Social Learning Theory


Reciprocally determined learning prompted by observation and imitation

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible actions and interpretations
  • Knowing … the range of one’s behaviors and thoughts
  • Learner is … an actor
  • Learning as … changing behaviors and extracting information from contexts
  • Teaching as … modeling




Social Learning Theory arose partially in response to perceived limitations of Behaviorisms. It describes learning as a continuous, reciprocal interaction of behavioral and cognitive processes within a social settings. Social Learning Theory further challenges Behaviorisms’ narrow focus on behaviors associated with rewards, providing evidence that observing a behavior is sufficient, and rewards can be vicarious (i.e., received by others, but still motivating to the observer). Consequently, learning is described as extracting information (reminiscent of Cognitivism) and/or changes in behavior (reminiscent of Behaviorisms), thus attending to both mental and physical activity. An immediate upshot is that rewards play a role in learning but are not entirely responsible for motivating that learning. In a significant break from most Correspondence Discourses, learner and environment are seen as “reciprocally determined,” each influencing the other. Prominent subdiscourses include:
  • Appraisal Theories of Emotion (Emotion Theory) (Albert Bandura, 1970s) – based on the recognition that emotions significantly influence receptivity and retention, Appraisal Theories of Emotion are concerned with predicting and managing learners’ emotional states in ways to enhance learning
  • Behavior Modeling – a teaching aspect of Social Learning Theory , whereby a knowing agent manifests a significant behavior for the learner to observe, analyze, and imitate
  • Cognitive–Motivational–Relational Theory (Richard Lazarus, 1970s) – an elaboration of Cognitive Appraisal Theory (see below) that comprises three processes: the appraisal (Cognitive), influence of one’s intentions (Motivational), and situational influences (Relational)
    • Cognitive Appraisal Theory (Richard Lazarus, 1960s) – a discourse concerned with one’s interpretations and responses to life stresses in which it is asserted that “cognitive appraisal” (i.e., subjective evaluation) is involved in every emotion. Appraisals are suggested to be based on the three components: Goal Relevance, Ego Involvement, and Coping Potential.
  • Social-Cognitive Theory (Cognitive-Social Learning Theory) (Albert Bandura, 1980s) – an extension of Social Learning Theory that emphasizes the need to feel agency and to exert control over events in one’s life


Because it doesn’t engage directly with the question “What is learning?” – but, rather, focused on perceived gaps of BehaviorismsSocial Learning Theory retains many of the limiting and untenable assumptions of most Correspondence Discourses. For instance, even while prompting attentions to mental processes and to reciprocal determination of actors, it assumes mind/body and self/other dichotomies that interact mechanically. More significantly, Social Learning Theory does not pay much attention to its metaphors of learning and thus retains indefensible baggage from Acquisition Metaphor and other Folk Theories.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Albert Bandura

Status as a Theory of Learning

Social Learning Theory is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Social Learning Theory is not a theory of teaching, but its support for the notion of “teaching as modeling” had a significant influence in formal education. Prompting attentions to teachers’ responsibilities to manifest behaviors and sensibilities was an important reminder of the very narrow and controlling conceptions of teaching supported by Behaviorisms (i.e., teaching as conditioning).

Status as a Scientific Theory

Social Learning Theory is not explicit about what learning is, and it uncritically maintains assumptions and descriptions offered by other perspectives (including Folk Theories). It is supported by some empirical evidence, most of which is rooted in sensibilities and methods from Behaviorisms.


  • Appraisal Theories of Emotion (Emotion Theory)
  • Behavior Modeling
  • Cognitive Appraisal Theory
  • Cognitive–Motivational–Relational Theory
  • Social-Cognitive Theory (Cognitive-Social Learning Theory)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Social Learning Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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