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What is Social Learning? Important Tips, Strategies, & Formats

Social learning has been in use for all of history but more recently is being used in L&D programs. Learn more on this with this article.

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Social learning is the concept that humans learn through observing their surroundings. As social beings, interactions with others around us has a profound impact on our growth. This concept has been widely studied by psychologists, educationists, and philosophers throughout history and is a fairly old one. However, recently we have witnessed a rise in its use in online learning.

In this article, we will learn about the ins and outs of this phenomenon, what it means, its applications in L&D, and strategies of usage.

Social learning 101

Our views are not entirely our own. We may think of ourselves as individual solitary thinkers but in reality, we are a sum total of our interactions. What we know, we know from others, mostly. From our childhood through adulthood, there is always someone responsible for mentoring us. First are our parents, then teachers and friends, and eventually, every person we interact with, whether directly or indirectly. This process of acquiring knowledge happens at times unconsciously. One takes notice of the surroundings, sees that certain behaviors are better than others, and inadvertently internalizes them.

Since observational learning is ever-evolving, it further makes social learning a continuous and flexible concept. This is to say, one never stops observing and hence learning.

Elements of Social Learning

Mere observation isn't all that is there to this learning approach. In fact, it is far more nuanced. Following are some key components that: make this learning genre different from others:

  • Observation: This refers to the process of noticing others' behaviors around us and mirroring them. One picks and chooses these behaviors based on societal acceptance of them and based on that molds them.
  • Assessment: Here one determines whether the observed behavior fits with one's personality. The assessment process is about compatibility.
  • Imitation: After assessing the compatibility of behaviors, one tries to imitate them. Replication helps internalize these behaviors.
  • Identification: Social learning focuses on how people identify with others. One tries to identify with others if it is beneficial for them i.e. to identify with others to associate oneself with their achievements. This notion takes from Freud's Oedipal complex theory.

Social Learning Theories (SLT)

Several psychologists have studied this notion deeply and given their own two cents on ts. Let's look at some of the most prominent ones.

SLT - Albert Bandura

Albert Bandura is a renowned American-Canadian psychologist who has worked extensively on children's psychology. He first proposed the social learning theory in 1986 which went on to become the social cognitive theory. Bandura's work focuses on how environmental and cognitive factors impact one's learning and behavior.

For this, he gives two aspects:

  1. Reinforcement learning: This refers to how one takes up or drops behaviors based on a reward system. The reward system implies whether one is appreciated for their behavior or shamed for it. Depending on this outcome one adopts a particular behavior.
  2. Vicarious learning: This refers to the learning or adoption of behaviors via observation.  

In addition, another famous psychologist BF Skinner builds on these concepts and calls them 'the human behavior' - how we do things based on the reward and punishment phenomenon. Interestingly, this idea is also used in the development of AI models.

According to Bandura, four essential processes influence learning:

social learning
  • Awareness: To be aware of one's surroundings to determine what behavior one would prefer to adopt. This is an essential step, without being aware of things around how will we ever learn whether for social learning or otherwise.
  • Retention: To remember a behavior to imitate it later on. Good memory is key here.
  • Reproduction: To be able to internalize one needs to reproduce the behaviors.
  • Motivation: To seek reward and appreciation for a behavior. This is positive reinforcement and encourages one to do more of something assumed socially good.

SLT - Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky's theory centers around conversations and community and how these two are integral parts of learning. For him, without others, individuals would not have been able to develop. Furthermore, he also includes the written word for learning and thought process development. Indeed, collaborative learning strategies have a significant influence on one's growth.

Career decision-making SLT - John Krumboltz

Kruboltz was a prominent Stanford professor who explained how we make our career choices. He suggested four main factors which determine our ultimate career choices.

  • Generalized self-observation: We define ourselves according to our achievements. Consequently, these observations end up influencing our decisions, even the ones related to our career choices.
  • Generalized world view: We perceive the world around us in a certain way and eventually these generalizations play a vital role in the development of our environment and ourselves.
  • Task approach skills: This is about how we approach a task. When presented with a situation how do we assess it and attempt to solve it?
  • Actions: Finally, our learning experiences determine our general actions and eventually our career-related decisions too.

Pros & Cons of Social Learning

Let's take an objective look at this phenomenon and determine if this is really that beneficial.


  • It is a natural way of learning and comes to us organically without trying.
  • Encourages better skills by exchange of ideas between one another e.g. social skill development.
  • Improves retention rate and hence improves overall performance.
  • A cheaper way of learning.
  • Offers a collaborative learning experience that encourages even passive learners to engage.
  • Helps in capturing organizational knowledge from the collective experiences of employees.


  • This can result in inner conflicts from constant imitation of others.
  • It May also result in a loss of innovation as more people try to be alike and give up on uniqueness.
  • People can end up with self-esteem problems from comparisons with others.
  • Difficult to measure and calibrate this learning approach.

Social Learning Model 70:20:10

70:20:10 learning model

For course creators and L&D content developers, this model is a holy grail. Simple, etch this onto your minds to succeed. This model suggests that the majority - 70% - of our learning is experiential. To illustrate this better, think of how much of what we know comes from first-hand experience, be it hands-on job training or simulator learning, we learn most from experience. Second is social learning, which is to say we learn from our interactions, relationships, and discussions with others. And lastly, formal learning which is what we learn during our school years, or formal courses - institutionalized learning.

If you wish to design successful courses that guarantee completion rates, then follow this model and divide your course content accordingly. Avoid imposing too much study material onto learners as it might deter and bore them. Rather, include them in the very process of learning using engaging gamification methods.

Social Learning Methods

Wondering how to integrate social learning into your workplace effectively? Then stop stressing ASAP. I have got you covered with these handy strategies.

Learning Groups

Create groups and divide your employees into teams. As a result, management and employee integration will become easier. You can organize moderated discussions in person or online. Online, you can achieve this via chatrooms, cohort sessions, or thematic focus groups. Perhaps, organizing these groups according to their departments would help even further. Anyhow, the possibilities here are endless.

Brainstorming sessions

Unlike simple groups, these are larger more specific bodies. Their purpose is to encourage people to throw in their pitches and build around each other's ideas. Initially, the process is called 'split-balling', and eventually, one substantial innovative approaches emerge, it is called' brain-storming.


This is the idea that people set goals and make ideals by getting inspired by others. We see someone seemingly perfect or notice something worth appreciating in others and eventually try to get it for us. As a result, we end up benchmarking these ideals. To promote this in your workspace, form leaderboards and hand our employee of the month awards so people may have examples to look up to.

Informal exchanges

Learning doesn't have to be limited to formal spaces. In fact, it can very much take place organically during lunch and coffee breaks, and employee events. Social learning is truly flexible and never really stops.

Social Media

Now, this is more of a tool than a strategy of social learning. You can use social media for easier remote engagement. For instance, forums like Reddit are a great resource for starting online discussion channels.

Digital workspaces

During our remote office days, we worked online, and hence, we can also learn online via the very digital workspaces as well. For example, Google for Business, Microsoft 360, and Slack are great resources to utilize for this purpose.

Immersive learning platforms:

Last but not least is the eLearning platform. Platforms such as Teachfloor are specifically designed to enable people to learn remotely in an immersive, interactive way. They are widely used by corporations for formal employee training, onboarding, and skill development.


Social learning is truly a gamechanger, especially in employee training. By implementing the presented strategies, you will be able to capitalize on its benefits and make your workplace a full-time immersive educational space. Moreover, it is not just learning, it leads to your overall personal growth. By applying social learning in your workspace, not only you, but your employees will also get to grow along with you, hence, benefiting the entire environment. It is truly a collaborative way of development.

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