Social cognitive theory

This blog post provides a summary of social cognitive theory. It begins with some background. I then move on to look at Bandura’s formulation of Social Cognitive Theory and finally I look at how the sub-component of self-efficacy can be used to evaluate professional learning

The origins of Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory has its origins in the work of William James (1891). James suggests the concept of the ‘social self’ as a constituent part of the ‘self’.

A man’s Social Self is the recognition which he gets from his mates. We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind (p. 294).

This perhaps marks the beginning of the study of the individual and their social environmental interactions. Alfred Adler developed this further, introducing the idea of ‘drive’ and suggested behaviour is purposeful and motivated by goals. With individual perception of and attitude toward the social environment influencing behaviour. And, importantly, a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours are transactions with one’s physical and social environments. Adler essentially recognised fundamental links between social environment, individual thinking, affect, motivation and behaviour.

Behaviourism has been influential in the development of social cognitive theory. This perhaps explains why social cognitive theory has not been popular in educational research: social cognitive theory has been referred to as radical behaviourism. Behaviourism is widely rejected in education out of preference for constructivist learning theories or situated learning theories. However, it is important in understanding social cognitive theory, to reflect on behaviourist theory. John Watson’s behavioural theory (circa 1913) considered behaviour as explicable by observable acts. Human behaviour is seen as a result of the action of an external stimulus (S) resulting in a response (R). This can be symbolised, S → R. This makes the individual a passive component in the formation of behaviour, but the simple stimulus-response model was very influential. Subsequent theorists have highlighted individual thinking as a factor in the stimulus-response model. Tolman suggested cognition had a mediating role in the stimulus-response model (see, for example, Tolman, 1932). The S→R scheme therefore becomes mediated by cognitive processes as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Tolman’s proposed relationship between stimulus response and cognition. S represents a stimulus, R the response and C cognition.

This can also be thought of as behaviour (B) being some function of, their thinking and personal characteristics (P) and the environment or context (E). And can be represented thus:

I will return to this relationship when I discuss Bandura’s formulation of social cognitive theory, in the next section.

<But, it is the work of Miller and Dollard that really marks the beginning of social cognitive theory. Central to their social cognitive theory is the idea that if individuals are driven to learn a behaviour, that behaviour is learned thorough observation (Miller & Dollard, 1941).

Social cognitive theory has been developed further and the following have been identified as the principle features of the approach:

  • People learn by observing others
  • Learning is an internal process that may or may not change behaviour
  • People behave in certain ways to reach goals
  • Behavior is self-directed (as opposed to the behaviorist thought that behavior is determined by environment)
  • Reinforcement and punishment have unpredictable and indirect effects on both behavior and learning (Ormrod, 2006).

Social cognitive theory has been influential; the theory has been applied to clinical psychology by Julian Rotter. He developed the ideas of behaviour potential, expectancy and locus of control. Robert Sears applied the approach to explain socialisation processes and how children internalise the values, attitudes and behaviours of a culture. Walter Mischel investigated how new experiences effect the individual. Ronal Akers applied social cognitive theory to criminology. But perhaps the most influential social cognitive theorist, in recent times, has been Albert Bandura. It his interpretation and application of social cognitive theory that I shall discuss in the next section.

Bandura’s social cognitive theory

Albert Bandura’s work on social cognitive theory began in the 1950s and culminated in numerous journal articles and a book Social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1977). Bandura’s project has been to develop a core theory of social learning and pursue empirical evidence and applications in health, criminology, therapy, sport, business and education. Like earlier developments of social cognitive theory the cornerstone of Bandura’s conception is imitative and observational learning. The importance of observational and imitative learning has, in education, been afforded lesser regard because of its associations with behaviourist perspectives on learning. Moreover, we have endeavoured to offer the learner greater agency and this appears at odds with the idea of learning through imitation. However, as I shall describe shortly social cognitive theory does afford agency as a result of the way in which observed behaviours are imitated, modelled and formed to be behaviours; it is not a non-agent behaviourist perspective.

Triadic causality and reciprocal determinism

Bandura (1977) begins by explaining the idea of triadic causality or reciprocal determinism, which is a central feature of social cognitive theory. Bandura takes the relationship suggested by Tolman:

This suggests behaviour (B) is a function of personal characteristics (P), for example, thinking and beliefs and the environment or context (E). Bandura theorised a greater level of interaction between these variables. At first suggesting a relationship signified in the following:

Immediately Bandura develops this further, producing a three-way connection between the social and environmental context (E), the individual—their thinking and personal characteristics (P) and the individual’s behaviour (B) (see Figure 1).

Personal and environmental factors do not function as independent determinants, rather they determine each other. Nor can “persons” be considered causes independent of their behavior. It is largely through their actions that people produce the environmental conditions that affect their behavior in a reciprocal fashion. The experiences generated by behavior also partly determine what a person becomes and can do which in turn, affects subsequent behavior (Bandura, 1977, p. 9).

Figure 2 Reciprocal determinism (Bandura, 1977, p. 10), B signifies behaviour, P the person and E the environment.

In such a way then, the social context influences the individual’s behaviour and thinking. This is largely consistent with sociological perspectives of the formation of behaviour: how we think and behave is influenced by the social, environmental and contextual setting and can be seen as the individual responding to prevailing norms and modes of behaviour. At the same time thinking and behaviour influence the social setting and environmental context. In the next section I will describe the ways in which behaviours are learned.

The formation of behavior

The cornerstone of social cognitive theory is learning through observation and modelling. Bandura argued that most human behaviour is learnt this way, people cannot simply construct novel behaviours based on their own experiences.

[F]rom 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. Because people can learn from example what to do, at least in an approximate form, before performing any behavior, they are spared needless error (Bandura, 1977, p. 22).

The ‘coded-information’ is consistent with the conception of mental models proposed by Johnson-Laird’s (1983). Models are mental symbolizations of the external world and are the building blocks with which we reason and make decisions.

Bandura goes on to detail observational learning sub-processes; these have remained central, for a number of years, to social cognitive theory. These sub-processes consider aspects of attention, retention, production processes and motivation. In terms of attentional processes, Bandura stresses that individuals do not learn through observation unless they ‘…attend to and perceive accurately, the significant features of the modelled behavior’ (1977, p. 24). Similarly, from the perspective of retentional processes, observed behaviours will not have much influence unless a person remembers what they observed. The production
process involve the conversion of the symbolic codification of observed behaviours into action and finally the motivation processes address how, out of the numerous behaviours observed and symbolically retained, certain behaviours are constructed and enacted. I shall now consider each of these processes in a little more detail in order to unpick the nature of observational learning from Bandura’s perspective. A summary of this process is presented in Figure 3.

The attentional processes govern what behaviours are observed and what the observer attends to. Children may require simple tasks, that are salient and conspicuous to promote attention, while the more mature learner can force their attention to observe behaviours that are less conspicuous. The attentional processes are affected by the kinds of behaviour observed and also by observer determinants which may include prior knowledge, preconceptions and cognitive skill, these will have an impact on levels of attention. One other aspect of attention is the functional value of the modelled behaviour; it is more likely that a behaviour which has perceived value will command greater attention by the observer.

Once a modelled behaviour has been attended to, the next process involves retention this ‘…involves the active transformation and restructuring of information about events’ (Bandura, 1986, p. 56). According to social cognitive theory there are two representational systems: imaginal and verbal (p.56). An imaginal representation is an abstraction of an event rather than a visual image. A verbal construction can be understood by considering the way in which geographical directions are communicated; as a series of right and left turns. In this way, behaviours are coded as linguistic instructions. Bandura suggests that these two representational systems are difficult in reality to distinguish and separate.

The next stage of the process is production. This sub-process involves the transfer of observed behaviour, that has been retained mentally, into the construction of a future behaviour. It is the process through which mental representations of behaviours are developed as possible courses of action. This involves the organisation of elements of representations, spatially and temporally into an arrangement consistent with the perceived activity. This process is influenced by matching thoughts and representations to the situation at hand and is also influenced by the individual’s skills and abilities.

The final sub-process, motivation, involves choosing a course of action or behaviour from the range of possible constructions. This is related to internal and external motivations and the degree of effort that one might perceive necessary to expend.

From the perspective of social cognitive theory, thinking influences behaviour by the enactment of mental models. However, as has already been explained, the mental models constructed from the observation of behaviour are not simply re-enacted: this is not direct imitation. Individuals, according to Bandura (1977), reconstruct mental models in order to create a behaviour that they believe is most suitable for a given situation. There is a self-regulative dimension to this production process. A person, from the perspective of social cognitive theory, can construct a behaviour based on the perceived likelihood of success with that behaviour. Self-efficacy is an important theoretical aspect of social cognitive theory and is used to account for the self-regulative aspects of behaviour. It is defined as a self-reflective belief that a person has in the extent to which they believe they will be successful in a particular activity or domain. Bandura presents a range of evidence demonstrating a relationship between self-efficacy and underlying skill (1997, p. 37).

Self-efficacy and teaching

Bandura considers self-efficacy to be of particular importance in understanding the cognitive and social dimensions of behaviour. This led to the book Self-efficacy: the exercise of control in 1997. Bandura suggests in the preface:

Much contemporary theorizing depicts people as onloooking hosts of internal mechanisms or orchestrated by external events. They are stripped of any agency. People are proactive, aspiring organisms who have a hand in shaping their own lives and the social systems that organize, guide and regulate the affairs of their society (Bandura, 1997, p. vii).

Bandura goes on to define self-efficacy. ‘Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments [Bandura’s emphasis]’ (1997, p. 3). While Bandura considers self-efficacy in a wide range of human activity including medicine and health, sport and organizations he also looks specifically at teachers’ perceived self-efficacy. He suggests teachers’ beliefs in their teaching or instructional efficacy contributes to students’ determination of their intellectual capabilities (p. 240). Bandura refers to the study by Gibson and Dembo (1984) in which teachers’ efficacy beliefs were measured in respect to teaching difficult students. They found that the higher efficacy teachers gave more time to academic activities and provided students with more guidance than low efficacy teachers. Lower efficacy teachers also spent more time on non-academic activities and were likely to criticise students for their failures (Bandura, 1997, pp. 240–241). Bandura also draws on evidence from research into student teachers’ efficacy (Saklofske, Michayluk, & Randhawa, 1988) which revealed that those with a higher sense of efficacy were more adept at presenting lesson plans, offered more effective approaches to questioning and were better able to manage their classrooms effectively (Bandura, 1997, p. 241). In terms of practising teachers it has been found that higher levels of teaching efficacy also relates to the way in which teachers view the educational process. Low instructional efficacy teachers are more pessimistic about student motivation and believe in strict classroom regulation and rely on extrinsic inducements and negative sanctions to get students to study (Woolfolk & Hoy, 1990; Woolfolk, Rosoff, & Hoy, 1990 cited in, Bandura, 1997, p. 241). In a later section I shall describe further work that has been done on developing scales for measuring teaching efficacy as well as other studies where teaching efficacy has been related to student achievement and teachers’ propensity to experiment, innovate and sustain changes in their practice. These findings suggest that attention needs to be given to how self-efficacy can be developed as part of teachers’ professional learning. In the next section I want to present what Bandura considers to be the sources of self-efficacy more generally.

Sources of self-efficacy

Bandura proposes four sources of self-efficacy: enactive mastery experiences, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physiological and affective states (Bandura, 1997, pp. 79–113). Enactive mastery experiences offer the most powerful sources of self-efficacy beliefs. If we are successful in something our efficacy will increase, if we fail it will be undermined. Easy successes beget an expectation of quick results but can lead to being easily discouraged by failure (1997, p. 80). Self-efficacy can also be developed through vicarious experience, this provides an alternative and complementary source where individuals assess their own abilities and capabilities based on the attainments and successes of others. Bandura illustrates the process:

More often in everyday life, people compare themselves to a particular associate in similar situations, such as classmates, work associates, competitors, or people in other settings engaged in similar endeavours (Bandura, 1997, p. 87).

Comparing our performances with others leads to increases in self-efficacy; if we believe we can be realistically more effective than the person observed.

A further but weaker source of self-efficacy is through verbal persuasion. If an individual is persuaded that they have the abilities and capacities to achieve a particular level of success this will have an influence on whether the outcome of their performance is successful. However, if the persuasion is unrealistic then this can undermine the individual performance and also discredit the persuader (Bandura, 1997, p. 101).

Finally physiological and affective states have an effect on self-efficacy. If we feel ill or we are in a bad mood this will have an impact in the extent that we believe we will be successful. This according Bandura is especially relevant in areas related to ‘physical accomplishments, health functioning and coping with stressors’ (1997, p. 106). This is particularly important in teaching in which high levels of stress are often experienced. As a consequence, self-efficacy can be enhanced by improving physical status, reducing levels of stress and correcting misinterpretations of bodily states. Effectively, improving our physical condition and the way in which stress is dealt with as well as having an improved understanding of our physical self.

In this section I have summarised the idea of self-efficacy and how self-efficacy is developed through mastery, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion and physical an affective states. I will now look in more detail at teaching self-efficacy and its measure. I illustrate this by revisiting one aspect of the exploratory study I referred to earlier, this was a small-scale piece of research looking at how self-efficacy can be used to evaluate professional development.

Operationalizing social cognitive theory: teaching self-efficacy scales

A teacher’s self-efficacy beliefs (TSE) have been defined as ‘[a] judgment of his or her capabilities to bring about desired outcomes of student engagement and learning, even among those students who may be difficult or unmotivated’ (Tschannen-Moran & Woolfolk Hoy, 2001, p. 783). While TSE emerges from strong theoretical ground, its validity has also been demonstrated empirically and it has been shown to be related to other important factors. For example, TSE is related to student achievement (Allinder, 1994; Ashton & Webb, 1986; Tschannen-Moran, Hoy, & Hoy, 1998). In addition, it has been shown to be related to teachers’ willingness to experiment with and adopt new practices (Berman, McLaughlin, Bass-Golod, Pauly, & Zellman, 1977; Guskey, 1988; Stein & Wang, 1988). These present useful findings, as measures of TSE can also indicate levels of student achievement and teachers’ capacity to develop their practice.

TSE is potentially, a powerful measure but it has not been widely used in the evaluation of PD. However, Ross and Bruce (2007) conducted a randomized field trial using measures of TSE with grade six mathematics teachers (n=106) in the USA. It was shown that the PD had an effect on TSE. Karimi (2011) evaluated the effects of PD on EFL (English as a foreign language) teachers’ efficacy finding the PD had a positive effect on TSE. The reason for the limited number of PD evaluations using TSE is that this aspect of PD research is in its infancy. Desimone (2009) argues that PD evaluation is underdeveloped—there is a need for more empirically valid methods—previous studies have relied on ‘…teacher satisfaction, attitude change or commitment to innovation rather than its results…’ (p.181). TSE presents a suitable construct that goes beyond attitude change and commitment to change, it has the potential to measure the effects of PD on student achievement, albeit indirectly.

Much work has been done in recent years in developing TSE instruments. Tschannen-Moran and Woolfolk Hoy (2001) developed the Teaching Self-Efficacy Scale (TSES). This instrument is often regarded as a standard. They tested the validity of the scale by comparing it with other measures of TSE and found high levels of correlation. They also identified three factors: efficacy for instructional strategies; efficacy for classroom management and efficacy for student engagement. Efficacy for instructional strategies includes items relating to assessment, questioning, providing explanations and differentiation. Efficacy for classroom management has items relating to the control of student behaviour, establishing classroom rules, getting students to follow them and dealing with challenging behaviour. Efficacy for student engagement is concerned with motivating students from different backgrounds and encouraging them to value learning and to think critically and be creative. The TSES instrument was used by Ross and Bruce (2007) and Karimi (2011) in their evaluations of PD. While the development, validity and reliability work for the TSES had been carried out in the USA, the instrument has been shown to be valid across culturally diverse settings (Klassen et al., 2009).


The source of this historical perspective on social cognitive theory has been guided by Stone, D. (1998) Social Cognitive Theory, unpublished manuscript [, accessed 20/6/2012] and Bachar, K. J. (n.d.) An overview of social cognitive theory, unpublished manuscript, [, accessed 20/6/2012]


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