Social Cognitive Theory: From Bandura to the Classroom

Social Cognitive Learning Theory focuses on the learning that occurs within a social context. It considers that people learn from one another, including such concepts as observational learning, imitation, and modeling (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 20). This process is intuitive from birth among most children and is recognized as one of our earliest forms of learning. Work on Social Cognitive Theory was born out of the area of Social Learning Theory proposed by N.E. Miller and J. Dollard in 1941. Their proposition was that if one were motivated to learn a particular behavior, then that particular behavior would be learned through clear observations. By imitating these observed actions the individual observer would solidify that learned action and would be rewarded with positive reinforcement (Miller & Dollard, 1941). In 1963 Albert Bandura broadened the social learning theory with the principles of observational learning and implicit reinforcement. Bandura provided his concept of self-efficacy in 1977, while he refuted the traditional learning theory for understanding learning (Glanz & B.K. & Lewis, 2002). Bandura among others is considered the leading proponent of the Social Cognitive Theory to this day.


Albert Bandura attended the University of Iowa, where he received his Ph.D. in 1952. It was there that he came under the influence of the behaviorist tradition and learning theory. In 1953, he started teaching at Stanford University. While there, he collaborated with his first graduate student, Richard Walters, resulting in their first book, Adolescent Aggression, in 1959 and to a subsequent book several years later, Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis, in 1973. Bandura was president of the American Psychological Association(APA), in 1973, and in 1980 Bandura received the APA’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions. In 2001, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, and the Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Lifetime Contribution to Psychological Science from the American Psychological Foundation. In 2008, he received the Grawemeyer Award for contributions to psychology (Boeree, 2008). Bandura is widely described as the greatest living psychologist, and as one of the most influential psychologists of all time (Cherry, 2010). He continues to work at Stanford to this day.

Social Cognitive Theory

Bandura’s theory is broader than a theory of learning – it includes cognitive factors and motivation. Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) today retains an emphasis on the role of other people and teachers serving as role models (the social part) but includes thinking, believing, expecting, anticipating, self-regulating, and making comparisons and judgments (the cognitive part) (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 424). "Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do," Bandura explained in his 1977 book Social Learning Theory.

Because SCT is based on understanding an individual’s reality construct, it is especially useful when applied to interventions aimed at personality development, behavior conditioning, and health promotion. For example SCT could be used to help a teacher with student behavior modification or modeling instruction. When modeling a learning strategy, the teacher models the correct response. Peer models may join the teacher in role-play, identifying and enacting correct and incorrect ways to behave. The teacher may also “think aloud,” speaking her thoughts as she demonstrates a correct procedure (Coleman &Webber, 2002). SCT is also relevant to mental health, learning, and communication. First, the theory deals with cognitive, emotional aspects and aspects of behavior for understanding behavioral change. Second, the concepts of the SCT provide ways for new behavioral research in health and education. Finally, ideas for other theoretical areas such as psychology are welcome to provide new insights and understanding (Bandura, 1986).


Human lives are not lived in isolation. Bandura, therefore, expanded the conception of human agency to include a collective agency. People work together on shared beliefs about their capabilities and common aspirations to better their lives. This conceptual extension makes the theory valid to human adaptation and change in collectively-oriented societies as well as individualistically-oriented ones. In his 1997 book, Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, Bandura sets forth at length the basic tenets of his theory of self-efficacy and its applications to the fields of life-course development, education, health, psychopathology, athletics, business, and international affairs (Runyan & Lindzey, 2007).Bandura explains that learning is a function of the extent to which individuals are able to reflect upon and internalize their own successes and failures. Self-efficacy is achieved when the learner identifies his or her ability to perform (Bandura, 1986).

Mastery experiences are our own direct experiences, and the most powerful source of efficacy information. Success raises efficacy belief, while failures lower efficacy. Level of arousal affects self-efficacy, depending on how the arousal is interpreted as you face the task, are you anxious and worried (lowers efficacy) or excited (raises efficacy) (Bandura, 1986); (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 426)? Vicarious experiences are accomplishments that another model accomplishes. The more closely the student identifies with the model, the greater the impact on self-efficacy. When the model performs well, the student’s efficacy is enhanced, but when the model performs poorly, efficacy expectations decrease (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 426). A social persuasion can be a rousing speech or specific performance feedback. Social persuasion can counter an occasional setback that may have instilled self-doubt, but it does not increase overall efficacy. The potency of persuasion depends of the credibility, trustworthiness, and expertise of the persuader (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 427).


The capability for self-reflection concerning one's performance and personal effectiveness to produce effects is another human attribute that is featured prominently in SCT. Bandura regards the self-efficacy belief system as the foundation of human motivation, well-being and personal accomplishments. Unless people believe that they can bring about desired outcomes by their actions they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties. A wealth of empirical evidence documents that beliefs of personal effectiveness touch virtually every aspect of people's lives: whether they think pessimistically or optimistically; how well they motivate themselves and persevere in the face of adversities; their vulnerability to stress and depression, and the life choices they make (Pajares, 2004).


Another distinctive feature of SCT that Bandura singles out for special attention is the capacity for self-directedness and forethought. People constantly plan courses of action, anticipate their likely consequences, and set goals and challenges for themselves to motivate, guide and regulate their activities. After adopting personal standards, people regulate their own motivation and behavior by the positive and negative consequences they produce for themselves. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth, and refrain from actions that evoke negative reactions or emotions. The human capacity for self-management is an aspect of the theory that allows it adapt to the changing times. The accelerated pace of informational, social, and technological changes has created a need for people to feel more in control of their own emotional responses (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2003).


Self-regulation is what allows a person to control his or her response or behavior when confronted with externally imposed stimuli. Feedback is an externally imposed control that works with a person’s self-regulatory capability in order to make adjustments to behavior. Online learning materials can use feedback techniques to reinforce behavioral change and help learners achieve self-efficacy. For example, when performing a task correctly, the learner can be advised that his or her performance is correct. Conversely, immediate corrective feedback can be given when needed. As the learner’s ability increases, the feedback can become more detailed and sophisticated, which allows the learner to refine and master the task. When learning to drive, for example, the student initially needs to get the vehicle on the road. As the student progresses, however, he or she needs to achieve specific speed limits and signaling requirements to achieve safe and efficient driving habits (Pajares, 2004).

Observational Learning

Because learning is expedited when individuals are able to observe the behaviors of others who are similar to them, online learning can incorporate video clips of people with similar backgrounds who provide commentaries and stories from their own points of view. Because the material resonates with the social and cultural sensibilities of the user, it makes the learning experience more effective and increases the probability of the knowledge being put into practice (Bandura, 1986).

Educational Implications

All students need a strong academic foundation, learning strategies, self-regulatory behaviors, social interaction skills, and a work ethic. Those are the ingredients needed for academic success. Social Cognitive Learning Theory has numerous implications for classroom use. Students often learn a great deal simply by observing other people. By watching others, children learn about what behaviors are appropriate, so models who seem similar are more enthusiastically imitated (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 427). Teachers should expose students to a variety of appropriate role models. This technique is especially important to break down traditional stereotypes. Teachers should showcase the achievements of successful females and minorities, as well as traditional authority figures. Include models that have overcome disabilities, poverty or hardship, and even successful intellectuals.

Teachers themselves must attempt to model appropriate behaviors and take care that they do not model inappropriate behaviors. This is especially important when communicating verbally and nonverbally, or though personal behavior, especially during stressful circumstances. Describing and demonstrating the consequences of inappropriate behavior can effectively increase appropriate student behaviors. This can involve discussing with students the rewards and consequences of various behaviors, and using appropriate examples. For example, it is more effective to demonstrate to students what a time-out is verses simply explaining the action. Modeling provides an alternative to shaping for teaching new behaviors. Instead of using shaping, which is operant conditioning; modeling can provide a faster, more efficient means for teaching new behavior. To promote effective modeling a teacher must make sure that the four essential conditions exist; attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation. Teachers serve as models for a vast range of behaviors, from pronouncing vocabulary words, to reacting in an emergency, to being enthusiastic about learning. For example, a teacher might models sound critical thinks skills by thinking “out loud” about a student’s question. Or a high-school teacher concerned about girls who seem to have stereotyped ideas about careers might invites women with nontraditional jobs to speak to the class. Studies indicate that modeling can be most effective when the teacher makes use of all the elements of observational learning (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 429).


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
Boeree, D. C. (2006, Feburary 27). Personality theories - Albert Bandura. Retrieved June 4, 2011, from Shippensburg University Online:
Cherry, K. (2010, September 27). 10 Most influential psychologists. Retrieved June 5, 2011, from - Psychology:
Glanz, K. R., & B.K. & Lewis, F. (2002). Health behavior and health education. Theory, research and practice. San Fransisco: Wiley & Sons.
Miller, N. E., & Dollard, J. (1941). Social learning and imitation. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ormrod, J. (1999). Human learning (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall.
Pajares, F. (2004, January 1). Albert Bandura: Biographical sketch. Retrieved June 4, 2011, from Emory University Online - Division of Educational Studies:
Runyan, M., & Lindzey, W. (2007). A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. IX). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.
Woolfolk, A. E. (2010). Educational Psychology (11th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Zimmerman, B. J., & Schunk, D. H. (2003). Albert Bandura: The man and his ideas. Educational psychology: A century of contributions: A project of division 15 of the american psychological society , 102-140.