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The Complete Guide to Social Learning

  • 15 Min Read

Meaningful engagement is at the heart of effective education experiences. In this article, find out what social learning is and how it can be used at all ages and stages of learning.

From family get-togethers to book clubs to watercooler chats, we’re constantly seeking connections with people. Research conducted by bestselling authors Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Ph.D., reveals that a solid sense of well-being requires six hours a day of social interaction, regardless of a person’s personality type.

While socializing can be helpful in decreasing stress and boosting our mood, it has another perhaps less well advertised application too: learning.

Social learning is the process of acquiring knowledge, behaviors and attitudes by observing, imitating and interacting with others. It’s something we do at every age—from a young student who receives a gold star on an assignment to a new employee shadowing a skilled mentor. Whether or not we realize it, we never stop learning in social contexts. It’s a built-in part of being human.

In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of social learning. We want to help you understand the theory behind it as well as its real-life importance and applications.

What Is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory recognizes that people learn through various forms of interaction. In some instances, we take a more active route. Think behaviors such as mimicry, imitation play, or collaboration with a group or mentor. In others, we may be more passive. For example, observation.

Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory

Albert Bandura was the original mastermind behind social learning theory, also known as social cognitive theory, which he developed in the 1960s. The theory emerged as Bandura sought to expand beyond the traditional behaviorist perspective and emphasize the crucial influence of cognitive processes, observational learning and the social context on human behavior. The result was social learning theory.

According to Bandura, individuals learn not only through direct experiences but also by observing and imitating others. He argued that learning occurs in a social context, where people actively acquire new behaviors, attitudes and knowledge by paying attention to the actions and outcomes of role models.

His theory expands beyond imitation to include the role of cognition too. It emphasizes how beliefs, expectations and self-efficacy influence behavior and underscores the reciprocal relationship between people and their environment. In essence, behavior, cognition and the social context are constantly shifting to shape learning outcomes.

Social learning theory has had significant influence on fields such as education, psychology and behavioral sciences. For educators, it can help give them the tools to better understand learner behavior and design more effective learning experiences.

Social Learning Theory in Education

Social learning theory has had a notable impact in the field of education. It influences everything from pedagogical approaches and classroom management strategies to curriculum design and the integration of technology.

Social learning theory highlights the importance of social interactions, observational learning and modeling in the learning process. It elevates the role instructors and peers play and promotes collaborative learning environments.

Each course comes with different requirements, audiences and parameters. Social learning isn’t going to appear identically in every course—sometimes there are ample opportunities, while other times it will be quite subtle. But it’s always possible to incorporate social learning on some level.
Lynsey Duncan senior instructional designer, D2L

By incorporating social learning principles into educational practices, educators can create opportunities where students can learn from one another, engage in meaningful discussions and develop critical thinking skills. Social learning theory also emphasizes positive reinforcement and feedback, both of which can motivate students and make them more confident in their own abilities.

Why Is Social Learning Theory Important?

Social learning encourages learners to seek out and understand different perspectives because observing and modeling new behaviors is how they gain knowledge and practice skills.

It can also help learners develop a deeper, more lasting sense of confidence in themselves. According to early research from Bandura himself, individuals who engaged in social learning reported higher levels of self-efficacy and motivation, which led to higher levels of performance and achievement.

Even today, this insight underscores the transformative power of social learning theory in promoting personal growth and continuous improvement. Observing and imitating others can allow people to lean into new perspectives, expand their skills, and learn from the successes and failures of those around them. Plus, it makes space for feedback and reinforcement. People can interpret the reactions of others, refine their behaviors and make meaningful progress. 

In short, social learning theory acts as a catalyst for lifelong learning and personal development. It empowers individuals to strive for continuous improvement and growth.

Benefits of Social Learning

Social learning can benefit learners in numerous ways. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them:

Knowledge Acquisition and Retention

Observing and imitating others’ actions is an important way that we gain knowledge, learn skills, and discover different approaches to handling situations and solving problems. The 70-20-10 model, which is commonly used in corporate learning environments, says that the majority of learning people do should happen via more informal channels: 70% practical experience, 20% passive exposure and 10% formal instruction.   

Social Skills

Engaging in social learning can also help people develop essential social skills. When we communicate and collaborate with others, we learn to understand diverse perspectives and build meaningful connections. This broadens our understanding of the world, encourages critical thinking and fosters empathy.

Social interactions and group dynamics can also be motivating and encouraging. Witnessing positive behaviors and values in action can spur us to continue our own personal growth. Achieving something together and sharing in accomplishments can give us a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Relationship Building

Engaging in social learning can help people form valuable connections with their peers. In a classroom setting, it may be as simple as getting to know other students and fostering empathy with them. In professional environments, such as a workplace or association, social learning can help build networks that support individual growth and career advancement.  

Personalized Feedback

Feedback is an important part of the learning process. But for it to be truly effective, it needs to be specific and actionable for the person receiving it. In social learning settings, people can get regular, personalized feedback from peers, mentors and instructors. They can also have opportunities to practice behaviors, seeking additional feedback and iterating as they go.

Embracing social learning can help us realize our true potential, unlocking opportunities for personal growth, skill development and lifelong learning.

Challenges of Social Learning

While social learning offers numerous benefits, it also presents some unique challenges. Let’s explore how to navigate them.

Misinformation and Information Overload

In a social learning environment, misinformation can spread quickly and easily. With the vast amount of information available in social learning environments, it’s crucial to manage information overload.

One of the ways we can help mitigate both issues is by building learners’ critical thinking skills. Strong critical thinking skills can equip them to filter the information that’s out there and verify that it’s coming from reliable sources.


Because most social learning is about learning through observation and experience, the impacts of it aren’t always the easiest to measure. Three of the metrics you’ll probably want to keep an eye on include:

  1. Learner Satisfaction: Are learners themselves pleased with the experience? Do they find it rewarding?
  2. Engagement: How much time are learners spending on the content? Are they actively participating when possible? If so, what’s the quality of their contributions?
  3. Outcomes: Are there noticeable changes in a learner before they completed a course and after? How does that evolve over time?

You may be able to use your learning management system (LMS) to gather data on indicators such as time spent on content and competencies. For other benchmarks, you’ll want to tap into more qualitative insights from learner surveys. Bringing all the pieces together will help you paint a complete picture.

Negative Role Modeling

While social learning allows people to observe and imitate positive behaviors, it can make it just as easy to mirror negative ones. Educators can help steer and redirect problematic trends in formal settings, but developing strong critical thinking skills is also important to help learners be more mindful of the influences around them.

Balancing Individuality and Conformity

While learning from and modeling the behavior of others is important, people also must be able to maintain their individuality and embrace the unique perspectives of others. Finding that balance is a challenge we may need to navigate in social learning settings.

Bias and Conflicting Perspectives

It can sometimes be tempting for people to copy others for the wrong reasons. Rather than learning from the most knowledgeable or skilled person, people can gravitate toward someone because of their perceived clout or prestige.

And while a diversity in backgrounds, beliefs and perspectives enriches the learning experience, it can also lead to conflict.

This is what makes nurturing core social skills—communication, collaboration and problem-solving—so essential in helping people succeed in social learning environments.

Concerns Over Discussions

While discussions can be phenomenally useful tools, they must be structured properly to be effective. In an article about running online discussions effectively, Dr. Jeff Borden shared a few tips, including:

  • Discourage single, static posts. Discussions should spark conversations to help people really dig into, reflect on and learn about a topic.
  • Encourage critical conversations. As awkward as it can feel, especially at the beginning of a course when learners could still be getting to know each other, you want them to be comfortable identifying and pointing out gaps in their peers’ arguments. Exchanges need to be respectful, of course, and claims should be supported by strong, reliable evidence.
  • Add time constraints. Where possible, only keep discussions open for a fixed amount of time. That will help outline expectations and create a sense of urgency for learners.
  • Include instructor-provided discussion content in assessments. Again, where relevant, this is a tactic that can encourage learners to pay closer attention to what’s going on in discussion forums.

Overall, it’s important that educators find a good balance—reinforcing clear expectations and codes of conduct while enabling people to have natural conversations and form organic connections.

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Individual Preferences for Learning

Everyone brings unique learning preferences to the table. Some may feel at home in social learning situations, while others could feel out of place. By creating content that’s diverse in medium, voice and modality and offering a range of flexible options, you can help maximize the benefits of social learning for all participants.

If we’re aware of these challenges and work to actively address them, we can harness the power of social learning while minimizing potential drawbacks. A mindful and proactive approach to learning is oftentimes all it takes to create a positive, effective and stimulating social learning environment.

Social Learning Tools

It goes without saying that social learning can and does exist without the aid of technology. At its core, it’s simply the process of learning by observing and imitating others. Today, however, technology can enhance social learning by enabling it to occur at scale.

LMSs are tools that play a crucial role in creating social learning experiences. They enable learners to participate in conversations and discussions, ask for and receive feedback, and even create content to share with their peers. Collaboration tools like messaging platforms can also help facilitate group work, while video conferencing platforms give people ways to connect with others and showcase their skills.

But technology alone cannot make social learning effective. Ultimately, it’s the combination of people and technology that drives successful social learning experiences.

Examples of Social Learning Theory

Now that we understand what social learning theory is and some of its benefits and drawbacks, let’s take a look at how it plays out in a couple of common scenarios.

Social Learning Theory in Education

Social learning theory finds practical applications in education, where it lends itself to collaborative, interactive learning experiences. Here are some concrete examples of how social learning theory is implemented in educational settings:

  • Group Discussions: Group discussions allow students to actively participate, share ideas and learn from their peers. Whether synchronously or asynchronously, students can exchange perspectives, debate topics and deepen their understanding through social interaction.
Discussions are phenomenal tools, yet their effectiveness hinges on proper structuring. They should allow learners to share their experiences and delve into topics that captivate their interest—or, at the very least, permit the conversation to take diverse and unexpected paths.
Lynsey Duncan senior instructional designer, D2L
  • Communities of Practice: Creating communities of practice within educational environments encourages learners to come together around shared interests or goals. They provide spaces for collaborative learning, knowledge-sharing and collective problem-solving.
  • Peer Feedback: Incorporating peer feedback activities allows students to learn from one another’s work. By providing constructive criticism, suggestions and praise, peers contribute to the improvement of their fellow students’ skills and understanding.
  • Think, Pair, Share: This strategy encourages active engagement and collaboration. Students think individually, pair up with a partner to discuss their thoughts, and then share their insights with the wider group. The process promotes social learning by stimulating dialogue and collective knowledge construction.
  • Passive Participation and Engagement: In addition to active participation, social learning theory recognizes the value of passive participation. Features such as “likes” or rating scales or sharing examples from past students allows learners to observe and appreciate the work of others, encouraging reflection and inspiration.
  • Showcasing Assignments and Examples: Another way of promoting social learning is by allowing students to showcase their assignments or projects to their peers. This way, students can learn from one another’s approaches, gain inspiration and see different perspectives on similar tasks.
  • Brag Sessions: Having spaces for students to share their achievements and accomplishments is crucial in creating a supportive and motivational learning environment. Brag sessions provide opportunities for students to recognize and appreciate the skills and successes of their peers.
  • Ask Me Anything (AMAs): AMAs provide a platform for students to ask questions and seek guidance from experts or individuals with specific knowledge or experience. This interactive format encourages dialogue, knowledge-sharing and collaborative problem-solving.
  • Shadowing: While primarily applicable in physical learning environments, shadowing activities can still be implemented virtually to simulate real-world experiences. Students can shadow professionals or experts in their respective fields to gain insights and learn indirectly from their expertise.

By incorporating these strategies and approaches inspired by social learning theory, educators can create engaging learning environments that promote collaboration, knowledge-sharing and continuous improvement among students.

Social Learning Theory in the Workplace

No two learning environments are the same, which is why workplace training looks different from classroom training—the two have different needs and goals.

Let’s look at some examples of how social learning theory operates in the workplace.

  • Communities of Practice: Much like in an educational environment, establishing communities of practice within your association or workplace boosts engagement and allows learners to rally around common interests or professional goals. These communities provide platforms for knowledge exchange, mentorship and collaborative problem-solving, enabling employees to learn from one another’s expertise and experiences.

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  • Peer Learning and Mentoring: Encouraging peer learning and mentoring programs promotes social learning in the workplace. Pairing experienced employees with those seeking guidance makes knowledge transfer, skill development and the exchange of best practices that much easier.
  • Collaborative Projects and Teamwork: Did you know that up to 80% of all corporate learning takes place through on-the-job interactions with peers, experts and managers? Assigning employees to collaborative projects or cross-functional teams promotes collaboration, encourages diverse perspectives, and facilitates the sharing of knowledge and skills among team members.
  • Job Shadowing and Cross-Training: Offering opportunities for job shadowing and cross-training allows employees to observe and learn from their colleagues’ work. By experiencing different roles or functions within the organization, employees can broaden their skills, gain new insights and gain a deeper understanding of organizational operations.
  • Online Learning Platforms and Knowledge-Sharing Tools: Utilizing online learning platforms and knowledge-sharing tools enables employees to access learning materials, resources and expertise from their peers across the organization. These platforms facilitate social learning by providing avenues for discussion and information exchange.
  • Lunch-and-Learn Sessions: Organizing lunch-and-learn sessions allows employees to share their expertise, insights or experiences. These informal sessions allow colleagues to learn from one another in a relaxed and interactive environment.
  • Feedback and Reflection: Some workplaces choose to implement regular feedback mechanisms, such as peer feedback or 360-degree evaluations. Constructive feedback helps employees identify areas for improvement, learn from their peers’ perspectives, and continuously develop their skills and knowledge.
  • Community and Discussion Forums: Establishing online communities or discussion forums allows employees to engage in professional dialogue, seek advice and share ideas. This can take place on platforms companies already use for internal communication, like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Community forums encourage the exchange of insights, the identification of innovative solutions, and the development of a learning culture within the organization.
  • Knowledge-Sharing Events and Workshops: Hosting knowledge-sharing events or workshops, where employees can present their projects, share their expertise, or discuss emerging trends and practices, creates opportunities for social learning. These events foster cross-departmental collaboration, inspire creativity, and promote continuous learning and improvement. They’re also a big cost-saver for organizations—Fortune 500 companies lose at least $31.5 billion a year by failing to take advantage of knowledge-sharing.

By incorporating practices inspired by social learning theory, organizations can cultivate a collaborative and learning-oriented workplace culture. These strategies empower employees to tap into their collective knowledge, learn from one another and continuously develop their skills.

The Future of Social Learning and AI

The way we look at social learning has clearly evolved since the 1960s. The introduction of new technology and new ways of working have changed the way we learn, but at heart we’re all still social learners.

So, what does the future hold for social learning?

As we look ahead, one prominent area of innovation is the integration of generative AI technology. While there are still concerns about its potential impacts, when implemented properly generative AI has the potential to benefit the field of education.

One of the significant advantages of leveraging generative AI in social learning is the massive time savings it offers for administrators, faculty and managers. Automating certain tasks through AI-driven solutions allows teachers to allocate their time more effectively, focusing on personalized instruction and facilitating engaging learning experiences.

A prime example of generative AI in action is the Bongo AI Coach, a new release from ed tech company Bongo. It’s designed to provide learners with 24/7 access to personalized, objective feedback to practice and refine their skills anytime, anywhere. By using generative AI, the Bongo AI Coach reviews a learner’s video and offers valuable feedback. It identifies opportunities for improvement, highlights areas of excellence, and provides unique insights into the presentation. In a language-learning context, for instance, the coach might comment on excellent pronunciation or correct a grammatical mistake.

Many learning tools fail to truly engage learners. With video assignments, learners can’t help but be engaged—not only are they observing the content you want them to, but they then become the content creators. Putting themselves on video proves they have retained the skills necessary to model that behavior positively.
Josh Kamrath CEO, Bongo

This AI-powered coaching tool empowers learners to enhance their skills and grow in their chosen domains. Organizations like the Canadian Centre for Professional Legal Education, for example, use the tool’s video assignment capabilities to demonstrate learner skills. The sky’s the limit when it comes to exploring AI’s potential to serve as a powerful tutor that provides personalized guidance and support.

While concerns surrounding AI don’t exist without reason, there are also ways of implementing robust safeguards to protect customer-sensitive information and ensure privacy. It’s all about prioritizing data security and privacy.

Additionally, various applications such as Flipgrid, Padlet, Google Jamboard and Miro are already leveraging AI to create interactive and collaborative learning environments, enriching social learning experiences.

As we embrace the future of social learning, we must harness the potential of new technology while remaining mindful of any ethical considerations and privacy concerns. By striking the right balance and leveraging these advancements thoughtfully, we can create a future where social learning is elevated to new heights, empowering learners and educators alike to thrive in a rapidly evolving educational landscape.

Social Learning in a Nutshell

The future is bright for social learning. As we continue to lean into new technology and embrace the shifting nature of education, we can enhance the way we learn, and collaborate and grow together at scale, without forgetting that the root of social learning lies in meaningful interactions and relationships.

FAQs About Social Learning

  • Social learning refers to the process of acquiring knowledge, behaviors and attitudes through observing, imitating and interacting with others in a social context. It involves learning from the experiences and actions of others and incorporating that knowledge into one’s own behavior.

  • Examples of social learning include observing and imitating the behavior of others, learning from social interactions and discussions, and acquiring knowledge through group activities and collaboration.

  • Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, also known as social cognitive theory, emphasizes the role of observational learning, modeling and cognitive processes in shaping human behavior. It proposes that individuals learn by observing and imitating others and that their behavior is influenced by cognitive factors such as beliefs, expectations and self-efficacy.

  • Social learning can impact the transmission of cultural norms and values, the development of social skills and empathy, the adoption of behaviors and attitudes, and the spread of information and knowledge.

  • The benefits of social learning theory include an understanding of how people learn from the social environments around them, a recognition of the role that observation plays in learning, and an emphasis on the importance of behavior change and personal growth through social modeling.

  • Social learning is important for children in acquiring social skills, developing empathy and cooperation, learning from positive role models, and navigating their social environment effectively. Through social learning, children observe and imitate appropriate behaviors and acquire knowledge, all of which facilitate their social and emotional development.

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Table of Contents

  1. What Is Social Learning Theory?
  2. Social Learning Theory in Education
  3. Why Is Social Learning Theory Important?
  4. Benefits of Social Learning
  5. Challenges of Social Learning
  6. Social Learning Tools
  7. Examples of Social Learning Theory
  8. The Future of Social Learning and AI
  9. Social Learning in a Nutshell

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