Observational learning, also called imitation or modeling, is learning that occurs when a person observes and imitates someone else's behavior. The capacity to learn behavior patterns by observation eliminates tedious trial-and-error learning. In many instances, observational learning takes less time than operant conditioning.
The Classic Bobo Doll Study
An experiment by Bandura (1965) illustrates how observational learning can occur even by watching a model who is not reinforced or punished. The experiment also illustrates a distinction between learning and performance.
Equal numbers of kindergarten children were randomly assigned to watch one of three films in which a person (the model) beat up an adult-size plastic toy called a Bobo doll. In the first film, the aggressor was rewarded with candy, soft drinks, and praise for aggressive behavior. In the second film, the aggressor was criticized and spanked for the aggressive behavior. And in the third film, there were no consequences for the aggressor's behavior.
Subsequently, each child was left alone in a room filled with toys, including a Bobo doll. The child's behavior was observed through a one-way mirror. Children who watched the films in which the aggressor's behavior cither was reinforced or went unpunished imitated the aggressor's behavior more than did the children who saw the aggressor be punished. As you might expect, boys were more aggressive than girls. However, an important point in this study is that observational learning occurred just as extensively when modeled aggressive behavior was not reinforced as when it was reinforced.
A second important point in this study focuses on the distinction between learning and performance. lust because students don't perform a response doesn't mean they didn't learn it. In Bandura's study, when children were given an incentive (with slickers or fruit juice) to imitate the model, differences in the children's imitative behavior in the three conditions were eliminated. Bandura believes that when a child observes behavior but makes no observable response, the child may still have acquired the modeled response in cognitive form.
Bandura's Contemporary Model of Observational Learning
Bandura (1986) has focused on the specific processes that are involved in observational learning. These include attention, retention, production, and motivation:
* Attention. Before students can imitate a model's actions, they must attend to what the model is doing or saying. A student who is distracted by two other students who are talking might not hear what a teacher is saying. Attention to the model is influenced by a host of characteristics. For example, warm, powerful, atypical people command more attention than do cold. weak, typical people. Students arc more likely to be attentive to high-status models than to low-status models. In most cases, teachers are high-status models for students.
* Retention. To reproduce a model's actions, students must code the information and keep it in memory so that it can be retrieved. A simple verbal description or a vivid image of what the model did assists students' retention. For example, the teacher might say, "I'm showing the correct way to do this. You have to do this step first, this step second, and this step third," as she models how to solve a math problem. A video with a colorful character demonstrating the importance of considering other students' lectings might be remembered better than it (he teacher just tells the students to do this. Such colorful characters are at the heart of the popularity of Sesame Street with children. Students' retention will be improved when teachers give vivid, logical, and clear demonstrations. In chapter 8, we will further examine the role of memory in children's learning.
* Production. Children might attend to a model and code in memory what they have seen but. because of limitations in their motor ability, nut be able to reproduce the model's behavior. A thirteen-year-old might watch basketball player David Robinson and golfer Nancy Lopez execute their athletic skills to perfection, or observe a famous pianist or artist perform their skills, but not be able to reproduce their motor actions. Teaching, coaching, and practice can help children improve their motor performances.
• Motivation. Often children attend to what a model says or docs, retain the information in memory, and possess the motor skills to perform the action but are not motivated to perform the modeled behavior. This was demonstrated in Bandura's classic Bobo doll study when children who saw the model being punished did not reproduce the punished model's aggressive actions. However, when they subsequently were given a reinforcement or incentive (stickers or fruit juice), they did imitate the model's behavior.
Bandura believes that reinforcement is not always necessary for observational learning to take place. But if the child does not reproduce the desired behaviors, three types of reinforcement can help do the trick: (1) reward the model, (2) reward the child, or (3) instruct the child lo make self-reinforcing statements such as "Good, I did it!" or "Okay, I've done a good job of getting most of this right; now if 1 keep trying I will get the rest." We will have much more to say about such self-management strategies shortly.
As you can see, you will be an important model in students' lives and you have many options for providing students with an array of competent models. To evaluate the roles that models and mentors have played in your own life and can play in your students' lives, complete Self-Assessment, To explore the lack of male and minority role models and mentors in children's education, read the Diversity and Education interlude.