Questioning Assessment in the Light of Social Learning Theory

21 Mar

If cognition and learning is social, then why is assessment individual?

Increasingly modern psychological theories have stressed the social component in learning. One of the most influential theories is Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Bandura stresses first of all the importance of observation.

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.

-Albert Bandura, Social Learning Theory, 1977

In a famous experiment, the Bobo Doll experiment, Bandura demonstrated that children tended to copy aggressive behaviour towards a large blow up doll when it was modelled by adults. Modelling, for Bandura would include verbal instructions and behaviour modelled symbollically in books or TV shows, for example, in addition to behaviour modelled directly in front of a child.

Bandura went on to develop a Social Cognitive Theory which is based on the idea that learning is a triadic reciprocal relationship between cognitive, behavioural and environmental factors. Learning in the classroom is shaped by a student’s thoughts and feelings as well as the behaviour of others and other contextual elements. Bandura also saw people as goal-directed, able to influence their own outcomes and their environment. Learning can also, crucially, occur without an immediate change in behaviour. The two are seen as separate processes, an idea which put it apart from Behaviourist notions of stimulus and response.

Other key ideas within Social Cognitive Theory include the idea of self-efficacy, the level of self-belief an individual has about their ability to achieve their goals, and self-regulation, the ability of learners to regulate their own learning behaviours, to monitor their progress and set goals.

Social Cognitive Theory presents, therefore, a view of the classroom where individual learning is crucially influenced by the environment and social factors.

Another key theoretical input, Social Constructivism, comes from the work of Lev Vygotksy. For Vygotsky learning is first social, we learn to do things with the help and guidance of others, and then it is internalised and becomes part of what we can do on our own. This difference between what we can do with the help of others and what we can do on our own he calls the Zone of Proximal Development. It provides a powerful model for visualising how learning is social.

Accepting that learning is largely social presents a huge challenge to the way we traditionally do assessment in schools. At the very least we would want to say that our assessment should measure both what we can do with the help of others, and what we can do on our own. In my computer skills classes I always make sure that students are assessed both on in-class  assignments and projects, often group-work, where they will have been able to get help from those around them, and on class tests where they have to demonstrate their computer skills on their own, under pressures of time. This way I get a picture of who has reached levels of internalized knowledge and who still depends on others for support.

forumI have started introducing this approach in my English classes as well, by assessing reactions to literature formed in discussion groups. Using forums on Moodle is a good way of doing this.

The quality of student writing appears much higher when in the context of being able to bounce ideas off each other. This is evident in in-class discussion, but using a forum allows one to assess students on the quality of their responses.

Traditionally forum contributions have been assessed on quantity alone, but there is no reason not to assess both form and content of students’ writing in whatever form it presents itself. I use a rubric which assesses both the number of responses and posts made, and the quality and accuracy of expression of the content in the posts. This forms part of the students’ writing assessment.

I found students sceptical at first, but when they realised I was serious about giving a mark for something they did on the Internet, they entered into the task with some engagement and intelligence.


Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Assessment, Learning Theories, Pedagogy


2 responses to “Questioning Assessment in the Light of Social Learning Theory

  1. Steve Covello

    March 28, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    Dorian – One strategy I suggested to a higher education online instructor was for her to direct her students to select a book that he/she liked and another book that he/she did not like and to look up reader reviews in for both of them – both the 5-star and 1-star reviews. The results indicated that students were enlightened to alternative perspectives on their selected books on a scale that the course itself could not provide.

    It is reasonable to consider that the userbase of social media (in some but not all cases) has reached a critical mass of participation that we can use them as an extension of the social learning approach we use *within* the course environment.


    • Dorian Love

      March 29, 2014 at 10:05 am

      I like that! Kids love defending their choices, and this makes for good talk.



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