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Last Updated on December 10, 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? The answer comes from observational learning.

If this were the first time you saw this behavior, you wouldn’t have a clue what to do. 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?

Young 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 or punishment from the environment for completing the behavior (or not).

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 starts imitating the behavior by making the same funny face.

What Influences Observational Learning

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

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When are we more likely 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 and punishment for their behaviors.

For example, let’s say four people go out to an upscale restaurant. One person frequents this type of restaurant, but 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 she knows what to do in this situation, she’s the authority.

The rest of her 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. Without having to think about it, the rest of the party subconsciously looks around and begins to discern who the “expert” is and what she’s doing. 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.

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

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. Start by finding a few presenters that you believe are highly skilled and watch what they do.

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Pay attention to how they hold themselves, when they pause, and what points they emphasize. Are they using slides, imagery, sounds, and gestures to get their points across?

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 the process of learning.

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

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 in that 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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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 who you spend your time with. Our minds are like computer hardware, and what we observe is like the software. 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 modeling and in what context.

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

However, keep in mind that 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 during observational learning.

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] Therefore, 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.

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

Take a look around and identify people and places that can help you get started with purposeful observational learning.

More About Learning

Featured photo credit: Tyler Nix via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Scott Jeffrey

Business Coach, Writer, and Mind Voyager

How to Get Motivated When Depressed and Frustrated How to Use Observational Learning to Learn Effectively What are MBTI Types and How Can They Affect Your Career Choices?

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Published on March 29, 2021

How To Apply the Stages Of Learning (With Free Worksheet)

How To Apply the Stages Of Learning (With Free Worksheet)

Are you keen to learn new things but find it hard to do so?

Perhaps you lack the confidence to begin learning something new or you’re unsure how to improve your existing skills.

Let me state this upfront: Most people find it difficult to learn, so you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re one of these people.

And the good news is, in the next few minutes I’ll introduce you to the stages of learning. This knowledge will help you break through your learning challenges and turn you into a super-learner.

Let’s dive straight in…

What Are the Stages Of Learning?

There are 3 stages of learning in total, and each stage can be broken down as follows:

Stage 1: Cognitive Learning

In this first stage, known as cognitive learning, the learner observes and listens and makes connections based on knowledge they’ve already gained, either consciously or subconsciously.

Cognitive learning engages students in the learning process, getting them to use their brain to make new connections from knowledge already stored in their mind. This helps them develop problem-solving skills and improve comprehension.

Knowledge in this stage can be acquired through any of the following methods:

Implicit Learning

This takes place when the learner is unaware of the fact that they’re actually learning. It’s devoid of specific instructions, but instead, relies on visual and verbal cues — which usually take place in a social setting.

To give you an example of this, think of a child learning to speak. Typically, they learn the building blocks of their language (or languages) in a social setting without being formally taught by a teacher.

This organic form of learning leads to knowledge that is successfully retained over many years, regardless of any psychological changes the learner experiences.

Implicit learning is effective for skill reproduction and is also independent of IQ and age.

Explicit Learning

This takes place when a person actively seeks out opportunities to learn. Although — like implicit learning — this relies on visual and verbal cues, it doesn’t have to involve a teacher.

Take riding a bike for example.

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Someone wanting to acquire this skill might attempt to learn on their own by mimicking the actions of existing riders. These are visual cues. However, they may also ask someone for guidance on getting started. These are verbal cues.

Explicit learning is a great way to train the brain to learn new concepts and to solve problems.

Collaborative Learning

This type of learning is most commonly used in educational institutes. It involves collaboration between the tutor, the learner, and other students.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the process:

The tutor imparts knowledge and helps the learners to make sense of it. This usually involves the learners being asked to discuss the newly acquired information and to connect it to knowledge they’ve already gained.

Collaborative learning improves learners’ creative thinking, verbal communication and leadership skills. It also helps boost learners’ self-esteem, as well as exposing them to different points of view.

Cooperative Learning

In cooperative learning, students have to interact with each other and the tutor.

The structure is such that learners must follow their tutor’s instructions. The tutor will then observe and assess the learners to make sure they are learning the aim for skills and knowledge.

This style of learning works best when practical knowledge is being shared. For example, sports fields and music rooms are both excellent cooperative learning settings, as they allow tutors to give hands-on demonstrations as well as being able to watch their students try out their new skills.

Cooperative learning helps students increase their retention power, build relationships and boost their self-confidence. In addition, it offers opportunities for social support and helps improve attitude and tolerance towards authority and those who are seen as different to others.

Observational Learning

This style of learning involves the acquisition of knowledge through observation and imitation of others.

Many people are drawn towards this style. That’s because it makes learning an enjoyable activity, encourages social interactions and enhances memory.

Want to learn more about observational learning? Then check out our article: How to Use Observational Learning to Learn Effectively

Meaningful Learning

This type of learning is the opposite of rote learning. It occurs when a concept has been understood fully and is being applied in practice.

For instance, think of a chemistry student who learns from his tutor that mixing certain chemicals can result in an explosive reaction. Once the student knows this, it will prevent them from mixing those chemicals in the lab.

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Meaningful learning requires the linking of new information to previously acquired knowledge. It is constructive and encourages learning through different techniques.

Stage 2: Associative Learning

This style of learning is where the brain is conditioned to learn or modify responses — taking into consideration stimuli offered. It occurs when old and new information is linked to each other, with ideas and experience reinforcing each other.

Associative learning emphasizes acquiring knowledge from the environment and reinforces optimal behavior.

Let’s look now at the different forms of conditioning of associative learning:

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is where the brain is trained to associate a certain desired consequence to an action.

For example, at work, it could be a cash bonus if an employee meets their targets. In the home, it could be extra screen time for kids if they finish their homework.

Classical conditioning can help to modify undesirable characteristics in the learner and can also be used to help overcome phobias.

Operant Conditioning

This type of conditioning follows the idea that certain actions will result when there is a punishment or reward at the end.

Just think of how school usually operates…

We’re rewarded with a certificate and qualification when we pass a course; but if we turn up late for lessons we may well be punished by being sent to detention!

If this concept sparks your interest, then be sure to read our article: Positive Motivation vs Negative Motivation: Which One Is Better?

Extinctive Conditioning

This is when the brain is trained to not expect a previously expected response when certain conditions aren’t met.

A rock band dropping a song from their live set due to it failing to enthuse their audience is a good example of this style of conditioning.

Extinctive conditioning can also be used to modify existing behavior that may be undesirable.

Discriminative Conditioning

This is where the brain is trained to reliably expect a certain outcome to a stimulus.

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A simple example of this would be training a dog to remain still at the command “wait”.

Moving on from associative learning, we come to the third and final stage of learning — the stage that gives a learner the most freedom.

Stage 3: Autonomous Learning

This is the stage of learning where learners gain knowledge through independent efforts and develop an ability to inquire and evaluate away from the influence of tutors and peers.

Learners at this final stage have enough knowledge and power to control their learning.

Typically, they look for sources that will help them make decisions based on their own understanding of the matter. In addition, learners at this stage take responsibility for setting their own targets and goals.

Autonomous learning causes learners to learn through their own will and passion. These learners have the freedom to create their own learning plan and strategies to achieve their aims. They’re also aware of their learning style and can self-evaluate.

Why Should You Care?

When you understand and apply the stages of learning you can expect to see many benefits, including:

  • Improving your memory
  • Boosting your confidence
  • Speeding up your learning time

It goes without saying that you’ll also be able to expand your knowledge and outlook, as well as being able to teach others, if that’s what you’re drawn to do.

So, if you’re ready to learn how to apply the stages of learning — then let’s jump in!

3 Steps to Applying the Stages Of Learning (Free Worksheet)

You don’t need to be super smart to become a fast learner. It’s actually a skill that anyone can learn. You just need to understand and apply the different stages of learning. Once you understand this process, you’ll be able to learn want you want — within the time you want.

Before I show you how to apply the 3 stages of learning, I recommend you download our free learning worksheet – you can grab it here: Learn Faster With the Stages of Learning (Worksheet) as I’m going to walk through the guide with you:

Step 1: Name the ONE skill/knowledge that you’re taking up

Think for a moment about the ONE skill/knowledge that you’re trying to take up.

Once you know what it is, jot it down.

As an example to help get you started, let’s pretend that you want to learn how to drive.

Step 2: Break it down into sub-skills

When you’re trying to take up a new skill or knowledge, there’s definitely more than one thing that you’ll need to learn.

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Continuing the driving example, you’ll need to learn and understand the rules of the road and the practicalities of driving. These will include starting and stopping a car, clutch control, gear changes, braking and reversing — to name but a few.

And of course you’ll need to reach a certain level of driving proficiency to enable you to pass your country’s driving test.

So…

Please spend a few moments thinking about the sub-skills of what you want to learn, and then jot them down.

Step 3: Assess your personal inventory

In this final step, you should look inward and assess your own abilities.

This is essential to help you understand your current skills, and to see what you lack and what you can strengthen. You can also use this step to throw out limiting thoughts such as constantly comparing yourself to others.

Coming back to the driving example, you might spend some time assessing your current knowledge of road safety (you may already be a cyclist who knows the rules of the road) and your confidence levels.

To make this step easy and accurate, we’ve produced a free worksheet that will enable you to come up with concrete actions that you can take to bridge the gap between your current stage of learning and your target one.

Download the worksheet now: Learn Faster With the Stages of Learning (Worksheet)

Bottom Line

Understanding and applying the stages of learning is sure to boost your confidence and speed up your learning. What previously took you months to learn; you’ll now find you can learn in just a few weeks.

With your mastery of learning, a whole new world of knowledge and skills will be opened up to you.

You’ll be able to learn a musical instrument or a new language. And if you’re already studying at college, you’ll be able to streamline your learning and get the possible grades.

Life belongs to the learners, so take control of your life and your learning by downloading our free worksheet right now: Learn Faster With the Stages of Learning (Worksheet)

Happy learning!

Featured photo credit: Le Wagon via unsplash.com

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