Achieving behaviour change through social learning theory

Image of two lightbulbs exchanging gear mechanisms to demonstrate behaviour change.

Key takeaways

  • Behaviour change is the cornerstone of effective workplace training, surpassing theory to achieve tangible results.
  • Social learning theory, championed by psychologist Albert Bandura, emphasises the interaction between cognitive and environmental factors in the learning process.
  • Four mediational processes — attention, motivation, retention, and reproduction — determine the success of learning outcomes.
  • Incorporating live, instructional, and symbolic observation models into training fosters behaviour change by providing impactful learning experiences.

Ask any Learning and development professional what they hope to achieve through workplace training and their answer is likely to revolve around behaviour change. Take goal setting for instance, it’s one thing to run a  workshop that delivers the theory, and another experience entirely to facilitate meaningful training that results in teams consistently achieving their KPIs.

Behaviour change might be a simple concept to understand, but it can be surprisingly difficult to achieve! With economic uncertainty meaning many L&D teams are facing budget cuts, it’s more important than ever to demonstrate your training’s ROI.

One of the best ways to achieve meaningful and lasting behaviour change is to make social learning theory a key tenet of your training strategy. This means providing opportunities for employees to learn from the experiences of others in a way that accelerates their own learning. By paying attention not only to the content you deliver, but to opportunities for observation, modelling and imitation, your learning experiences can become more impactful and memorable.

Read on to learn about the principles of social learning theory and the processes on which it depends. You’ll discover how you can use social learning to create learning environments where people observe and interact with others, transforming your L&D strategy into an engaging platform where skills are shared and internalised rapidly.

What is social learning theory?

Developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, social learning theory suggests that we learn new behaviours by observing and imitating others. Unlike behavioural theories that suggest all learning is the result of environmental conditioning, or cognitive theories that focus on our mental processes, social learning theory highlights the interaction between cognitive AND environmental factors  in the learning process.

Bandura suggests there are different ‘models’ through which can we learn by observing our environment , however, he also points out that these observation models can’t function unless certain cognitive processes are in place. These ‘mediational processes’ determine whether a new behaviour is embedded or not. Think about learning a new language — exposure is vital but unfortunately, we don’t automatically acquire every new word we overhear !

What are the four mediational processes that lead to successful learning?

According to Bandura’s social learning theory, the four mediational processes that determine whether learning is successful are:

1. Attention

If we’re not paying attention to something, we’re not going to learn it! As L&D professionals, we need to compete with all the distractions and demands of modern life and deliver training that holds our learners’ attention.

2. Motivation

Likewise, if we’re not motivated to learn something, we’re less likely to be successful. Workplace training needs to be relevant and have clear benefits for our learners, so that they feel motivated to fully engage with the learning process.

3. Retention

We must be able to retain, not merely notice, new information to learn it. This means that workplace training must be memorable in order to transfer into the workplace.

4. Reproduction

Finally, we need to be able to reproduce what we have learned. This may be impacted by cognitive or physical factors, but it can also be positively influenced by opportunities for practise.

What are the three main observational learning models?

If the four mediational processes are in place, Bandura suggests there are three ‘models’ by which we can learn through observation. These models provide behavioural examples that can we imitate and eventually adopt as our own. Think again about learning a new language – even if we are paying attention, highly motivated, able to retain information and committed to reproducing what we’ve learned, we’re not going to get far without some kind of example to learn from.

These three observational models are:

1. Live models

Where we watch someone perform a behaviour.

2. Instructional models

Where we listen to a detailed description of a behaviour.

3. Symbolic models

Where we observe a behaviour through media – for example; books, TV and film, or online content.

In order to achieve behavioural change, we need to ensure workplace training provides relevant and impactful models for observation, as well as opportunities for people to put learning into practise through modelling and imitation.

What are the benefits of embedding social learning theory into your training?

As L&D professionals, we are often under pressure to achieve a huge amount with limited time and resources. It can be tempting to squeeze as much content as possible into each learning experience, but this often results in training that appears valuable on the surface but doesn’t transfer into behaviour change in the workplace.

By embedding social learning theory into our L&D strategy, we can draw on the collective experiences of a group of learners, yielding valuable insights through peer learning and appealing to modern, collaborative ways of working. By providing opportunities for observation and modelling, we can also ensure that learners not only understand the theory behind the training we deliver but understand what new behaviours look like in practise.

All of this means we are more likely to see behaviour change, which leads to improved outcomes for individuals, teams, and organisations, and demonstrates greater ROI.

How can you incorporate social learning theory into your L&D strategy?

Here are some suggestions on how you can ensure the meditational processes and observational models needed for social learning are incorporated into your training approach:

Attention

Between phone calls, emails, instant messaging, social media and the plethora of other stimuli we receive on a daily basis, there are constant competing demands for our attention. We can’t eliminate all these distractions, but we can make learning experiences more compelling and more likely to win in this fight for attention!

  • Remember that the fight for attention starts before the learning experience even begins. Schedule training in advance so that people have time to clear their calendar; ensure pre-comms set clear expectations around purpose, content, and method of delivery; and consider providing pre-learning so that people arrive primed and ready to learn.
  • Encourage active engagement so that people are less likely to lose focus or attempt to multitask! This might mean adding a quiz, using gamification, or inviting interaction and discussion.
  • Think about the visual design of your training materials. Colour, image, movement and spacing all impact how learners receive information and can help to direct attention to where it needs to be.

Motivation

As L&D professionals, we have an important role to play in encouraging motivation around learning and ensuring that people are excited to engage with the learning experiences on offer. According to Dan Pink , motivation is typically the result of three key elements: purpose, mastery and autonomy. We can boost motivation and therefore learning outcomes by ensuring workplace training has a clear purpose, offers a path to mastery, and provides some degree of autonomy for our learners.

  • Clearly communicate the purpose of the learning experience in a way that highlights how it will benefit the learner, so they understand why they should invest their time and energy into it.
  • Ensure the training you deliver is appropriately stretching and offers learners the opportunity to develop their skills in a particular area.
  • Offer people a degree of autonomy over their learning. This might mean offering personalised training routes, allowing people to sign up for the learning experiences that are most relevant to them, or encouraging learners to share their own experiences in the moment and direct conversation around a particular topic.

Retention

Even the most attention-grabbing, highly relevant piece of training is of little value unless people remember what they have learned. It’s vital that the training we deliver is memorable, so that people can easily recall new behaviours and transfer them into the workplace.

  • Research shows we are more likely to remember a story than facts and figures alone. Ensure the learning experience has a clear narrative, and use anecdotes and examples to appeal to the human brain’s preference for story.
  • When we learn, we create new connections between neurons in the brain, which can make learning something we have no prior knowledge of very difficult! Build on what people already know, for example by asking them to share their experiences around a topic or guess a statistic, to increase their chance of building strong connections and remembering what they have learned.
  • Use repetition to build neural connections faster, for example by incorporating a quiz, recapping content at the end of a training session or providing a takeaway document for learners to recap what they have learned.

Reproduction

Once training has been delivered, the work doesn’t stop there! In order to see behaviour change, we need to provide learners with opportunities to put learning into action through modelling and imitation.

  • Provide opportunities for practise by encouraging people to consider learning in relation to their specific situation. For example, this might mean practising having a conversation within the learning experience itself, or practising using a specific model to plan the conversation. Remember, practise doesn’t always have to mean role play!
  • Make time for action planning and encourage learners to share next steps with their peers to gain insight and increase social accountability.
  • Nudge learners to put new behaviours into action beyond the learning experience, for example by putting a reminder in their calendar, encouraging their manager to check-in, or sending post-comms that remind them of the key takeaways .

Observational models

As well as working to ensure the four meditational processes are in place, we also need to provide appropriate models for employees to observe and imitate. Using different types of models within the same learning experience can help to provide variety and keep people focused and engaged.

  • Use live delivery methods such as ILT, VILT or even VRILT  to expose learners to live models from their coach and colleagues in an environment that allows them to ask questions, seek clarification and practise in the moment.
  • Include examples and scenarios that provide instructional models for learners to transfer to their own situation.
  • Consider providing additional resources such as articles, videos, or handouts as symbolic models to reinforce learning.

Final thoughts

In the ever-evolving landscape of workplace training, achieving meaningful behaviour change is paramount. As learning and development professionals navigate budget constraints and the need for a tangible ROI, social learning theory emerges as a valuable framework.

Embracing social learning theory isn’t just about understanding behaviour, it’s about creating spaces that support observation and modelling, and where skills are shared and embedded rapidly, driving individual, team, and organisational success.

So, why not try implementing one of our suggestions for each of the four mediational processes outlined above? We’re sure you’ll see a vast impact on the effectiveness of your learning and development strategy!


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