3. Social Learning: Learn by Observing

Albert Bandura“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling…from observing others”
- Albert Bandura

Social learning is a long-standing teaching method:

  • Used by indigenous peoples around the world

  • Used in the ancient guild system

  • Used in mentoring—from trades to medical practice

  • Used in apprenticeship and preceptorship training

  • Used in adult classrooms/tutoring with buddy-systems

  • ……and let’s not forget the countless examples of modelling in parenting. “Here, let me show you…”

“Don’t Tell Me, Show Me”

The fact is we learn far more from family, friends and peers through our lifetime than we ever learn from teachers. Only a tiny fraction of our lives are spent in formalized learner-teacher settings. It is for this reason that the power of social learning and the potential of others’ help should not be underestimated.

In adult classrooms, social learning is facilitated through the use of buddy-systems and peer-modelling. One-on-one tutoring typically has no peer group, so no peer models. The tutor alone is the model. But, following are ways we can judiciously use social learning in our tutoring or classrooms.

Examples of Social Learning

Years ago, I was on the Board of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC). This was when I taught at Penn State University in Pittsburgh. GPLC was a major volunteer adult tutoring program with several satellite sites across the city (of more than two million population). Several of these sites had 2 to 3 learners being tutored at the same time by one tutor. It was known as “small-group tutoring.” Our board did a cursory study of one-to-one tutoring compared with small-group tutoring and, although this needs more research, we found small groups often moved more quickly through the program and had fewer dropouts. Support can matter a lot with our learners and peers can matter more than we often assume. We hypothesized at GPLC the success we saw in these small research samples was due to peer support and co-learning through social learning. This idea has potential.

A second example: When I lived in Regina, a number of instructors in a part-time evening adult basic education program at the Regina Polytechnic experimented with each learner using their cell phones—and they all had a cell phone—between class meetings to share information and give support. The technique proved extremely useful when some learners could not come to class…for instance, when there was bad weather or when there were family issues. If they had a specific question on an assignment, they got help from their peers using their cell phone. Also, they could text or call their instructor between class meetings; the instructors were part of this action research study project exploring the value of using social media (Quigley, 2006). Structuring the class in this way showed great promise in using social learning and should be researched further.


Here is the story of Tom an important example of social learning beyond the classroom.

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