What Is Social Learning? Theory, Strategies and Examples

23 September

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What Is Social Learning? Theory, Strategies and Examples

Humans are a social species that are wired to connect and cooperate with others. We live, work and share our lives in the company of other people. So it should come as no surprise that humans learn best when interacting with others as well. This concept is known as social learning – and it plays an important role in both traditional as well as digital learning environments.

Keep reading to discover what social learning theory is, the benefits of social learning for eLearning, and how you can start applying social learning strategies.

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is a theory that proposes that people learn behaviour through observing, modelling and imitating others. The Canadian Social Cognitive Psychologist, Albert Bandura, coined the term in the 1960s after coming to the conclusion that prior learning theories focused too much on conditioning. He believed they devalued the instrumental role of social context in the learning process. And while his social learning theory also includes an element of conditioning, the difference is that it purports that the main process through which individuals learn is through observation of others.

To find evidence to support his theory, Bandura conducted a series of groundbreaking experiments, known collectively as the Bobo doll experiment. This series of experiments involved exposing a group of young children to a scenario where adults were playing aggressively with a toy doll. The outcome of the experiment was that children who had observed the aggressive behaviour were substantially more likely than children in the control group to mimic that behaviour. These results indicated that observing others plays an important role in the learning process.

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What is social learning in eLearning?

Based on Bandura’s social learning theory, social learning is a broad term that involves incorporating social interactions into the learning experience as a way to better achieve learning objectives. Social learning enables students to learn from both the instructor and fellow students – and doesn’t require face to face interaction, but is possible through virtual formats as well. 

It is also important to keep in mind that social learning can occur both directly and indirectly. Some examples of direct social learning are watching a lecture, participating in a group discussion and collaborating in a group project. Indirect social learning involves observing without directly interacting with another person. For example, reading an online forum or articles written by others would be indirect learning. 

One popular corporate training model that incorporates social learning is the 70/20/10 Model for Learning and Development. According to this model, 70% of learning comes from hands-on experiences, 20% comes from social learning and 10% comes from formal training opportunities. With one-fifth of corporate learning and development occurring through social interactions, understanding and being able to apply social learning strategies is invaluable for L&D teams.

The advent of technology has further expanded social learning opportunities – particularly indirectly. One recent theory known as connectivism purports that learning is multidimensional and occurs through connecting divergent information within networks. The connectivism learning theory is based on the idea that a large proportion of learning occurs through digital technologies, such as social media, blogs, webinars and online courses. As technology continues to further advance, understanding how to leverage them for social learning will become increasingly important for digital learning professionals.

Social Learning Benefits in eLearning

There are various benefits that incorporating social learning can have on both the learning experience and better achieving your learning objectives. Below are some of the most significant benefits that stem from adopting social learning strategies:

  • Higher learning retention: Since social learning involves interaction, repetition and making learning meaningful, it can help improve the rate of learning retention. 

  • Improved engagement: Social learning can make learning more interactive and dynamic – which can increase the level of engagement among learners.

  • Lower turnover: Since it fosters the development of connections between learners, social learning can lead to lower attrition rates in corporate environments. Likewise, in education settings, it could lead to lower course withdrawal rates.

  • Cost savings: Social learning often tends to happen naturally. Therefore, it can be a cost-effective training method. 

  • Learner-centric: As opposed to the attention of the learners being focused on the instructor, with social learning, the attention is focused on one another. This makes the experience more learner-centric and active.

  • Improves culture: Because of the collaborative nature of social learning, it enables learners to develop relationships. In turn, these relationships can increase levels of trust, communication and camaraderie – which can all help foster a better organisational culture.

  • Greater knowledge sharing: A common challenge in today’s workplaces are knowledge silos. These can occur when information is not effectively distributed across the organisation, but is held by one team or individual. Social learning can break down these knowledge silos through increased collaboration.

Social Learning Steps

According to the social learning theory, there are four steps that are involved in the cognitive process of social learning. Below is a description of each the four steps that are instrumental in the learning process:


The first step involved in social learning involves awareness. If learners do not have their attention focused on what is being modelled, the cognitive processes involved in social learning cannot begin. Therefore, it’s important that the learning model is engaging and interesting in order to keep the learners’ attention.


Being able to effectively store and retrieve information is a key aspect in learning. And social learning can help bolster various types of retention strategies. Some examples of these strategies include making the learning more personally meaningful and using repetition.


Social learning involves not only observing certain behaviours, but also imitating them. Therefore learners must have opportunities to practice and apply their learnings. One example of reproduction within eLearning is discussion boards. These provide learners with a chance to share what they have learned with other students.


Effective social learning involves conditioning through rewards and punishment. In other words, learners must be motivated to perform what they have observed. Different students will be more or less receptive to different types of motivation. Some students may be motivated by social rewards, such as appearing competent to other students. However, other students may be more motivated by personal feelings of achievement, such as scoring well on an assessment.

Social Learning Strategies in eLearning

Now that you’ve familiarised yourself with what social learning is and how it can be beneficial to eLearning, we’ll dive into how you can apply social learning strategies when creating digital learning experiences and delivering instruction. 

Designing for Social Interaction

In order to leverage the full benefits of social learning, it’s vital that the learning platform and curriculum are designed for social interaction. This would involve creating learner interfaces that enable engaging, practical and purposeful social interactions. Some examples of learner experience functions that support social learning are chat, discussion boards and any other opportunities to synchronously or asynchronously interact with other learners.


Another strategy that can be used to foster and enhance social learning in digital learning environments is known as eModerating. This strategy involves an eModerator facilitating group discussions in a way that encourages learners to contribute in meaningful ways. The objective of eModerating is to foster an inclusive environment that promotes participation and the effective use of discussions as a learning tool. 


Social learning often involves cooperation – but it could also include some degree of competition as well. And when the competition is healthy, then this isn’t always a negative thing. Healthy competition can encourage learners to strive harder to do their best and reach their potential. And one effective way to promote healthy competition is through the use of benchmarking and leaderboards. This way, learners can see where they stand in relation to others – which could then increase their levels of motivation. 

Learning Groups

Since collaboration is so beneficial for fostering innovation, problem solving and engagement, group work is a common feature in traditional classrooms and many workplaces. Although many eLearning platforms avail of breakout rooms, there are various other types of group work that can be done virtually. For example, Classcraft is a tool that enables students to learn through role playing. In addition to role playing, brainstorming and shared tasks are other types of activities that leverage social learning.

Knowledge Sharing

One of the most advantageous social learning strategies is to establish a knowledge sharing culture within your organisation. A knowledge sharing culture is a great way to reduce duplication of instruction, foster better communication and reduce knowledge gaps and siloing. The first step to creating one is to create a library of resources within your learning platform or knowledge management system. You can then encourage employees to share their knowledge with others –  not only within the system, but outside of it as well. 

Final Thoughts

Social interactions are not just a nice-to-have when it comes to learning – but are actually essential to the process. Social learning can lead to higher learner retention, improved engagement and an overall more enjoyable and effective learning experience. And these benefits don’t only apply to traditional classroom-based learning – but digital learning as well.

While you may already have some social learning aspects incorporated into your curriculum, it’s worth considering what other opportunities you could provide learners to learn from each other. This way, you can reap the full benefits of social learning. 

If you’re interested in discovering more ways to apply social learning strategies to your eLearning instruction, gaining a Professional Diploma in Digital Learning Design is a great way to learn the fundamentals – and reap all the benefits of social learning.

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