Observational Learning: Definition, Theory & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Clause

Chris is an educator with a background in psychology and counseling. He also holds a PhD in public affairs, and has worked as a counselor and teacher for community college students for more than 10 years.

Observational learning is a way to learn by watching others. Take a closer look at the definition of observational learning, explore Bandura's contributions to this theory, and learn to identify the four steps in observational learning through some examples. Updated: 09/07/2021

What is Observational Learning?

Remember the first time you tried to make scrambled eggs for breakfast? Chances are you didn't get out a cookbook and follow step-by-step instructions. There's a good chance that you thought back to a time when you watched your mom make them and just followed what you remember her doing. So, how did you successfully cook scrambled eggs the first time you tried without a cookbook? The answer to that question is the focus of this lesson, a process called observational learning.

Observational learning has been a part of the human experience for a long time, but it wasn't until somewhat recently that psychologists began to examine this phenomenon closely in an effort to understand it better. Albert Bandura, a Canadian-born psychologist, gets credit for developing and popularizing Observational Learning Theory. Bandura did most of his work in the latter half of the 20th century. Bandura theorized that observational learning occurs in four distinct steps: attention, retention, motor reproduction and reinforcement. These four concepts used in sequence allow organisms to acquire the ability to engage in new, at times complex, behaviors simply through observation.

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Steps to Observational Learning

Attention is first up in the process of understanding observational learning. Let's apply the scrambled eggs example to illustrate the process. If you ever want to cook eggs on your own, you must be able to first observe someone else engaging in the activity while actively bringing the information into your brain through your senses. If you don't watch intently as your mom cracks the eggs, scrambles them in a bowl and cooks them in a pan, then how can your brain even begin to truly learn the process? Attention is critical to making sure that you catch all of the important details.

So, you've paid close attention to how your mom prepares and cooks scrambled eggs, but now it's your turn, and you've got to remember how to do it. Retention is the process of taking the information in through your senses and committing it to memory. You have to remember the steps in order to replicate them later. Cooking scrambled eggs is a pretty simple process involving only a few steps, so remembering the steps is not that challenging for the average person. More advanced and complex patterns of behavior require more advanced strategies to make sure the information observed is committed to memory and able to be accessed when needed later. Regardless of the level of complexity of the observed behavior you are trying to learn, remembering what you observed is critical.

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