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

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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. Advertising

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. Advertising

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. Advertising

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

  • 6 Common Types of Learners (With Learning Hacks for Each)
  • How to Use Observational Learning to Learn Effectively
  • Essential Learning Methods to Help You Learn Effectively

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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