Behaviourism 2: Bandura and Social Learning Theory


This chapter further explains the concept of Behaviourism, explaining how some of its assumptions were used and developed further by Bandura in his Social Learning Theory.  It explores the thinking behind Bandura's theory and explains key terms such vicarious learning, modelling, imitation and identification. The chapter then discusses how this theory can be linked to education. Examples are provided to illustrate how the theory has been applied to different educational settings from kindergarten to university. As in previous chapters, the strengths and limitations of this theory are explored and the reflection sections are designed to help you use this theory when thinking about your own experience in teaching.

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

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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.


Trudi is the mother of a young boy called Max. He is 2 years old and he likes to walk, run, climb on furniture and generally explore everything in the house and garden. Trudi is pleased that he is so active and curious, but she is having trouble teaching him about the dangers that lurk around every corner. For instance, Max is fascinated by the wood-burning stove in the lounge. When he reaches out to touch it, Trudi steps in and says "No, Max, don't touch" in a stern voice. This is not always effective, and so she often pulls him away from the fire or even removes him from the room. She places a fire guard in front of the fire to protect him from harm. One day, Trudi observes him reaching for the fire as she is cleaning it. She helps him touch a corner with his finger, knowing that this will hurt a little. Max starts crying. He is afraid of the fire now. This is direct learning from experience.

Sometimes it is necessary for very young children to learn in this direct, experiential way, although of course parents and carers must always ensure that they will not be truly harmed. This can be a lot of fun for children, and they learn about the world through the sensations that they experience. Bandura's theory acknowledges the value but also the limitations of this kind of learning. It would be impractical, for example, for mothers and carers to expose children to every possible danger so that they learn to behave appropriately and avoid harm. Parents and carers can therefore tell stories, describe their own experiences, or engage in role play to illustrate what will happen when attempting potentially dangerous actions such as crossing the road, cooking on a stove or climbing in high places. Children can observe what happens in imaginary situations, and anticipate what would happen if they tried to do these things themselves. They might ask clarification questions such as "Why" when they are told that they may not ride their bike outside in the street. This is vicarious learning. They do not need to actually experience something at the point of learning. Knowing about road accidents may be sufficient to stop young children from riding their bicycle on the road.

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.


Think about the two types of learning that Bandura describes: direct learning through experience, and vicarious learning through observation of others. Reflect on a hobby, sport or leisure pursuit that you enjoy now or have enjoyed in the past (e.g. knitting, football, swimming, collecting antiques). What sort of things did you have to learn in order to be good at this hobby, sport or leisure pursuit?

Did you learn through direct experience (give some examples)? Or did you learn by observing others and working out what you should do (give some examples)? If you were to design a training course for this hobby, sport or leisure pursuit, what kind of activities and training materials would you suggest for complete beginners?

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. Children learn from watching other people, but they also imitate and identify with characters in story books, cartoons or computer games. When the model is not a real person, this is called symbolic modelling (Gray and MacBlain, 2015). Bandura's theory emphasises the role of modelling, or in other words the way in which learning follows from observing others. Constructivism emphasises exploration, while social learning theory reveals its behaviourist origins by investigating responses to events that occur in the environment.

Observational learning through modelling takes place using four processes:

  1. Attention (teachers often use colours and bullet points to highlight key areas)
  2. Retention (learners are encouraged to rehearse what they will do in advance)
  3. Production (feedback helps to correct any deficiencies in carrying out the task)
  4. 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. Many people spend huge amounts of time perfecting a sports technique or playing computer games, for example. They want to be more proficient, and so they seek out information in books and online, refer to wikis, or watch how-to videos and walkthroughs (amongst other things). In this kind of learning, the effort is part of the enjoyment of the hobby, and there may be no immediate reward in terms of prizes or positions in league tables, etc.


One very famous illustration of Bandura's social learning theory is the Bobo Doll experiment (Bandura, 2012). Children were shown a video in which an adult was seen hitting, kicking and throwing a large inflatable doll in a room full of toys. Some children saw a male adult doing this, and some saw a female adult. There were also control groups which were shown no model at all.

The actions of the adults were violent, and the adults used a hammer to assault the doll. At the same time, the adult used aggressive vocabulary to verbally abuse the doll. This vocabulary was distinctive and novel to the children. The experiment was carried out with both boys and girls aged 3 to 6 years.

The results of this experiment showed that children who witnessed the violent words and deeds were more likely to imitate this behaviour when they were then allowed into the same room. They were also more likely to escalate the behaviour - for example, by using a gun which was in the room, even though the model had not used this in the video.

Bandura concluded that children learn behaviours such as aggression by watching adults and imitating what they see. Later experiments were carried out to investigate what happened when the adults were either rewarded or punished after such violent acts. Punishment of the model reduced the likelihood that children would imitate the model's violent behaviour; this is evidence of vicarious reinforcement. 

The Bobo Doll experiment is quite artificial in some ways, because the children did not know the adult who appeared in the video. There was no adult present when they were in the room with the toys, either, since the observers were hidden behind a special mirror. This means there was no discussion about what was happening and the child had no opportunity to ask questions or to look for approval/ disapproval, etc. It is also not clear whether this experience had any longer-term effect on the children's behaviour outside the room that was used for the experiment. This is very unlike the everyday experience of young children, which is characterised by the presence of people known to the child, and the opportunity to talk about what is happening when new places and toys are encountered. There are also a great many other distractions in a real play situation which were not present in the tightly controlled Bobo Doll experiment. Nevertheless, it does provide evidence that supports Bandura's social learning theory. The children who witnessed the violence used the very same words and gestures that they saw in the video, while those who did not see the video did not show any violence towards the doll.


Recap the following key terms used in Bandura's theory and define them in your own words. You may wish to look them up in a handbook such as Barbarin and Wasik (2009), or in some of the other references that are given at the end of this chapter. Note: make sure that you distinguish any differences between Bandura's usage of a term and general meanings, or the meanings suggested by other psychologists.

  • vicarious
  • vicarious reinforcement
  • identification
  • imitation
  • modelling

Think about the kinds of stories, cartoons, films and computer games that children are exposed to. Do you think that children learn aggression and other behaviours from them? What about teenagers and adults? Is this a real or potential problem in society? What mechanisms are in place to prevent or reduce harm from modelling aggressive behaviour?

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. The concept of reinforcement that was so important to behaviourist psychologists is also used by Bandura, but he extends it to include vicarious reinforcement, or in other words, learning from the consequences that are experienced by another person.


Jennifer is a six-year-old girl who does not enjoy reading and is making slow progress with literacy. Her teacher is aware that Jennifer comes from a single parent home and that her mother is often absent due to mental health troubles and drug addiction. Jennifer is loved and well cared for, due to the support of her grandparents, but she is not always well prepared for learning. In class, she hangs back while other children take the lead, and she often comes to school without her reading book because she stays with different relatives sometimes, and leaves it behind.

Social learning theory proposes that the child's cognitive development is linked to the environment. A child who does not have the right equipment, or has not carried out homework tasks before class, is not well equipped to participate in learning. In response to this situation, the teacher encourages Jennifer to take responsibility for small tasks in the book corner, such as tidying the bookshelves, and acting as librarian. The teacher makes sure that Jennifer knows she can borrow an extra reading book from the book corner if she wants to, without having to ask the teacher, and can spend time reading in the book corner, sometimes with one to one support from the teacher or the classroom assistant.

This example shows how important it is for educators to consider the kinds of goals that they are setting in class, and the factors that might prevent learners from achieving those goals. This may be particularly important if the teacher sets homework tasks that some children may not be able to complete because of restrictions imposed by their family situation. In this case, the teacher demonstrates an alternative strategy for Jennifer to use, and makes sure that there is time, space and learning materials that Jennifer requires in order to practise her reading. 

The sensitive way in which the teacher deals with Jennifer's missing reading book is a valuable lesson. The teacher is modelling a way of dealing with setbacks positively, and helping Jennifer to look for alternative ways to reach her goals. This behaviour can also be observed by the other children in the class. They can appreciate the challenges that Jennifer faces, and the response that the teacher makes, and draw their own conclusions about how to react to difficulties. Next time, if they forget their reading book, they can see that there are spare copies in the book corner, and use those for practice.


Think about this example, and imagine that the teacher had punished Jennifer for not bringing her reading book to school. How would this have affected Jennifer? How would it have affected the other children looking on?

What about the role of the parent in this example? What role does parenting play in children's academic progression? What kind of policy intervention, or other support, do you think might help Jennifer in the situation described in this example?

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. Both good and bad performance can encourage a committed person to try harder. The more a person can focus on the goal and channel their efforts, the more likely they are to raise their performance towards reaching that goal.

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.


Most teachers have experience of working with individuals, or groups of learners who are demotivated and who lack self-efficacy. This can be frustrating for all concerned, but social learning theory proposes that processes like goal setting, modelling, imitation and identification can be used to change behaviour.

Think of an example of this kind of problem from your own experience. What would you do to encourage such a learner or group of learners to develop self-efficacy? Use Bandura's social learning theory to explain what is needed, and why.

Can you think of any learning situations where commitment on the part of the learner is formally sought and recorded? 

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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. These ideas have been extremely influential in pedagogical theory. Another strength of the theory is that it has proved to be a very fruitful source of ideas which have then been used as the basis for further research, and more theories. The whole dimension of adult and lifelong learning, for example, has its roots in Bandura's ideas about modelling and self-efficacy.  Apprenticeships, and many types of professional training, for example, are built around the concepts used in Bandura's social learning theory.

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. Like other behaviourism-inspired theories, it tends to view the learner as a recipient of influences from the environment, and the teacher is seen as a part of this environment. The cognitive processes going on within the learner's mind are acknowledged but other factors such as emotions or the exercise of learners' choices are not considered very deeply. 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." The authors conceded also, that some evidence remains unexplained using this social learning theory and that "future research efforts need to focus on additional self-regulatory factors such as self-monitoring, judgmental processes, and self-reactive influences … as well as other influences, such as reading ability and home environment measures, that might affect children's academic pursuits" (Zimmerman, Bandura and Martinez-Pons, 1992, p. 674). This remark reveals that Bandura's theory, by focusing on cognitive processes in the minds of learners, and the single factor of goal setting, has in fact excluded some of the most obvious predictors of academic achievement, which appear to lie in the wider social environment.


Watch an episode of a children's cartoon. What kind of behaviours are being modelled? Can you see any evidence of reinforcement? Are there characters that children are being encouraged to identify with? Characters they are being encouraged to imitate? Characters they are not supposed to identify with and imitate? How exactly are these effects being created (Tip: examine the language, colours, camera focus, and the whole sequence of actions leading up to the end of the episode).

If possible, observe a group of children while they are watching a cartoon. See if you can find any evidence that would support Bandura's social learning theory in their behaviour during, and immediately after, their cartoon-watching time.

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. Learners observe teachers all the time, and they pick up the teacher's habits and responses, not only in terms of the official curriculum that is being taught, but also in terms of day to interactions in the classroom. 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.

In social learning theory, peers can also function as models, and children can learn from the successes of others, or indeed they can be discouraged from trying something, if they see others fail. Teachers can help to encourage social learning by pointing out the successes of others and discussing how they managed to achieve their success, so that others who are looking on can use similar methods or strategies to achieve equally positive outcomes. Sometimes children need help in interpreting what they see, and sometimes the behaviours that are being modelled are not very helpful. Teachers have an important role in directing attention towards potentially useful behaviours that will enhance children's development, and away from behaviours that are not helpful. Feedback from the teacher is a useful tool in reinforcement, and it should ideally be positive and encouraging, in order to enhance self-efficacy in the learners.

One concept in Bandura's theory that has been highly influential in teaching practice is that of self-regulation. When his theory is taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that the ultimate goal of teaching is to enable a learner to go on and learn without the help of the teacher. Unfortunately, however, many activities that take place in schools and colleges are very tightly controlled. Assessment is often very narrow in terms of what needs to be done, and how students are allowed to approach the task. If there are very few choices available to the learner, then this is called external regulation. If, on the other hand, students are given a problem to solve in an open-ended way, with few parameters imposed by the teacher, then this requires learners to engage in self-regulation. They must think about the task before they start, monitor their own progress towards completion of the task, and then modify any behaviours that are not working. Ideally also, they should reflect on the choices that they have made, and be able to work out how to complete the task more quickly, or to a higher standard of outcome, using the knowledge that they have gained in this learning process.

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. Many workers must develop the ability to take the initiative and work out their own solution to each new challenge that arises. This is why in further and higher education, problem-based learning has become widespread. Students are encouraged to set up their own stimuli and reinforcement processes, and monitor their learning so that they can become "self-regulated learners" (Zimmerman, Bandura and Martinez-Pons, 1992, p. 663).


Some people think of Bandura as a Behaviourist because of the way he emphasises learners' response to the learning environment. Other people think he is a neo-behaviourist because of the importance he places on agency. It is even possible to detect the beginnings of constructivism in his realisation that social learning theory does not explain everything, and that other factors outside those he controlled in his experiments might be affecting his results.

Think about the experimental methods that we have seen in Behaviourism. There may be a connection between Bandura's evolving ideas and his increasing dissatisfaction with experimental methods. What are the limitations of controlled, laboratory experiments in educational research?


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.


By the time you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the examples and reflection sections, you should

  • understand what Bandura's Social Learning Theory means in the context of educational research
  • understand the Behaviourist assumptions behind this theory, how this theory moves on from early forms of Behaviourism, and how it relates to other theories such as Constructivism
  • understand and explain clearly how this theory applies to education
  • relate this theory to educational practice at different levels from infancy to adulthood.

Now you should complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter. Use what you have learned in this chapter to complete the short task described there.

Reference list

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: [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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