Shirley J. Caruso, Ed.D.
Social cognitive theory, a theory of learning that focuses on changes in behavior that result from observing others, emerged from the work of Albert Bandura (1925-) (Bandura, 1986, 1997, 2001). Social cognitive theory has its historical roots in behaviorism, but, as the name implies, it has evolved over the years into a more cognitive perspective (Kim & Baylor, 2006).
View of learning
Social cognitive theorists view learning as a change in mental processes that creates the capacity to demonstrate different behaviors (Hill, 2002). So, learning may or may not result in immediate behavioral change (Eggen & Kauchak, 2013).
View of learner
Social cognitive theory suggests that reinforcement and punishment affect learners’ motivation, rather than directly cause behavior (Eggen & Kauchak, 2013). Instead of viewing reinforcers and punishers as directly causing behavior, as behaviorists do, social cognitive theorists believe that reinforcers and punishers create expectations, cognitive processes that then influence behavior (Eggen & Kauchak, 2013). For example, a student may study for an exam for several days, but the behavior of the student isn’t reinforced until he receives his score; he sustains his efforts because he expects to be reinforced for studying (Eggen & Kauchak, 2013).
Examples of social cognitive theory can be seen in the workplace as well. For instance, sales representatives working on commission for a motorcycle company were not meeting established sales goals for a new motorcycle model. They continued to concentrate their efforts on selling one of the older models despite the set goals and communicated expectations. The older model sold for an average price of $15,000 while the new model sold for an average price of $8,000. The sales representatives received a 6% commission on either model they sold. Therefore, the desired performance of selling more of the new models was punishing because the sales representatives made less money on the sale. The sales representatives were not motivated to sell the newer model, and as social cognitive theory suggests, this punishing reinforce affected the sales representatives’ motivation to sell.
Bandura’s Social-Cognitive Theory has a variety of strengths, especially as they relate to adult learning (Bandura, 1986, 1997, 2001). The focus on learning through a social environment encourages the belief in lifelong learning. In addition, Bandura puts the ability and motivation to learn squarely in the hands of the learner through the use of concepts like self-efficacy and self-regulation (Bandura, 1986, 1997, 2001). Using these learner-centered tools provides a rich foundation for creating an environment in which the adult learner takes an active involvement in their own educational development. Finally, by acknowledging the use of mass media tools (like television, computers, etc.) as a source of modeled behavior, Bandura opens up a variety of learning environments in our daily lives without being hindered by the formality of the educational environment (Gredler, 2009, p. 380). In other words, learning can happen at any time, anywhere.
Knowles (1980) draws an explicit parallel between Social Cognitive Theory and his theory of andragogy (the art and science of teaching adult learners). Andragogy assumes that the point at which an individual achieves a self-concept of essential self-direction is the point at which he psychologically becomes adult (Knowles, 1980). A very critical thing happens when this occurs: the individual develops a deep psychological need to be perceived by others as being self-directing. Thus, when he finds himself in a situation in which he is not allowed to be self-directing, he experiences a tension between that situation and his self-concept (Knowles, 1980). Similar to the attributes of Social Cognitive Theory, Knowles (1980) theorized that adult learners need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it; adult learners need to be responsible for their own decisions and to be treated as capable of self-direction; adult learners have a variety of experiences of life which represent the richest resource for learning. These experiences are however imbued with bias and presupposition; adults are ready to learn those things they need to know in order to cope effectively with life situations; and adults are motivated to learn to the extent that they perceive that it will help them perform tasks they confront in their life situations.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hill.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.
Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory. In Annual Review of Psychology. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Review.
Eggen, P. & Kauchak, D. (2013). Educational psychology: Windows on classrooms. (9th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Gredler, M. (2009). Learning and instruction: Theory into practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hill, W. F. (2002). Learning: A survey of psychological interpretations (7th ed.). Boston, Allyn & Bacon.
Kim, Y. & Baylor, A. L. (2006). A social-cognitive framework for pedagogical agents as learning companions. Educational Technology Research and Development, 54, 569-596.
Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.