Social Cognitive Theory in a K-8 Classroom

Two Boys Reading TogetherTeachers and parents know well that children learn not only from direct instruction and performance, but also from their vicarious experiences, peer interaction, and even the media. Social cognitive learning theory is based on the fact that learning is a social event that occurs under a variety of circumstances, and results in a variety of outcomes. It is this interaction of social elements that successful teachers use to ensure that quality learning takes place.

Elements of Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory is based on the idea that learning and the subsequent performance of certain behaviors are the result of the ongoing and reciprocal interaction between a person, the environment, and the already learned behavioral patterns of the individual and group (Bandura, 1986). Each student, therefore, responds to instruction and modeling through the lens of these three elements.

Students bring to any learning situation a unique set of mental constructs, a fluctuating emotional state of being, and most importantly, a personal sense of self-efficacy, or feeling of capability and likelihood to succeed. These factors then interact with the habitual behavioral patterns of the individual, such as procrastination or organization, and the environmental factors, such as the nature of the task, the social and physical environment, the modeling and reinforcement received by the individual.

Applying Social Cognitive Theory to K-8 Classrooms

Because learning is inherently a social event, teachers can easily manipulate the classroom environment to promote the positive aspects of socialization and use them more proactively toward student learning. For example, teachers can set the classroom up as a learning community, incorporate cooperative learning activities regularly, reinforce model behaviors by students, provide differentiated tasks, and support students as they recognize and acknowledge their own self-efficacy.

Characteristics of a Self-Regulated Learner

Self-regulated learners are in control of their own learning behaviors from start to finish. They plan, set goals, and strategize before taking action; they self-monitor and make adjustments as needed during an action; and after acting, they reflect and evaluate on what they have done, providing self-reinforcement for effective behaviors and planning to change those that inhibited their performance.

These processes are internalized in self-regulated learners, and are evident not only in the classroom, but also in sports, on stage, in clubs or other social activities, and within the social dynamics of friendships and families. Self-regulated learners take initiative, show leadership, and are able to manage their time well in order to accomplish all they have set out to do. Fortunately, these are characteristics that can be taught to and learned by K-8 students.

Developing Self-Regulated Learners

Teachers develop self-regulated learners by discussing, modeling and reinforcing the thinking behaviors that characterize self-regulation. They encourage metacognitive feedback after a lesson, asking students to self-reflect and evaluate what went well and what needs improvement in their learning process. Finally, they scaffold students toward self-regulation by asking pertinent questions during the learning process, such as "What strategies did you try?"or "What did you do that contributed to your success on this project?"

Rather than fighting the natural social tendencies of children, teachers who apply Bandura's theories to their classrooms will develop a group of students who are self-motivated and see themselves as agents of their own learning. Children who become self-regulated learners in the process will be successful as students and as adults because they will have mastered the personal skills and necessary strategies for controlling their own behaviors, interests, and future.

Further Reading

Bandura, A. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.

Kumpulainen, K. Classroom Interaction and Social Learning: From Theory to Practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001.