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.
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.
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.
So, you've paid close attention to the steps involved in cooking scrambled eggs. You've retained that new knowledge by committing it to memory. Have you made any eggs yet? Motor reproduction is the act of putting to use the information that your brain has taken in. In order to truly learn the behavior of cooking scrambled eggs, you need to actually attempt to make scrambled eggs. So, you take the knowledge that you have gained through the processes of attention and retention and put it to use. You get out the eggs, gather the supplies you will need, fire up the skillet and give it a go.
You just made your first attempt at cooking scrambled eggs after years of watching mom do it. So, how did it go? If it went well, you are likely to cook eggs more often. The positive result of cooking the scrambled eggs acts as reinforcement, so that you are encouraged to make them again. Reinforcement - or lack thereof - can increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.
Vicarious reinforcement is one type of reinforcement that is unique to observational learning. Vicarious reinforcers impact the behavior of the observer. So, if mom makes eggs that taste great, and your sister comes in to the kitchen, has a bite and tells mom how great they are, not only is mom more likely to make them again but you are also more likely to make eggs in the future. The power of seeing the positive reinforcement that your mom received from your sister makes it more likely that you will make eggs because you saw the positive response from your sister that making yummy scrambled eggs elicited.
We've covered a lot here, so let's summarize. Observational learning is a specific type of learning where the observer learns new behaviors by watching some other organism engage in a certain behavior. Albert Bandura is credited with formulating the theory of observational learning. Bandura proposed that successful observational learning must include: attention, retention, motor reproduction and reinforcement. Understanding the theory of observational learning is not only helpful when it comes to cooking scrambled eggs, but it can be used to efficiently teach and learn a host of new behaviors.
When you are done, you should be able to:
- Explain what observational learning is
- Name and describe the steps in observational learning
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