According to social learning theory, learning by observation occurs in four sequential phases: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. Learners must first pay attention to the model's behavior, remember the behavior, practice it, and be motivated to perform. A breakdown in any one of the phases prevents the learner from performing the behavior.
Obviously, learners cannot learn from a model unless they pay attention to what the model is doing. The attention phase consists of two parts: getting the learner's attention and maintaining it.
In most classrooms students may be attending to many different stimuli at any given moment. They may be attending to things they are doing at their desks, to distracting noises in the hall, to what they plan to do after school, or to other students. To get students' attention, provide a stimulus that is more noticeable than the other stimuli in the classroom.
There is no simple definition of an attention-getting stimulus. Various stimuli may signal to pay attention, depending on the circumstances. If you are teaching a class in which students engage in lots of individual or group activities, such as a science laboratory, a kindergarten, or a gym class, you should establish prearranged signals for paying attention, such as flicking the overhead lights, playing a chord on a piano, or ringing a bell. On the other hand, if you are instructing an entire class of students, you can get their attention simply by saying, "Now I'm going to show you how to . . . ."
One effective way to get students' attention is to use vicarious reinforcement. By praising students who are paying attention, other students who are not attending may be motivated to do so. Although this technique works particularly well with younger students, it may not work with older ones. Older students may regard teacher praise for paying attention as childish and taunt students who pay attention for being "teachers' pets."
To maintain students' attention, you need to provide them with sufficient incentive to attend. There is no simple way to describe what constitutes a sufficient incentive. Different students are motivated by different incentives. Ideally, students should be motivated to learn for the sake of learning, and for some students this is the case. Other students, however, require other incentives, such as being told that the next examination will cover the material about to be presented.
During the retention phase, learners encode the observed behavior in memory using verbal cues, mental images, or a combination of both. People can improve their memories by intentionally trying to encode the newly observed behavior, rehearsing the behavior mentally, or actually acting out the behavior.
You will help students learn better if you emphasize important aspects of the behavior you are demonstrating. In the keyboarding class example described earlier, the teacher should highlight the important steps in typing capital letters. It is easier to highlight behaviors comprised primarily of motor skills, such as typing capital letters, than behaviors comprised primarily of cognitive skills, such as solving a long division problem. When demonstrating behaviors consisting of cognitive skills, it is especially important to highlight the critical components. For example, in teaching students to divide 75 into 1,436, solve the problem on the chalkboard and talk through the steps involved. Your verbalization of the steps provides students with a model they can later imitate.
During the reproduction phase, learners actually attempt to perform the behavior. If the behavior is relatively complex, the reproduction phase may last for some time, as learners attempt to produce more and more refined performances. Help students during the reproduction phase by providing corrective feedback. Draw students' attention to components of the behavior they are performing incorrectly and demonstrate the correct performance.
Suppose a student who is learning to type capital letters has difficulty in finding the "home" keys (a-s-d-f on the left hand, and j-k-1 on the right hand) after pressing the shift key. The keyboarding teacher should provide corrective feedback by pointing out that when pressing the shift key, only the little finger should be removed from its home key. All of the other fingers should remain on their respective home keys.
Give corrective feedback as early as possible to reduce the chances that students will learn incorrect behaviors. Assume that a student who is attempting to divide 1,436 by 75 correctly decides that 75 goes into 143 once, but then writes 75 under 36 instead of under 43. The student's answer will be incorrect. An effective teacher would not only point out that the student's answer is incorrect, but more importantly, strive to find out how the student arrived at the wrong answer and demonstrate the correct procedure for solving the problem.
The motivation phase is the final phase in observational learning. During this phase learners decide whether or not to perform the behavior they have learned. Of the four phases, the motivation phase is the most important one for you to take into account, because the only way you can determine if your students have learned is to have them perform. If students are unwilling to perform, you simply have no way of knowing whether or not they have learned. Furthermore, unless students have sufficient motivation to perform, trying to lead them through the preceding three phases is likely to be an exercise in futility.
Reinforcement is the key to motivation in social learning theory. Students are more apt to perform if their performance leads to a reward, such as a good grade, a favorable comment by you, or free time in the classroom. Reinforcing some students for performing is also likely to cause others to perform as a result of vicarious reinforcement.
Students may also perform if they are given opportunities to reward themselves for their behavior (Bandura, 1978). Help students establish realistic goals in terms of the quantity and quality of their performance. Allowing students to reward themselves for attaining goals they have set encourages them to become independent learners. Students who learn how to reward themselves for behaving in desirable ways are likely to generalize the process to situations other than the classroom and improve their performance in many areas.
Self-reward positively affects students' behavior in numerous circumstances. Think for a moment about the many students who would like to play a musical instrument, but who resist practicing. Such students are more likely to practice if they reward themselves by looking at a favorite TV program or phoning a friend after practicing for a given amount of time. Students can learn to reward themselves for helping with chores around the house, keeping their rooms neat, or reading books during their leisure time, to give but a few examples.