Learning is a complex activity that can be influenced by a number of factors, including learners’ preferences regarding how they learn, the learning environment, the complexity of the subject matter and the mode of teaching (e.g., in-person or online). The principles of social learning can help instructional designers — whether they are designing for in-class delivery or distance learning — ensure that learning happens efficiently.

The Basics of Social Learning

Psychologist Albert Bandura is widely recognized for his theory of social learning, which he developed through controlled experiments with children. In those experiments, adults demonstrated behaviors repeatedly, and children began mimicking them. Social learning theory, which is grounded in Bandura’s findings, guides instructional designers to develop content that:

  • Helps draw the attention of learners toward the learning objectives.
  • Builds on that focus to impart knowledge.
  • Ensures the learners can demonstrate their understanding of the subject through real-life application.
  • Motivates learners by recognizing their accomplishments and rewarding them for their success.

Throughout the last century, training professionals have primarily applied social learning to in-person group learning settings, such as corporate retreats, seminars and workshops. However, these principles can also help you create effective distance learning content. Gamification, simulations and collaborative projects are prime examples of online social learning.

Social Learning in Online Training

Here’s how to apply these four basic social learning principles when developing and delivering self-paced or live online training:

Grabbing Attention

Some of the best public speakers recommend starting presentations with an “attention-grabber.” In a face-to-face setting, such as instructor-led training, it’s easy to shout, bang the desk or “cold stare” at learners to grab their attention. You can use similar tactics with your online learners.

Don’t begin a virtual instructor-led training (VILT) session unless you know you have the attention of your audience. Start with a joke, a captivating image or a personal story that you believe will resonate with your learners. Although you may not be in the same office or even time zone as your learners, you’ll definitely grab their attention!

The objective here is to bring learners’ focus to what they are about to learn.

Improving Retention

Because technology enables instructional designers to be more expressive than traditional flip charts and blackboards, it’s easy to become carried away and cause information overload. Social learning is about collective knowledge transfer, and too much information, delivered to learners in a short span of time, is a recipe for poor retention, regardless of how many bells and whistles you use in your delivery.

To accomplish your instructional objectives:

  • Deliver content in bite-sized segments that learners can retain.
  • Use mnemonics to help them memorize difficult phrases and words.
  • Illustrate complex concepts with graphics and images, examples, and real-life parallels.
  • Accommodate varying learning preferences by using multiple modalities, including videos, text, audio and animation.
  • Add interactive elements to the content throughout the program.
  • Recap and summarize as frequently as possible.

The objective here is to simplify your content so your learners can understand it and memorize key takeaways.

Ensuring Application of Learning

When it comes to making sure learners have acquired the necessary skills, online training is different from other forms of social learning. With in-class or in-person content, the instructor can easily quiz learners and challenge them to demonstrate their new skills.

With online learning, it can be difficult to gauge whether the learner is “real-world-ready.” To address that challenge:

  • Make sure your courses include plenty of hands-on content.
  • Include frequent mid-module and end-of-segment quizzes and tests.
  • Seek learner feedback through essay or other text-based responses rather than through focused inputs, like true/false questions or one-word responses.

The objective here is to use tools that demonstrate a cognitive understanding of the content instead of rote or memory-based reproduction.

Innovative Rewards to Motivate Learners

In an auditorium full of learners, when a handful of participants are singled out for their good performance, it gives them peer recognition. Social learning theory holds that such recognition motivates the learners toward better performance.

In an online learning setting, you can use similar recognition techniques to motivate learners:

  • Award badges to individuals for demonstrating specific accomplishments.
  • Assign group challenges to heighten a sense of collective commitment toward a learning objective.
  • Issue visible status changes (e.g., “novice to skilled,” “skilled to expert” and “expert to veteran”) on learners’ profiles.
  • Call out special accomplishments in chat rooms and discussion forums.

The objective here is to help motivate learners to accomplish even greater success.

Social Learning Technology

Today’s technology-driven learning environment lends itself to implementing online training grounded in social learning principles. When developing your course content, include chat sessions, discussion boards and group projects, and, where possible, leverage social media to foster collaborative learning.