Instructional design Elearning Workplace training

7 minute read

Social Learning Theory: What Is It & How Does It Work?

Sara Meij

Sara Meij

When you’re onboarding new staff to your organization, do you book in time for them to shadow their colleagues for a few hours in the first weeks? Do you place an emphasis on learning from peers in their induction training? Do you organize team workshops or games to increase their learning retention?

If you said yes to any of those, you’ve been implementing the Social Learning Theory all along (perhaps without knowing). If you haven’t heard of the Social Learning Theory before, now is the time to look into it. Social learning is becoming more widely used as a cost-effective and crucial part of employee training and development. 

So how can you use and apply this theory in your own elearning strategy? In this article, we’ll discuss this theory within the context of the workplace.

What is social learning?

Psychologist Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is based on his research that shows that learning is a cognitive process. It takes place in a social context and happens only through observation or direct instruction. In short, it means that when people see someone else (a model) performing a specific behavior, they use that information to guide them in their own behavior based on what they’ve seen.

For example, we tend to learn how to do something more easily by watching someone do that thing than if we are simply told what to do. And we are even more motivated to do it when we are rewarded for copying that behavior.

Social learning forms a bridge between the knowledge the learner acquires and a change in behavior. So with social learning, employee learning continues beyond the information presented at a formal training session, into practical use. This is an essential element of creating a social learning culture at your organization. 

Two women working on computer

Why is it important?

Social learning has always been an important part of the way we learn and retain information, with informal social learning estimated to make up 75 percent of learning within organizations. But with the increase in remote work, it’s now even more important. A well-rounded strategy includes different forms of learning from colleagues, mentors, and supervisors as well as self-reflection.  

Often employees would learn socially in the workplace by, for instance, observing a colleague’s behavior. The current surge in remote work, because of the global pandemic, calls for a bit more thought into making sure your L&D plan has elements of social learning in it. Social learning does not require your team to be face-to-face. It can have just as much impact when using online methods. Your training and development strategy could include a variety of training such as classroom-based, interactive, and online methods. 

The benefits of social learning in the workplace are plentiful. Learning through observing others teaches us not only how to do something, but also what the consequences of doing it may be. For example, watching a colleague perform a data validation exercise in Excel that results in an error message popping up when invalid data is entered. Social learning can engage employees, and help them retain the information through practiced behavior or mental and physical “rehearsal” of using the new skills.

How can you apply social learning to elearning?

Structure is important to successfully implementing social learning in your workplace. Ad hoc social learning between your staff through social interactions is one thing - consistent and measurable success using the social learning theory requires a more structured approach.

It takes more than simply observing someone carrying out an action to retain that information and put it into practice. Let’s dive into the major principles of Bandura’s theory and how to apply them to elearning so that you can implement them into your learning and development strategy:

1. Attention

Probably one of the first questions that come to mind when thinking of applying social learning to elearning is: how does it work when your employees are remote? Video and audio will be helpful to recreate the office dynamic of face-to-face interactions. 

Work from home computer

Virtual classroom technology also allows for presentations and collaboration in real-time, which helps to support the perception that the learning is social. Social learning reinforces the idea of a task being new or different, which helps your employees stay focused and learn better. 

2. Retention

It’s easy to connect with colleagues and fellow students using Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as GoSkills, through forums and chat functions. Group chats, discussions in a thread and in groups are all examples of social learning. 

Through an LMS, employees can learn together, at their own pace, and they can share their profiles to show completed courses. People learn by internalizing information and are able to recall information best when placed in a similar situation to the time they originally learned something.

3. Reproduction

Discussing and practicing behavior, skills, and knowledge your employees learned in a course makes it easier to put these new skills into practice when needed. Practice comes easy when it’s set up in a fun and engaging way such as through online challenges and activities (and perhaps adding a personalized course completion certificate for download at the end). 

4. Motivation

Make learning fun! Gamification is a great way to inspire your employees and increase learning retention. Motivation is key for anything in life, and learning is no exception. Gamification provides the benefits of engagement and motivation through rewards and encouragement when an employee has done something well and unlocked various achievements (like completing a quiz with a perfect score or completing an entire course). 

Wrapping it up

Including social learning in your learning and development strategy is paramount in today’s fast-paced environment. Social learning has been shown to help employees retain information better, stay engaged, and be able to put what they learned into practice in their day-to-day activities. 

Social learning is a great addition to any training strategy, whether online, offline, or a blended learning option with microlearning, face-to-face instruction, or video training. And, social learning is cost-effective and it is relatively easy to get people on board because knowledge sharing is a fundamental part of human nature.

Are you ready to create a culture of knowledge and skill-sharing in your organization? Try the GoSkills LMS for free today and see how your employees can learn together and at their own pace.

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Sara Meij

Sara Meij

Sara is a digital communications expert and former journalist with a passion for writing. In her spare time she loves Latin dancing and getting outdoors to run, hike or mountain bike.