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If you ask someone where most learning happens, they’ll probably tell you it happens when you’re growing up and going to school. You learn from a teacher, from books, from videos, and from studying – but research shows that most of our learning is actually social learning and it takes place continuously, throughout our lives. 

Read on to find out what social learning is, why it matters and how you can use this learning theory to your advantage when building your online courses.

What is social learning?

The term social learning refers to any behavior that is learned through observation and imitation of another individual or several individuals. Social learning is often found in the animal world but in humans, it’s especially influential.

When looking at what social learning is, it’s important to understand that social learning isn’t always a conscious process. Social learning doesn’t require someone to consciously switch onto the fact that they’re learning – you don’t have to sit down with a pen and paper in hand in order to learn something. In fact, you can learn by observing someone without even being aware of the learning process. 

This means social learning is a flexible, fluid learning style that can take place in a range of different environments. Humans tend to be selective about who they copy and where or when they engage in social learning but that selectivity can be conscious or unconscious.

Social learning vs asocial learning

There has been debate about what social learning is. Some authors have argued that the term ‘social learning’ is inaccurate. This is because the mechanisms underlying social learning in humans are not strictly social – but social learning is different from asocial learning.

Asocial learning is characterized by solitary learning where an individual learns through their own experience and trial and error. Asocial learning is also known as Individual Learning. Unlike social learning, asocial learning doesn’t involve watching or copying others. It doesn’t happen in a group and it doesn’t involve collaboration or sharing.

The development of social learning theory

Social learning theory as we know it today was first developed by Albert Bandura back in 1873. Also known as social constructivism theory, Bandura based his social learning theory on the concept of observational learning – the process of learning behaviors by observing others and imitating them. 

Bandura theorized that there are two types of social learning: Reinforcement learning and Vicarious learning.

Reinforcement learning

In reinforcement learning, people learn from the consequences of their behavior. Their behavior is shaped by positive and negative feedback from their environment. 

In reinforcement learning, a person is likely to increase and decrease the frequency of certain behaviors depending on the consequences of those behaviors. For instance, if a student speaks up about an error and is rewarded or praised for this, then they’ll be more likely to do the same if they come across errors in the future. If they are blamed for the error and disciplined as a result, they’re less likely to flag it up again. This is social learning through reinforcement.

Vicarious learning

The other form of social learning is vicarious learning. Vicarious learning is when people learn from those around them by observing them. 

People observe others before engaging in a particular action because it allows them to reduce the risk of errors. If we take the live lesson example again, a student will watch another student in their learning group try a  course concept in group discussion offered by a course creator before trying to use it themselves  – rather than risking trying something completely new to them for the first time.

Learn how to create social learning environments with Thinkific Live Lessons

Reinforcement learning vs Vicarious learning

Both reinforcement learning and vicarious learning are important for organizations – and course creators. Vicarious learning is where the majority of new knowledge acquisition comes from, for instance through online group activities, workshops and training sessions. Reinforcement learning helps to solidify the knowledge through positive feedback and implementation in real-life contexts.

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4 principles of social learning

When Bandura proposed his theory of social learning, he included four essential steps – Attention, Retention, Reproduction, and Motivation.

Step 1: Attention

To make learning possible, something needs to grab your student’s attention and hold it. People only learn if they pay attention. People are exposed to lots of different behaviors but they learn the things that seem unusual and interesting enough for them to observe. If your students think something is different, intriguing or useful, they are going to concentrate on it and have the opportunity to learn.

Step 2: Retention

An essential part of the learning process for students is to be able to retain what they learn. If someone can’t remember what someone has shown them or told them, learning is useless. Even if a student can recall or reproduce something immediately after they’ve learned it, it’s not real learning unless they are able to remember it in the future. The retention step is a crucial part of social learning.

Step 3: Reproduction

The third principle of social learning for students is being able to reproduce what they’ve learned. Reproduction is the ability to do the behavior one has observed again, on their own. If someone watches someone ride a bike, reproduction involves getting on the bike and riding it themselves. This is where someone is able to demonstrate that their learning has been successful. Until a person can reproduce the behavior, they are not able to say they have truly learnt it.

Step 4: Motivation

Of course, a student might be able to reproduce what they’ve learnt but if they don’t have any motivation to do it then they won’t. This is where the Reinforcement step in social learning becomes important. People become motivated to perform a certain action if they have positive feedback and are rewarded for learning something.

All these four steps are important for social learning and make up the definition of what social learning is – it’s important to incorporate every step for social learning for it to become possible.

Why social learning is important 

Social learning isn’t just a fun way to make your course content more interesting, it’s really important to help your students learn and retain knowledge.

Research shows that social learning is hugely important for increasing student engagement – and it can be just as effective as getting expert involvement:

  • 54% of learners agree that social learning tools enhance the teaching-learning process compared to traditional teaching methods.
  • In a study on social learning by Harvard Business School, researchers found that when students asked a question in an online group, more than 90% were answered accurately and precisely by other group members.
  • Research into the use of social media to promote student learning revealed students were significantly more motivated to learn and make creative achievements compared to those doing traditional classroom teaching.

Social learning theory implemented in the real world can make a big difference to the experience of your students. The good news is, it’s easy to use social learning in your course design.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous Learning: How To Use Both

Social learning and the 70-20-10 model

For course creators, social learning is a really useful technique to bear in mind. Social learning is a key component of the 70-20-10 learning model that aims to make it easy for students to learn and retain information.

The 70-20-10 model follows the theory that the most effective way to learn is with a ratio of 70: 20 :10 in different forms of learning.

  • 70% Experiential learning

The majority of learning should take the form of hands-on, on-the-job learning. Learners use trial and error to get to grips with new knowledge, rather than reading about how to do something or receiving formal teaching. 

In the online learning environment, you can try incorporating hands-on learning into your course with integrations from the Thinkific App Store like Mazotec: an app that shows students the immediate impact of their decisions through engagement in role-plays, real-world simulations, and interactive scenarios.

  • 20% Social learning

According to the 70-20-10 model, social learning is a critical element of learning, taking up around 20% of learning time. Here, social learning refers to relationships with others, feedback, mentoring, discussions, and group exercises. 

To encourage social learning in an online learning environment, you can make use of features such as Thinkific Communities to encourage relationships, feedback, and conversations between your students, as well as Live Lessons.

  • 10% Formal learning

Just 10% of a learner’s time should be taken up by formal learning, namely lecture-style lessons in a classroom or online. Video lectures also count as formal learning and are included in the 10%.

The 70-20-10 model is a helpful way to look at learning and course design. While formal learning has its place, it shouldn’t be the only form of learning that is offered – and it shouldn’t be the majority. 

Note that in this model, Experiential learning involves some forms of social learning too. Learning through experience will likely involve observing and imitating other people in the learning environment, even if much of the learning is also asocial.

Read more about the 70-20-10 model and how to use it here.

Examples of real-world social learning

To understand more about what social learning is, let’s take a look at some social learning examples that you are likely to see and take part in every day.

Social media

When social learning theory was first developed, there was no social media like we know it today.

Social media has dramatically changed the way people learn and the range of learning opportunities open to course creators. Social media has opened up new spaces for social learning and knowledge sharing that can be taken advantage of to make your course content more interesting and engaging. 

Social media allows for collaborative learning, even with individuals who live halfway across the world.

What is social learning in social media?

Social learning takes place in a variety of ways on social media. Here are some examples of where social learning happens:

  • Facebook groups
  • Instagram or Twitter hashtags
  • WhatsApp groups
  • Subreddits
  • LinkedIn discussions

These are all spaces where social learning takes place with users sharing opinions, ideas and theories while also learning from the people around them.

The best part about social media is that social learning often happens without users noticing. Social media is great for the ‘attention’ step of social learning theory – it is designed to hold learners’ attention and allows them to take in more information than traditional teaching methods.

Social learning in person

For many people, the majority of social learning happens through everyday conversations. Exchanges between people – be it chatting with coworkers or peers, coffee with friends or meeting industry experts at events – offer lots of opportunities for social learning.

Any kind of social activity can be a spark for social learning. The simplest conversations can create opportunities for social learning. It doesn’t always have to be a conscious learning opportunity. 

Social learning can just as easily be getting tips from another coworker or student on how to approach a specific topic or assignment, rather than formalized feedback sessions. If you’re sharing your knowledge or accessing someone else’s knowledge, then you’re engaging in social learning.

How your business can integrate Social Learning Theory

We’ve learnt that social learning often happens organically – but how can you encourage social learning in your business? 

Social learning theory can be a really useful tool for organizations and businesses, helping to speed up learning and enable learners to upskill and reskill. Here are the benefits of social learning theory for organizations and how to boost opportunities for social learning in your business:

Benefits of social learning theory for online academies 

Improve communication

Within online learning academies, it can be challenging to promote communication between students and instructors. This becomes even more important in the context of remote and hybrid learning environments where communication between students and teachers might be limited. 

Social learning encourages students to discuss problems and share knowledge, while also reducing feelings of alienation and loneliness. Digital technology like Zoom and Slack can help to facilitate social learning remotely.

Increase engagement

Social learning provides an opportunity to make personal and professional development and training fun – working with fellow students in a collaborative learning community is a lot more interesting than staring at PowerPoint slides in silence!

According to a 2021 study, 85% of learners stated that they preferred the use of social learning tools to traditional methods and 77% enjoyed working with social learning tools. More than 90% of students also answered that they would like more social learning tools to be included in their formal education in the future. 

Social learning helps to make learning dynamic, encouraging cooperation within an online learning environment- and students appreciate it!

Increase productivity

Students who are more engaged and satisfied in their environment are also more productive – and social learning is a brilliant way to promote this.

With these benefits in mind, here’s how to introduce social learning in your online academy environment…

Tips for encouraging social learning in your online academy

Social learning is an effective tool for online academies, leading to greater productivity, engagement, and communication.

To promote social learning in your online academy, researchers recommend making changes across the board that promote learning opportunities for learners at every level. This includes incentivizing students and utilizing social media platforms.

Support social learning through company-wide schemes

Supporting social learning can help to formalize informal learning that happens day-to-day in your online academy.

Some examples of social learning initiatives you can implement include: 

  • Mentorship programs
  • Buddy schemes
  • Discussion groups
  • Peer-to-peer feedback

If you can create a culture of collaboration and social learning in your online academy, you can make learning a part of everyday life for your students.

Incentivize students

Collaboration and sharing doesn’t usually happen automatically – it needs to be encouraged and supported within your online learning environment.

Research shows that when students were given incentives for collaboration in an online group, more than 50% asked a question of their colleagues and close to 75% answered another student’s question. When no incentive is given, engagement is usually biased – less than 10% of participants are responsible for more than 90% of activity on most online discussion boards.

To boost social learning initiatives in your academy, you can incentivize your students to engage with others and make collaboration a habit rather than an exception.

Create an inclusive learning environment

Social learning is heavily influenced by the environment. This means it’s important to create a culture that is conducive to social learning. 

Research has found that culture is a primary factor determining how and when social learning happens. When it comes to your learning environment, culture can act as a barrier to communicating and learning from one another. 

As well as incentivizing learners, it’s also important to have consequences for negative behaviors such as exclusion or discrimination. This includes implementing formal policies that discipline negative behaviors, helping to generate reinforcement learning.

Building an inclusive, equal learning culture that encourages and supports social learning is essential for creating a competitive environment and this aspect shouldn’t be overlooked.

Utilize social media

If you are looking to leverage social learning in your online academy you can also look to social media as a way to kickstart social learning between students and teachers.

Social media offers you the opportunity to engage students and encourage greater connectivity. With people spending an average of 145 minutes on social media each day, it is a brilliant space for you to encourage learning. Try setting up a Facebook group or WhatsApp group for people to share and communicate online.

Similarly, Online Communities with integrated social learning features like a community space, message board, or Q&A features are also opportunities to leverage social learning. This can be effective for behavioral changes such as encouraging wellbeing practices in the online course.

Thinkific has built-in features for creating online community spaces, making it easier than ever to encourage social learning among students and teachers.

Read more: Introducing Spaces for Thinkific Communities

Ok, but why does social learning really matter?

Learning is deeply rooted in everyday experiences and activities. Most learning takes place on a day-to-day basis by observing, discussing, and doing things with others. Rather than just thinking about learning as something you do sitting down and alone, it’s time to start appreciating it as something much more fluid and flexible. 

Incorporating social learning into your online academy has the power to transform your course content – and how you approach learning in your business.

To make the most of social learning and apply what you learned in this article into your course content and learning environments, learn more about Thinkific Plus by booking a call with our solutions team today.