How does learning happen? If the evidence that someone has learned something is a change in that person's behavior, what causes the change in behavior? How is the change moderated? How does it transfer to the job or become permanent? 

There have been many theories of learning, and there are research results that partially support at least some of them. But people learn all the time: through formal instruction, from other people, and from personal experience, including trial and error. By considering the theories about how learning happens, it becomes possible to construct methods and environments that will initiate and facilitate learning, and to improve on those methods and environments to get better results.

In many respects, what people learn from other people, from personal experience, and from environmental circumstances is more significant than what they learn through formal instruction.

"Social learning" is about more than using social media to support collaboration and learning. It goes beyond how people use Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and other media, to consider how your organizational learning strategy can leverage the technology infrastructure to support behavioral change.

Social learning theory

Albert Bandura is a psychologist and the David Starr Jordan Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. He is also one of the most influential psychologists in history. 

Bandura found that behaviorism, a widely-adopted learning theory in the mid-twentieth century, did not adequately explain how learning happens, and that, applied to instructional design, it did not support satisfactory, reliable behavioral change. Over the years from 1963 to 1977, through careful observation and reproducible investigation that produced valid data, Bandura developed what he referred to as social learning theory, or social cognitive theory. Social learning theory has found wide application, from management consulting practice to psychotherapy to education and training.

While social learning theory is a very complete and robust framework for explaining how learning happens, it is a framework that is not easily reduced to sound bytes. However, it is built around a few key points that are essential to understand in order to apply it in organizational settings.

  • Learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context. (“Cognitive processes" in this case are higher mental processes, such as perception, memory, language, problem solving, and abstract thinking.)
  • Learning can take place simply through observation of the behavior of others or by direct instruction, even if the learner doesn't do anything, and even if there is no reinforcement.
  • People also learn vicariously by observing rewards and punishments. People tend to repeat or duplicate behaviors for which others are being rewarded.
  • In addition to observation, learning involves obtaining information from those observations and making decisions about performance of the behavior. The learner does not even need to demonstrate an observable change in behavior (changes in mental processes are not often observable).
  • Reinforcement (recognizing and rewarding desirable behavior in hopes that it will continue) is important, but is not the only factor.
  • Learners are not passive. Cognition (the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses), environment, and behavior influence each other.

Applying social learning theory to eLearning

eLearning does not exist in a vacuum. It will not necessarily, all on its own, result in the performance and accomplishments that the organization desires. The designer must keep in mind that eLearning takes place in a social context, and that the behavior of others (including what they are rewarded or punished for), along with environmental factors such as reward systems and supervisory practices, can support or confound the desired results.

By building connections and support for the eLearning, through platforms that offer "social" features, the designer can increase the probability of success. Social features in learning platforms may include discussion pages, threaded discussions, chat rooms, and group pages. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a format that can leverage social learning and that has been successful in some settings and for some topics. There are also a number of educational social networking or peer-to-peer applications, many of them open-source or free, that can be useful.

eLearning designers should research these options for social learning support, and consider ways to use them.

Want more?

Social learning, learning environment design, and instructional design will be addressed at The eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions Conference & Expo 2016 “Sharing What Works” and at Ecosystem 2016 “Elevating Your Perspective,” March 16-18, 2016 in Orlando. Good news: both conferences are included in the registration!


Albert Bandura. Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press. 1971. Retrieved 3/1/16 from

Huitt, W., and David Monetti. “Social learning perspective.” In W. Darity, International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (2nd ed.). Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA/Thompson Gale. 2008. Retrieved 3/1/16 from

Wikipedia. “Social Cognitive Theory.” Retrieved 3/1/16 from

Wikipedia. “Social Learning Theory.” Retrieved 3/1/16 from