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Last Updated on January 27, 2021

What Is Observational Learning (And How to Make It Work for You)

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What Is Observational Learning (And How to Make It Work for You)

Observational learning is the acquisition of knowledge based on another individual’s behavior, thoughts, or emotions. With this type of learning, you may not even realize you have learned something until you actually demonstrate the skill.

The most famous example of observational learning is the Bobo doll experiment[1], where a group of children watched adults hitting an inflatable doll (or not). Those who saw adults hitting the doll repeated this behavior themselves, demonstrating that observation plays an important role in human development.

Observational learning is based on four different stages, which involve active participation by the learner. This ensures comprehensive and long-lasting learning, which is very effective because not only does it help you gain knowledge, but it helps you retain it, reproduce it when needed, and even reinforce it.

The Four Stages of Observational Learning

Attention

If you are paying attention to your surroundings, you will absorb a lot more than you think are. When you learn to be attentive in a certain situation, you will be learning from it the entire time.

Retention

This is the part where your brain is committing details to memory and making connections with information it has stored from earlier instances by forging new neural pathways.

Reproduction

A key stage in observational learning is when you, as the learner, are required to reproduce from memory the knowledge you committed to it earlier. This reproduction could be verbal or through actions.

Reinforcement or Motivation

The final stage of observational learning is reinforcement or motivation. As a learner, there is no reason for you to reproduce any knowledge unless you are motivated to do so, or you need to reinforce your knowledge for deeper understanding. This motivation could be a reward for retaining knowledge or using a skill well.

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There are unlimited opportunities for observational learning in the real world.[2] As a learner, you are responsible for training your brain to be open to absorbing knowledge and being in situations that will help maximize the learning from opportunities around you.

How to Make Observational Learning Work for You

1. Find the Right Person to Learn from

It has been proven through multiple studies that people learn better from those who fit a certain profile that attracts the learner:

Someone You Respect

You will always learn a lot from a person you respect, even if this person is not actively seeking to teach you. You will focus on them when they speak, you will observe their mannerisms, and you will unconsciously learn from all the things they say and do around you.

Someone You Identify With

A person you identify with on any level will always be a good teacher. It could be someone in a position of authority or a peer. You could feel this person has experienced some of the same things that you have and has managed to rise above them.

This connection with someone will make you more attuned to them and help you learn by observing them. Athletes, celebrities, and other successful professionals who have overcome hardships are popular options for observational learning.

Someone You’re Attracted to

It could be a celebrity, a peer, or anyone else at all. You could be attracted to for any reason at all: their looks, talent, popularity, sense of humor, lifestyle. Whatever it is, it makes you sit up and pay attention, which will aid in observational learning.

Someone at a “Higher Level” Than You

This could be a senior executive at your workplace, a teacher in college, or an older sibling. Any person who is in a position of authority and is well able to shoulder the responsibility their position brings is a good option.

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2. Shadow Your Teacher

If you’re an athlete, have you ever found yourself making the same play you saw your favorite player making? You might have admired a basketball player and spent hours shooting hoops the way s/he did, even though s/he never taught you personally. This is a classic example of observational learning.

Being around the person you want to learn from and observing them as they go about their business will open up immense opportunities to learn.

Take the example of a medical student who is assigned to a rotation led by a doctor. This student will be walking behind the doctor on his/her rounds, taking mental notes of their behavior with patients, other staff, and students and how they go about treating the patients.

Similarly, if you are looking to learn how to sell, shadow a person with a good reputation and proven skills. Observing this person as s/he goes about selling a product or service will impart better learning than textbooks.

3. Seek to Reproduce Learning that Offers Rewards

There would be no reason for you to reproduce any learned behavior if there was no consequence for it. While some things reproduced can result in negative consequences (think extra chores for breaking a vase), you should actively seek to reproduce only those actions that will get you a reward, as this plays an important role in your motivation.

This reward could be a better playing technique that gets you on the team, a good bedside manner when dealing with patients, or anything else that you think is fair for reproducing a desired behavior.

The process of reproducing any learning that offers a reward means you are paying attention when the learning opportunity is presented, and also that you’re making an effort to commit the learning to memory.

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4. Take Good Notes

While this may sound contrary to observational learning, it really isn’t. When you have stepped out of the learning environment and are working to commit the newly acquired knowledge to memory, writing it down helps a great deal.

Rephrase your learning. Write out notes in your own words unless there’s a phrase that you think is perfect or if you are using a direct quote.

Remember, the brain remembers in pictures. If words aren’t your thing, use mind maps, mnemonics, or any other aid that will help you revisit the information you just committed to memory.

5. Reproduce Your Learning

A fantastic way to recall observational knowledge is to reproduce what you learned. Teach someone else what you have learned and focus on remembering the details. You could also ask to reproduce the information in front of your teacher. This is a great opportunity to know if you’ve remembered information correctly.

You can also repeat the information to yourself again and again until you are sure you know it well.

6. Rest Your Mind

In order to learn from observation, your mind needs to be alert to everything that is happening around it. A well-rested brain is proven to be better at learning and making new connections.

If you don’t already have a routine, create one and stick to it. You should aim for 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep so your mind wakes refreshed and ready to learn.

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Give your mind a few minutes to disconnect throughout the day so that when you need it to connect with your surroundings, it is ready to do so. Meditation can be a great option for this as it creates space for the brain to rest.

When you’re in an intense or even boring environment, your brain can disconnect because of information overload or sheer boredom. If you are distracted where you need to be focused, take a break. A short walk outside, drinking a coffee at a café, or even a few moments in the sun will do you a world of good.

7. Play Brain Games

Memory games with cards, find the difference, Sudoku, and crosswords are all games that will help keep your mind sharp. You could also memorize an image and try to recall it by either writing about it or drawing it yourself.

You can find some more ideas to boost brain power here.

The Bottom Line

Observational learning is a great option for learning many tangible skills and concepts. Whether you learn from a parent, friend, teacher, or mentor, you’ll be gaining knowledge that will serve you in the long run.

Try any of the above techniques in order to make the most of observational learning.

More About Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on August 11, 2021

23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

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23 Killer Sites for Free Online Education Anyone Can Use

Whether you’re five or ninety five, the internet has a lot to offer. Particularly when the topic is education, the resources on the internet are endless. Best of all, many high quality sites are completely free. From history to coding, excellent, free online education awaits on the following 23 sites.

1. Coursera

Coursera is a website that partners with universities and organizations around the world. This brings a wide variety of topics and perspectives to one searchable database.

Coursera is a powerful tool for free online education and includes courses from many top universities, museums and trusts. This gives the site an extremely wide range of in-depth courses.

Coursera is extremely useful if you’re looking to study many different topics, or want courses from different schools and groups. However, the free courses are now quite limited, so you’ll have to

2. Khan Academy

Partnering with many post secondary schools, Khan Academy offers a useable, well-organized interface. Also curating many courses from around the web, Khan Academy offers impressive depth on many different subjects.

Among the more well-known educational sites, Khan Academy is also incredibly user-friendly, which may make it easier to keep learning goals. If you’re looking for a free online education, you can’t go wrong with Khan Academy.

3. Open Culture Online Courses

If you are struggling to find exactly the material you are looking for, try Open Culture’s listing of free online education courses. The page highlights 1000 lectures, videos, and podcasts from universities around the world.

The site features a lot of material found only on universities’ private sites, all in easy-to-browse categories. This means you can find hundreds of university courses without having to visit and search each university’s site.

Open Culture’s list features courses from England, Australia, Wales, and many state universities around the United States. It’s a very helpful resource for finding many courses in one area of study.

4. Udemy 

Udemy’s free courses are similar in concept to Coursera’s but additionally allows users to build custom courses from lessons.

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Working with many top professors and schools, the site mixes the customizable platform of other sites with a heavy emphasis on top-quality content. This is another site, however, that mixes free and paid content.

5. Lifehack Fast Track Class

Lifehack believes in skills that multiply your time, energy, and overall quality of life.

In this rapidly changing world, traditional education skills just don’t cut it anymore. You can’t afford to take years learning a skill you’ll never really practice. Besides offering some paid courses that will help you become a better self, it offers a list of free courses which aim to train some of the Core Life Multipliers including:

These are cross-functional skills that work across many aspects of life.

6. Academic Earth

Another site with courses from many different schools is Academic Earth. Much like the three sites above, Academic Earth brings together top notch courses from many different sources and focuses on offering a wide variety of subjects.

Academic Earth lists courses by subject and school, so it might be easier to find what you’re looking for.

7. edX

Another great option for free online education is edX. Also bringing together courses from many different schools, the site has impressive, quality information for everyone. edX covers a great range of topics from universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Berkeley, meaning a high-quality, free online education is entirely possible here.

8. Alison

Unlike the previous sites on this list, Alison is a free education site offering certification in some areas. Alison offers courses mainly in business, technology, and health, but also includes language learning courses.

It’s a great option if users need a professional certificate for their learning, as Alison also offers school curriculum courses.

9. iTunesU Free Courses

A very convenient place for free online education is iTunesU, because it integrates seamlessly with your iPod or any app-ready Apple mobile device. On an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, users download the iTunesU app.

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Desktop users can access iTunesU on the upper right hand corner of the iTunes Store. iTunesU is also convenient because the store is categorized much like iTunes.

Users can search learning materials in many different ways, including by genre and topic. However, courses are often a mix of free podcasts or videos and paid content.

iTunesU does include courses on a variety of topics, but it does not integrate with Android, Google or Windows mobile devices.

10. Stanford Online

Your hub for all the online offerings from Stanford University, Stanford Online offers self-paced and session-based courses. While Coursera features some courses from Stanford, many classes are only available via other hosts. Some courses require iTunes, but most are completed in your web browser.

Stanford Online is a great site for high-quality courses, though the topics are somewhat limited compared to sites partnered with more than one school. If you’re looking for free courses, make sure to mark the “free” option on the left-hand side.

11. Open Yale Courses

Open Yale Courses echoes Stanford Online, in that it offers only courses from Yale. While the site is similarly limited to topics taught at the school, Open Yale Courses offers a lot of videos of actual campus lectures. The availability of videos makes the site a great option if you’re looking for quality courses but learn better by watching than by reading.

12. UC Berkeley Class Central

Much like the other schools on this list, UC Berkeley has a variety of free online education options. The school has slightly fewer courses than the schools above, but it includes some supplementary lectures, webcasts, and RSS Feeds, making it easy to keep up with the topics you choose.

13. MIT OpenCourseWare

Similarly, MIT offers a variety of free courses. The school has a comparable number of courses to the schools above, and it includes very in-depth course materials on the subjects available. MIT also offers free RSS feeds, a convenient way to continue learning.

14. Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative

Carnegie Mellon’s free online education site is comparable with the other school’s on this list. However, Open Learning Initiative also covers a smaller range of topics, but for the topics that are covered, impressive, in-depth material is available.

15. Codecademy

Codecademy is a website dedicated specifically to teaching coding. Where other coding sites follow an example/practice session workflow, Codecademy includes a live practice window. This means you can practice coding while still viewing the lesson material.

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The courses at Codecademy are well-written and easy to follow, and the website is organized very nicely. Codecademy features a centralized dashboard where you can monitor your progress, and it organizes lessons into complete modules. This lets you learn an entire language without needing to pick the next course manually.

16. Code

Code is another website focused on coding and app writing. A site with high-quality courses, Code also features learning options for kids.

In addition to kid-friendly courses, Code offers free online education classes on a wide variety of technology topics. These classes include app writing, robotics, and Javascript.

Most of the courses are also geared in a such a way that they can be useful in a classroom setting. This makes Code a great resource for harder to find coding topics, as well as various learning settings.

17. University of Oxford Podcasts

The University of Oxford features many different podcasts. Most are public lecture series or lectures from visiting professors, with several different recordings available.

The advantage to this particular site is that podcasts are organized into series, making it easy to subscribe to multiple lectures on one topic. This is another great site for thoroughly in-depth lectures.

18. BBC Podcasts

For the more casual learner, the BBC offers a wide variety of podcasts on many different topics. Most podcasts are updated weekly and focus on everything from finance, to sports, to current events.

Through the World Service line of podcasts, there are also many in different languages. The focus of these podcasts are less in-depth and theory based, which may be more accessible to the average person.

19. TED-Ed

Another great destination for more general learning and free online education is TED-Ed. From the same people that brought you the all-encompassing, motivational web series comes a site chocked full of educational videos. Most include impressive animation, and all are ten minutes long or less.

Not only is TED-Ed an excellent site for the curious, but it also includes supplemental materials and quizzes on the videos. This makes the site extremely useful in formal education settings, as well as in entertaining ways to brush up on new discoveries and topics.

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20. LessonPaths

LessonPaths is another great tool for those looking for a more usable and convenient way to access learning material. On this site, users create link playlists of their favorite learning materials from other sites. Users then rank these collections, making it easy to find many different high-quality, accessible sources on a given topic.

21. Memrise

Another impressive free online education site offering ease of use and convenience is Memrise. Available both on desktop and as an app, Memrise is a particularly powerful tool if you are studying a language. The site encompasses many other topics as well, though some of the course material is user generated content.

Part of what makes Memrise special is their integration of games into the learning materials, mixing learning with entertainment.

22. National Geographic Kids

The kids site for National Geographic is another site that makes free online education applicable for younger users. For those looking for kid-friendly education, a large variety of games, puzzles, videos and photos keep kids interested on this site.

National Geographic Kids doesn’t organize learning into courses, making materials available by topic and medium instead. This makes National Geographic Kids a good option for those looking for a more casual learning environment.

23. Fun Brain

Fun Brain is another great option for kids looking for free online education, as it focuses on games and fun puzzles. Particularly focused on math and reading, Fun Brain’s game-based approach can be valuable if the child in question struggles to pay attention.

Fun Brain offers rewards and challenges as well, and it is another site aimed at a casual learning experience for kids K-8.

The Bottom Line

With so many amazing free online education resources, everyone has the ability to boost their skills and knowledge. Whether you’re interested in picking up some interesting trivia for your next party, improve your resume with some coding or business skills, or become a more well-rounded person, these resources are perfect for you.

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Featured photo credit: Dai KE via unsplash.com

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