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Last Updated on March 31, 2020

How to Use Observational Learning to Learn Effectively

How to Use Observational Learning to Learn Effectively

Someone walks over, introduces themselves and raises their hand out in front of you. How do you know what you’re supposed to do next?

If this were the first time you saw this behavior, you wouldn’t have a clue. If you were from an Eastern culture, you might go to bow toward this person; you know what to do because since childhood, you’ve observed many adults shaking hands.

Observational learning is a learning theory in psychology that describes how we learn by watching and imitating others.

In this article, we will look into what observational learning really is and how it helps you learn and grow.

What Is Observational Learning?

Children learn many of their behaviors and expressions through observation. We pick up things as fundamental as walking, playing, gestures, facial expressions, and body postures via observational learning.

In the 1970s, psychologist Albert Bandura outlined a four-stage process of how observational learning occurs:[1]

  1. Attention: Notice something in the environment.
  2. Retention: Recall what was noticed (memory).
  3. Reproduction: Copy or mimic what you noticed.
  4. Motivation: Get reinforcement from the environment for completing the behavior (or punishment for not).

Pretty simple, right?

Neuroscience provides further evidence. Mirror neurons fire when one animal acts and another animal observes as if the neurons in one brain are mirroring the patterns of another brain.

The result?

You make a funny face at a baby. And the baby makes the same funny right back at you.

What Influences Observational Learning

Observational learning doesn’t always occur, so it’s essential to understanding the conditions in place when it does.

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So when are we more like to imitate others? It happens when:

  • You doubt yourself and your abilities.
  • You are confused or in an unfamiliar environment.
  • You’re in a position of authority, like a boss, leader, or celebrity.
  • Someone is similar to you in some way: interest, age, or social class.
  • You see someone getting rewards for their behavior.

For example, let’s say four people go out to an upscale restaurant. One person frequents this type of restaurant while it’s the first time for the other three individuals.

The person who is comfortable in this environment knows what to do: when and where to place the napkin, how the place setting works, and how to communicate with the wait staff. Because he knows what to do, in this situation, he’s the authority.

The rest of his company are in an unfamiliar environment. And when we don’t know how to behave, we tend to look around and observe the behavior of others.

Somehow, we know who to observe by picking up subtle cues. So without having to think about it, the rest of the party subconsciously looks around and begin to discern who the “expert” is and what he’s doing. And this sort of process frequently happens throughout our development and the rest of our lives.

How Observational Learning Supports Your Personal Development

Observational learning usually occurs subconsciously in social situations. That is, our basic need to belong, or “fit in,” drives us to adapt our behavior to the actions of others.

But the real power of observational learning comes from making this process active and conscious.

What does this mean?

Once you understand how observational learning works, you can choose to apply it in ways that support your personal and professional development.

Modeling

Modeling

is another term for observational learning. Let’s say you want to become an expert presenter. No problem. Find a few presenters that you believe are highly skilled and watch what they do.

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Pay attention to everything:

  • How do they hold themselves?
  • When do they pause?
  • How do they emphasize specific points?
  • Do they use slides? Imagery? Sounds?
  • What gestures do they make as they communicate?

Modeling the success of others is perhaps the fastest way to elevate your game and make rapid progress in your development.

Shadowing

In the workplace, observational learning is often called shadowing.

By shadowing an experienced employee for a period, you’ll naturally learn how to perform the tasks this person does each day. This process works effectively in sales environments too.

Apprenticeship

If you study the masters of any field, you quickly learn that they had great teachers or masters from whom they learned.

In Mastery, author Robert Greene points out that those who reach the level of mastery in any field submit to a rigorous apprenticeship to absorb the secret knowledge of those with many years of experience.

Similarly, in The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle highlights that anyone who cultivates talent has a master coach who knows how to break things down and teach things in a way that accelerates learning.

So if there’s any area of your life that you’re seeking mastery in, with who can you form an apprenticeship?

Here in this article, you can learn more about apprenticeship at work: What Is an Apprenticeship and What Value Can It Bring to Your Career?

Hijacking Your Behavior

Our brains, in many ways, are like sponges. We absorb what we observe.

While this observational learning can be a powerful tool for our personal growth and development, it can also be a destructive force.

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How?

Consider all of the bad behavior we witnessed when we were kids (and still today):

The list goes on. And yes, we observed and absorbed these behavioral patterns too from our parents, teachers, family members, and friends.

We also adopt behavior we observe on television and in the media. Studies show, for example, that teens who watched a lot of sexual content were more likely to start having sex soon after.[2]

Does this mean that watching violent movies will make you act violently? Not necessarily, but these images are imprinted in our unconscious and often later express themselves under the right conditions.

Here’s the bottom line:

Be very conscious of the media you consume and with who you spend your time. Our minds are like computer hardware and what we observe is like the software. So choose positive and life-supporting software if you want your brain to mimic it!

5 Ways to Use Observational Learning to Your Advantage

Here are five tips to make observational learning work for you:

1. Be Highly Selective on What, Who and When You Observe

Remember, observational learning is taking place whether we want it to or not. To harness this powerful force, consciously select who you are observing and in what context.

For example, if you know someone who’s highly productive in their work, ask to shadow them as they work.

But this individual may be an entirely different person when they aren’t working. So be mindful of what behavioral patterns you’re absorbing.

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2. Pay Attention to the Details

Those who achieve mastery in any area of their lives do so by mastering the fundamentals and then continually improving on more subtle levels. To the inexperienced eye, it’s often difficult to notice what they do differently.

In the case of negotiations, for example, a skilled negotiator knows how and when to disarm the other player. Sometimes these skills express themselves instinctively, so you may pick up on details in behavior the individual doesn’t even know they are doing.

3. Maintain a Playful Attitude

Many of us are conditioned to believe that seriousness is a valuable quality for learning. Psychologist Abraham Maslow, however, found that self-actualizing individuals,[3] or individuals with positive mental health, tend to have a more innocent, playful attitude when they are learning and developing.

Research also shows that we learn up to ten times faster in the areas that interesting to us.[4] So stay curious, open, and ready to learn.

4. Rehearse What You Observe in Your Mind

Studies show that rehearsing specific patterns of movement in our mind’s eye can help our brains encode desired actions and behaviors.[5] Many peak-performance athletes and musicians use this form of creative visualization training.

Visualization practices are extraordinarily powerful when you do it right before bedtime so your subconscious mind can process in the images while you sleep.

5. Don’t Just Observe, Do

To make observational learning stick, you must also do whatever it is you’re observing . Many companies combine shadowing experienced employees with hands-on training to accelerate the learning and development of new employees.

The Bottom Line

In the personal development space, observational learning is often called modeling the success of others .

Perhaps as you’re reading this, you’re already getting ideas of who you can start modeling.

Here are three questions to help you get started right now:

  1. What skills and behaviors to you want to learn?
  2. Who already possesses these skills and behaviors?
  3. How can you start modeling these individuals right away?

Now, make it so!

More About Learning

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Scott Jeffrey

Business Coach, Writer, and Mind Voyager

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020

A Comprehensive Guide to a Smart Learning Process

A Comprehensive Guide to a Smart Learning Process

One of the most crucial aspects of our lives is the ability to learn. We often take this skill for granted since not many of us pause and think about our learning process. In fact, if we did, we would probably uncover that we engage in ineffective learning mechanisms.

Think about it. Has your learning helped you recall things you learned last month? Go back a year and ponder.

A lot of how we learn was tucked away in school. Our exposure to school learning is the basis of how we learn moving forward. However, over the past few decades, learning has evolved into different stages of learning, and that becomes the main issue.

No longer are we looking at examinations of people’s characteristics about understanding and learning. Instead, scholars have created learning processes that use materials that support our interactions with others and our goals.

As a result, we can learn new things more smartly and effectively – which will be covered as we proceed further in understanding the learning process.

The Essential Steps of the Learning Process

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell states that the key to success is for us to practice 10,000 hours on a specific skill. It’s also worth noting that the skill needs the correct learning direction. If you’re learning how to do something the wrong way, you’ll continue to use it the wrong way.

But before understanding the learning process, we must understand the stages of learning. Written in the 1970s, Noel Burch created a model called the Four Stages of Learning. [1]

From there, we can use the stages of learning as a basis for how to learn effectively.

1. Unconscious Incompetence

Think of a skill that you are good at and that you use every single day.

Now think back to when you first developed that skill. Were you good at it? Probably not.

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You never heard of the skill or had a desire to learn of it until that point. This is the first stage: You know nothing about it.

2. Conscious Incompetence

Once you have heard of the skill, you begin to delve into it.

Driving a car is a perfect example. Before this stage, you never felt the need to learn how to drive. Nevertheless, once you became of legal age, you had to study to get your license. You likely made several mistakes on the driving test as well as during the written test.

This is the stage where you feel learning is slow, and you’re also aware of your mistakes.

3. Conscious Competence

By this stage, you know pretty much everything you need to know. At the same time, though, you are also aware that you need to focus and concentrate on what you are doing.

This stage can be that you know the rules of the road and can drive well. However, you feel you can’t talk to anyone, play any music, or look away from the road. You feel like you need total silence to focus and concentrate on driving.

At this stage, learning can be even slower than the previous stages. The learning isn’t consistent, nor is it a habit yet.

4. Unconscious Competence

By this stage, you’ve made it. You know everything in and out about the skill. It’s become a habit, and you don’t need to concentrate. You can relax and let your unconscious mind take over.

Exceeding the 4 Stages: Flow/Mastery

While Burch only covered four stages, there is another stage that exceeds it. This is the flow or mastery stage.

You may have heard of something called a flow state. [2] It’s the mental state where someone is performing an activity and is fully immersed in it. They feel energized, focused, and get a sense of joy from doing this activity.

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Flow or mastery can stem from all kinds of activities like Writing, reading, jogging, biking, figure skating, and more. It’s also characterized as complete absorption in what you’re doing, making you unaware of space and time.

Different Types of Learning Process

Another aspect of the learning process is the types of learning. While every person goes through those stages of learning, how we learn is different.

Having covered four learning styles in 4 Learning Styles to Help You Learn Faster and Smarter, I’m recapping the different types of learning in psychology.

Psychiatrists have narrowed how we learn down to seven learning styles as below:

  • Visual (spatial): Learning through pictures, graphs, charts, etc.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): Learning through sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): Learning through spoken or written words.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): Learning through the body, hands, and a sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): Learning through logic, systems, and reasons.
  • Social (interpersonal): Learning through groups or talking to people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): Learning individually through self-study or individual assignments.

You may be asking why all of this matters and actually how we learn plays a significant role. How we internally represent experiences stems from how we learn. What we learn not only establishes how we recall information but also impacts our own word choice.

It also influences which part of our brain we use for learning. Researchers uncovered this through various experiments.[3]

For example, say you’re driving to a place you’ve never gone before. How you learn will determine which method of learning you’ll use. Some will ask people for directions, while others will pull up Google maps. Some will write the directions out, while some won’t and merely follow street signs.

Knowing how to learn to this depth is vital because once you know what style you use, you can then develop a learning process to be a more effective learner.

How To Become an Effective Learner?

The learning process varies from person to person. Generally speaking, though, consider the following steps and considerations:

1. Improve Your Memory

Learning doesn’t only require that we learn information, but to retain it. If we are to learn something, we will have to learn and relearn. This means recalling and having a sharp memory to keep that information.

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Improving our memory can range from a variety of things. From memory palaces to practicing other memory improvement tactics.

2. Keep Learning and Practicing New Things

Learning a new skill takes time, but there is nothing wrong with learning a few other things. International Journal of Science – Nature: Changes in grey matter induced by training[4] reported that those who juggled between learning different topics increase their gray matter which is associated with visual memory

3. Learn in Many Ways

While we have our own go-to style, delving into other types and stages of learning can be useful. If you learn by listening to podcasts, why not try rehearsing information verbally or visually?

It will not start great, but by improving your skill to describe what you learned orally, you are further cementing the knowledge in your mind.

Judy Willis MD, M.Ed in her publication on Review of Research: Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success[5] states how the more regions we keep data stored, the more interconnection there is in the collection information that we later process.

4. Teaching What You Learned to Others

It doesn’t have to be in a tutoring situation, but this method is still a reliable way for two people to grow.

Regardless of learning styles, we retain the information we tell others more effectively than if we keep it to ourselves. Was there a random fact you told someone a few months ago? You are more likely to remember that information because you brought it up to someone.

5. Use Relational Learning

Relational learning is relating new information to things you already know.

A typical example of this is remembering someone’s name. You can better recall that person’s name if you associate that name to something or someone familiar.

6. Gaining Practical Experience

Nothing beats learning than trying it for yourself. Sure, seeing information does have its strong points -and most learning styles benefit from exposed information – there is something to be said about getting your “hands dirty.”

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7. Refer Back to past Info If Need Be

The learning process is not perfect. We’ll forget at certain points. If you ever struggle to remember something, make a point of going back to your notes.

This is key because if we try recalling, we risk ourselves learning or relearning the wrong answer. And again, there is a difference between learning the right way and the wrong way.

8. Test Yourself

While this step may seem odd, there are benefits to testing yourself. Even if you think you know everything about the topic, going back and testing yourself can always help.

Not only does testing improve our recall, but we may realize that we learned a concept or task incorrectly. That knowledge can enhance our effectiveness in the future.

9. Stop Multitasking

While we should be learning new things all the time, we shouldn’t be trying to do several tasks at once. We ought to focus on one activity at a time before moving onto other tasks.

By trying to multitask, we are learning less effectively and are only hindering ourselves. Check out how multitasking is merely another way of distracting ourselves.

Bottom Line

Psychologists define learning as the process of a permanent change in a person’s behavior resulting from experience. The understanding of the learning process is up to us, but do consider the bigger picture. Be aware of what style works best for you, and work to improve it while enhancing other learning styles. The only way we can advance a skill is to learn continuously. Even in the skills you have mastered, there are always new developments.

You can learn more about how you can cultivate lifelong learning and attain an edge in every niche that you get associated with today!

Featured photo credit: Aliis Sinisalu via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Gordon Training International: The Four Stages of Competence
[2] Habits for Wellbeing: Flow: the Secret to Happiness: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
[3] Training Industry: How the Brain Learns
[4] International Journal of Science – Nature: Changes in grey matter induced by training
[5] Judy Willis MD, M.Ed: Review of Research: Brain-Based Teaching Strategies for Improving Students’ Memory, Learning, and Test-Taking Success

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