Learning new behavior by observing is called social learning. Social learning helps you learn faster as you are observing other people’s behavior in a social context because knowledge and habits are acquired easily when they are practiced by people within a certain environment.
Through centuries, humans have incorporated social learning in their lives. From initially being the only way to learn it is now the fastest and most comprehensive learning method.
In this article, you’ll find out how you can make good use social learning to help you learn faster.
The social learning theory as presented by Albert Bandura is simple. It suggests social learning is based on attention, retention, motivation and reproduction.
While these stages seem like common sense, there is a surprisingly large number of people who go through social interactions without learning anything because they aren’t actively practicing the different stages.
Since our mind has a limited capacity for storing data, it is the things that we pay attention to that stay with us as lessons learned. Giving 100% of your attention to a situation you learn from is guaranteed to help you maximize social learning:
Stay in the Moment
When you’re focused on learning from your surroundings, your mind will focus only on what it wants to learn, so distractions fade away. Yet it’s very normal to be in a situation where the information you are getting becomes monotonous or you get distracted for some other reason.
There may be times you lose focus because you’re not well or are tired. Make sure you are well-rested and take care of your health so you can spend your energy learning things that matter to you.
Make an effort to declutter your mind when you want to learn – step up to a window and look out, focusing on only one object you see outside for a few minutes. You could also get yourself a drink and savor every sip till it finishes and your mind calms down.
If you’re looking to give your brain a break from the daily grind, learn some tricks in my article What Is Mentally Tired? 11 Ways to Combat Brain Exhaustion.
Mindfulness in its simplest terms is tuning our thoughts into what we’re experiencing in the present rather than thinking about something that could or did happen.
For social learning, you should be mindful only of the conversation or activity you want to learn from, filtering out other things that don’t matter to you as much at that moment. This way, your brain can make memories of what you are experiencing at that time only, which is the thing you want to learn.
If you find yourself getting distracted, focus on deep breathing until the distractions fade away and you can bring your attention back to the learning opportunity at hand.
Focus, and Don’t Multitask
In today’s hyper-connected world, it’s normal, even expected to be a multitasker. Being amongst people and checking emails on smart phones is now accepted.
However, when you want to maximize your social learning, don’t multitask. You should focus only on the interaction you want to learn from and block out all the rest.
Don’t reach for your device, don’t engage in multiple conversations simultaneously. In short, don’t have your mind and other senses deal with anything apart from learning.
Similar to the above points, learning through social learning is fast and easy if you listen, speak and observe actively.
When you’re actively engaged, you respond to the situation by making relevant observations, mimicking the actions and focusing on listening so you understand.
To maximize the benefits of learning through social learning, be around those who are attentive and looking to learn as well. A good example of this would be medical students on clinical rotations who are actively observing and listening to the doctor they are assigned to, and responding to his / her queries.
Legitimize your participation in situations by interacting and recalling the interaction when needed.
Paying attention is great for learning, but what about retaining the new information?
Our brain has limited space to store data, so how do we ensure we remember things that are important to us?
These tips should help increase your retention power:
Repeat to Remember
Our brain starts developing from the moment we are born, absorbing things from people and experiences around us. It is learning constantly, and repeated experiences help reinforce the learning.
A new experience opens up new neural pathways in our brain and repetition of these experiences strengthens the pathways, helping us retain the information better and for longer.
To help remember, you could memorize a fixed number of things about the social learning scenario you are in and recall them frequently.
Increase Brain Power
You can improve retention by increasing your brain power: exercise regularly, sleep well and stretch memory muscle by playing brain games.
Here’re more ways to help: How to Increase Brain Power: 10 Simple Ways to Train Your Brain
Connect a social learning opportunity with mnemonics. Use mental images, music and anything else you want to retain and recall information.
Link new information with old to reach new conclusions. You can use writing and speech for this.
Remember That Less Is More
When you are looking to retain knowledge through social learning, try taking in information in small quantities.
Full day conferences, lectures that last for hours and similar learning schedules do not have the desired effect. The human mind shuts down when it is faced with information overload and the learning from these situations becomes minimal.
If you are looking to retain information from social learning opportunities, it’s a far better idea to put yourself in the situation more frequently for a shorter amount of time.
The idea of a tangible reward or the emotional high that comes with the sense of accomplishment is what motivates us to keep doing a good thing, while the fear of repercussions or unpleasant outcomes is what keeps from doing something bad.
When a child observes that good behavior of a sibling results in them getting a treat while bad behavior courts punishment, the child wanting a treat will be motivated to good behavior by this social learning lesson.
Motivation to learn new information and habits is a critical part of social learning. To stay motivated for social learning, you can:
Find a Role Model
Finding a role model and basing our learning on them means you are motivated to do the same thing that they are.
The medical students example fits well here again. The students will be motivated to learn better clinical skills and patient handling techniques by observing others around them and aspiring to be as good as they are.
Make a Note
Write down things that inspired you and keep going back to them to stay motivated.
Talk about It
Talk to your role model or peers about what is motivating you in a shared social learning environment.
An example of this is a person in rehab who is motivated to attend meetings by the presence of others who have managed to kick the addiction and are on the road to recovery.
Positive motivation is reward-based motivation (satisfied patients) and negative motivation is punishment-based motivation (absolute dependence on drugs).
To learn more about the merits / demerits these two types of motivation, read my article Positive Motivation vs Negative Motivation: Which One Is Better?
Remember, no matter which type works for you, without motivation, there is no reason for us to do anything.
In the context of social learning, “reproduction” is not propagation of the learning, but the implementation of it.
Reproducing learned information is the last stage of social learning. Once you pay attention to your surroundings and retain what you learned in the setting, you are then motivated to reproduce your learning so you can get the reward.
Bandura suggests direct reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement and self-reinforcement as the different ways to reproduce knowledge gained through social learning.
This is when you know act on knowledge knowing the result will be positive or avoid the act because the result would be unpleasant.
To repeat the medical students’ example here, direct reinforcement would be one of them practicing patient handling techniques learned from their role model, with the expectation that the result would be a satisfied patient.
Vicarious reinforcement in social learning is the application of knowledge that has not been learned first-hand but is learned by observing the consequences of the actions of a third party.
A good example of this type of reinforcement would be learning not to take drugs after seeing the condition of a drug addict.
Self-reinforcement is when a person decides to reward him / herself for good behavior, or bring about a negative consequence as a result of an undesired situation.
Think of a student who has promised herself a scoop of ice cream if she got an A in an exam she studied hard for, or decided to ask for extra coaching if she got anything below a C.
Albert Bandura presented the social learning theory in the 1970s and it immediately gained popularity because of its simplicity, practicality and immense potential for success. While the theory never went out of fashion, it is now experiencing a resurgence for all the right reasons.
If you want to become a smarter learner, take advantage of the social learning theory to learn faster!
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