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Social Learning Theory for Effective Adult Training


The complex domain of human resource development (HRD) requires knowledge of learning theories that can help in the processes of HRD such as adult learning and training and development process. Social learning (cognitive) theory (SLT) identifies learning as a dynamic interplay between the person, the environment, and behavior. Social learning theory is identified in the adult learning literature as one of five traditional theories of adult learning (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

Although various theorists are using the social learning label, Bandura’s (1977, 1986) social learning theory, later renamed social cognitive theory has been predominant in the adult learning and Training and Development (T&D) literature. The purpose of this article is to examine the application of social learning theory to adult learning and how it can be applied.

Major Propositions of SLT as Related to Adult Learning

Four major elements of SLT theory are most relevant to our discussion of its influence on learning and T&D. They are variables affecting observational learning, reciprocal determinism, self-regulation, and self-efficacy. Each of these elements is briefly described within the context of adult learning.

Observational Learning Variables

SLT believes observational or “social” learning is governed by four component processes, which results in a person translating a modeled event into a performance that is matched with the model. These four processes— attention, retention, behavior production, and motivation.

  • Attention: For people to learn from observation, they must first attend to the important components of the behavior that is being modeled.
  • Retention: For the information gained from observation to be beneficial, people must be able to remember the modeled behavior. Therefore, people must represent the response patterns in memory in symbolic form—either imagery or verbally.
  • Behavior production: These processes involve translating observational learning into performance.
  • Motivation: Motivational processes influence the observational learning experience in that people are more likely to adopt the modeled behavior if this behavior is seen as likely to result in positive outcomes.

In the adult learning context, SLT highlights the processes necessary for modeling and provides insights into social role acquisition and mentoring (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999). Observational learning through modeling can influence behavior acquisition, inhibition, facilitation, and creativity. One’s moral code (e.g., moral judgments) can also be developed through one’s interactions with models (Hergenhahn & Olson, 1997). Observational learning processes are relevant to many organizational learning situations or relationships in which individuals attempt to model the behaviors or attributes of others.

Reciprocal Determinism

Reciprocal determinism is a model in which “behavior, cognitive and other personal factors, and environmental influences all operate interactively, as determinants of each other” (Bandura, 1986). From an adult learning perspective, this model is mainly relevant in that it takes into account the learning, the individual, and the environment in which the individual operates. Learning is situated firmly in its social context and learning behavior is a function of the interaction of the person and his or her environment. This reciprocal interaction of environment, behavior and the person provides a comprehensive explanation of the factors that influence adult learning (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999).

Self-Regulation of Behavior

In addition to the learning processes noted earlier, SLT asserts that human behavior is also partially governed by mechanisms of self-regulation. Concerning adult learning, the observer’s anticipated self-reactions are fundamental to the learning process that occurs through imitation.


Self-efficacy has an important role in self-regulated behavior. Self-efficacy is the belief that one can succeed even in the face of challenges and refers to one’s judgments as to how effective one is likely to be in a particular situation. Self-efficacy is a concept that can be directly applied to learning and performance. Self-efficacy assessments influence people’s motivation to pursue learning goals based on their confidence that they can achieve their objectives. Therefore, individuals with high perceived self-efficacy are likely to persist longer at learning activities and to be able to overcome obstacles in their path.

As a meta-theory of learning, SLT, through its explanation of the suggestions of observational learning, reciprocal determinism, self-regulation, and self-efficacy, has a central role in learning in HRD (Swanson & Holton, 2001). These propositions attempt to describe elements that influence the learning process, which is viewed as an “interaction with and observation of others in a social context” (Merriam & Caffarella, 1999, p. 264). SLT, although applicable to learning in all age groups, is shown to be especially relevant to adult learning, as it helps to explain the modeling function of observational learning; emphasizes the interaction of the person, behavior, and environment; and accounts for motivational aspects of learning. The next section explains the practical applicability of SLT in adult learning and T&D.

Learning and T & D

SLT is recognized as being highly applicable to classroom learning in HRD, in which facilitators serve a role-modeling function in their instructional capacity. Its role in non-classroom-based learning has also been emphasized, concerning socializing new employees into organizations through interactions with experienced organizational members and the observational and role-modeling functions of mentoring and on-the-job training (Swanson & Holton, 2001). These practice applications are further looked at below.

Observational modeling techniques: Behavior modeling techniques, based on SLT theory, can be used to help learners form mental models of appropriate behavior. This technique involves presenting the skill to be learned, viewing an appropriate model or example of how the behavior is accomplished, discussing the effectiveness of the behavior, practicing the behavior, and providing corrective feedback. To achieve the most training benefits, behavior modeling techniques should incorporate practice, simulations, and role-plays. In addition, SLT modeling principles can be used in managerial leadership training through applying the elements of observation, behavioral rehearsal, feedback, and social reinforcement, and transfer of training (Sims & Lorenzi, 1992). The principles of SLT can also be applied to video-based training to enhance the effectiveness of this approach (Bell, 1992).

Self-efficacy and training and development: The most extensive application of self-efficacy has occurred in the area of training, with a focus on the training needs assessment and training methodology (Appelbaum & Hare, 1996). Self-efficacy can be fostered in employees through modeling-based training, coaching, job supports, and the application of appropriate reinforcements. Self-regulation and self-efficacy can be applied to develop behavioral self-management strategies (e.g., goal setting, self-assessment, intrinsic motivation, and self-correction processes) and cognitive self-management strategies (e.g., positive self-talk, converting obstacles into opportunities, and mental imagery) (Sims & Lorenzi, 1992). In addition, an integrated instruction design approach that involves cognitive, social, and behavioral aspects of learning can be helpful in situations in which the behavioral change needs to be integrated into the learner’s lifestyle or in which there is resistance to change.

Employee socialization and on-the-job (OTJ) training: SLT principles can also be incorporated in employee socialization and OTJ training initiatives. Organizational socialization often occurs through interactions with colleagues, as people tend to rely on observing others understand and make sense of a new environment and in learning how to fit in with the established social norms. For example, as part of their orientation for newly hired employees, Disney Company has these new employees spend time with another employee on the job so that they can be exposed to the various learning experiences that apply to their new roles (Milkovich, Boudreau, 1997). Practitioners can apply observational learning principles to enhance the likelihood that this employee socialization and OTJ training initiatives will achieve successful outcomes.


In summary, SLT is particularly important in the development of adults as they must steer among various and diverse models, determine which are competent and contextually applicable, and learn appropriate behaviors that are congruent with their self-perceptions and beliefs. SLT helps to explain the various learning and cognitive processes that go into the determination of what is learned and how this learning is translated into behavior. SLT is presented here in this paper as a conceptually rich perspective that can lend a solid theoretical and empirical base to support the future T&D process. There is great potential to apply this theory to other areas in HRD, such as change management and the development of ethical leaders that are of enormous importance in today’s workplaces.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory.

Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Merriam, S. B., & Caffarella, R.S. (1999). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swanson, R. A., & Holton, E. F. (2001). Foundations of human resource development.

San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler. Hergenhahn, B. R., & Olson, M. H. (1997). An introduction to theories of learning (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sims, H. P., Jr.,&Lorenzi, P. (1992). The new leadership paradigm: Social learning and cognition in organizations. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Bell, R. (1992). Using video-based behaviour modelling training to improve performance at work. Training and Management Development Methods, 6(1-4), 5-10.

Appelbaum, S. H.,&Hare, A. (1996). Self-efficacy as a mediator of goal setting and performance: Some human resource applications. Journal of Management Psychology11(3), 33-47.

Milkovich, G.T.,&Boudreau, J.W. (1997). Human resource management (8th ed.). Burr Ridge, IL: Irwin/McGraw-Hill.

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