonyms like modeled learning, observational learning, imitative learning, copy learning, role model learning, or substitutional learning are frequently used for this learning theory. The definition of a role model is rather broad. With reference to the social cognitive learning theory, a model embodies „jegliche Repräsentation eines Verhaltensmusters“ (any representation of a behavior pattern; Lefrancois, G.: Psychologie des Lernens. Berlin, u.a.: Springer. 1994, p. 200). This signifies that a model can be any entity presenting behavioral patterns that can be imitated and independently performed by the observer. Human beings can be models amongst themselves, whereby various possible combinations (also with respect to role relations) are applicable: „Menschen dienen als Modelle für andere Menschen, Eltern dienen als Modelle für ihre Kinder, Kinder dienen als Modelle für andere Kinder und manchmal für Erwachsene, und Erwachsene imitieren einander fortwährend.“ (Human beings serve as role models for other human beings, parents serve as role models for their children, children serve as role models for other children and sometimes for adults, and adults imitate each other continuously. Lefrancois, G.: Psychologie des Lernens. Berlin, u.a.: Springer. 1994, p. 200). These kinds of models are usually termed realistic models, whereas symbolic models can be for example the media in television, film, literature, and the like. Moreover, modeling involves on the one hand the representation of the modeling behavior by the role model and on the other the learning from the model by the observer. A complex process of imitation lies between role model and observer. This process can elicit three distinct effects: learning through modeling (modeling effect), repressive and disinhibitory effects, as well as triggering effects (according to Lefrancois, G.: Psychologie des Lernens. Berlin, u.a.: Springer. 1994, p. 200- 202).

When an observer is imitating behavior and as a result thereof is adopting new behavioral and reactional patterns into the own behavioral repertoire, educational scientists and psychologists speak of modeled learning. A condition of modeled learning is that such displayed behavior was not evident or not mastered before the learning process took place.

Another effect of imitation is inhibition or disinhibition of behavior patterns, which is closely related with the consequences of model behavior. If modeling behavior is rewarded (positive consequences), it is more likely that this behavior will be imitated (disinhibition). If modeling behavior is punished (negative consequences), similar behavior by the observer can be suppressed (inhibition).

The third effect that can occur in the course of the imitation process is the triggering effect. It can manifest itself when behavior is not newly acquired and not identically imitated by the observer, but is rather similar to the model behavior and serves as an incentive for the observer to act in the same manner (for example general character traits, like kindness, ambition, helpfulness, etc.).

It should be mentioned here, that the human being does not imitate just any behavior tied to positive consequences by default. If this would apply, Bandura’s theory could be attributed to environmental determinism, which Bandura did explicitly reject. What, how and from whom is being copied, is largely associated with cognitive processes, the core aspect of which is self-control.

As pertains to modeled learning, Bandura distinguishes the adoption phase and the execution phase and assumes further cognitive processes for these phases, respectively. The adoption phase can also be referred to as the acquisition or learning phase and the execution phase as imitation or behavior phase. Hence, according to Bandura, there is a learning process taking place before this is established through behavior (see Mietzel, G.: Psychologie in Unterricht und Erziehung. Göttingen, u.a.: Hogrefe. 1993, p. 118). These assumptions can be visualized by means of an experiment that Bandura conducted. In three separate rooms groups of four- to five-year-old children were shown a movie, in which the actor, respectively model (an adult) was displaying aggressive behavior towards a puppet. The three different groups of children were shown different versions of the ending for the movie. In one version the aggressive behavior of the actor led to positive consequences (praise, acknowledgement by other people). In the second version the actor’s behavior was punished and in the third version the aggressive behavior had no consequences. Subsequently, the children were led in a room together and observed while playing. The scientists noted, that children who were exposed to aggressive behavior being rewarded, showed distinct imitating behavior, this in contrast to children who saw in the movie that aggressive behavior was punished or had no consequences. However, these differences in behavior between the groups of children disappeared, when they were promised a reward for good imitation behavior. Ultimately all children imitated the previously observed aggressive behavior. The adoption phase characterizes a learning process, in which the observer sees and learns optional behavior by means of a model. Since, however, a person does not imitate indiscriminately, a model has to have a certain relevance for the observer, which will determine the choice of model and behavior to imitate. Bandura hypothesizes that attentional processes, as partial processes, control observational learning. The observer is subjected to a magnitude of influences, among which certain characteristics are selected and considered, while others in turn receive no attention: „Einige dieser Faktoren sind Merkmale der Beobachter, andere sind Eigenarten der modellierten Tätigkeit selbst, und wieder andere hängen mit der Struktur menschlicher Interaktionen zusammen.“ (Some of these factors are traits of the observers, others are peculiarities of the modeled activity itself, and others again have to do with the structure of human interaction. Bandura, A.: Sozial- kognitive Lerntheorie. Stuttgart: Klett- Cotta. 1979, p. 33). Social interactions play an important role here, as they determine to a large extent, which behavior is noticed and observed by who and how often, and on whom and what a person’s attention is focussed. Consequently, it can be assumed that paying attention is dependent upon values of functionality and attractiveness that a model has for the observer. Attractive models (realistic, as well as symbolic) can be found in various domains, for example within a social group: a clique of peers (peer-group), in which some personalities get more attention than others due to successful behavior (for example group leaders, who enjoy great popularity), or also at school (this subject will be discussed in detail later). Various behavioral patterns can be conveyed through mass media, attracting a great deal of attention from children and adults (for example attractive movie actors, beauty ideals and many more). In general terms, a thesis can be put forward that the attention can focus on any perceivable model, which in various ways is attractive and useful for the observer. Moreover, the focus of attention is a function of the observer’s attitude for perception and ability to process information. In order for a model to have a sustainable impact on the observer’s behavior „(…) die Reaktionsmuster symbolisch im Gedächtnis repräsentiert sein.“ (... the reaction patterns have to be symbolically represented in memory. Bandura, A.: Sozial- kognitive Lerntheorie. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 1979, p. 34). As another condition for modeled learning, Bandura suggests retaining processes, according to which the observed activities manifest themselves in the observer’s memory, even if this activity is not perceived immediately. Thus, the modeled behavior is supposed to be stored and be retrievable in the observer’s perception over a longer period of time. Memory can store events for the longer term, if they are translated into symbols (mental images, symbols of speech) and restructured (cognitive organisation). Moreover, an event can be repeated in the form of mental and linguistic symbols by the observer imagining to perform the modeled behavior himself.

Observational learning can only take place, when the observed actions are actually implemented, i.e. executed by the observer. Bandura speaks of the motor-reproduction process as part of the performance phase. An important distinction to be made is between acquisition and performance phases, since it has to be assumed that a person does not perform everything he learns and that not every observation is transformed into independent action. When a person observes the behavior of other human beings, he has to possess certain motor-abilities in order to copy this behavior. Repeated observation of the modeled behavior pattern is beneficial to improve and adjust a possibly erroneously memorized behavior pattern to the behavior of the model. Bandura assumes a „(…) Diskrepanz zwischen der symbolischen Repräsentation und der tatsächlichen Ausführung (…)“ (descrepancy between the symbolic representation and the actual performance, Bandura, A.: Sozial-kognitive Lerntheorie. Stuttgart: Klett- Cotta. 1979, p. 37). Hereby cues or reactions by other observers (i.e. suggestions for improvement) can result in approaching the behavior one aims to achieve. According to Bandura, the motor-ability to reproduce behavior pattterns involves four requirements: the observer has to possess 1. certain physical abilities and 2. partial reactions that are necessary for performing this activity. In order to correct possibly flawed imitations, the performer has to observe himself performing. Since this is only partially possible, he does rely on feedback from the outside.


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Model-directed Learning. Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Learning Theory and its Social-psychological Significance for School and Instruction
University of Wuppertal
Theory of Learning
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model-directed, learning, albert, bandura’s, social, cognitive, theory, social-psychological, significance, school, instruction
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Liwia Kolodziej (Author), 2006, Model-directed Learning. Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Learning Theory and its Social-psychological Significance for School and Instruction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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