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


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

Observational learning is the acquisition of knowledge based on another individual’s behavior, thoughts or emotions. Learning this way, you may not even realize you have learned something until you actually demonstrate the skill.

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 it helps you retain it, reproduce it when needed and even reinforce it.

The four stages of observational learning are:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 knowledge well retained or a skill well used.

There are unlimited opportunities for observational learning in the real world.[1] 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 presented.

Here are a few strategies you can adopt 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:

  • It’s someone you respect. You will always learn a lot from the 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.
  • It’s 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 tuned 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.
  • It’s 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. All these are factors that make a person attractive to you and you subconsciously learn a lot from them.
  • It’s someone at a higher “level” than you. This could be a senior executive at your workplace, a teacher in college or a 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.

2. Shadow Your Teacher

Do you love a sport? 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 he did, even though 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 considered an expert in his field. This student will be walking behind the doctor on his rounds, taking mental notes of his behavior with patients, other staff and students and how he goes about treating the patients. This is also one of the best examples of observational learning.

Similarly, if you are looking to learn how to sell, shadow a person with a good reputation and proven skills. Observing this person as he goes about selling a product or service will impart better learning than textbooks.

3. Seek to Reproduce Learning the 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 playing football indoors), you should actively seek to reproduce only those actions that will get you a reward.

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 will reward to means you are first off paying attention when the learning opportunity is presented, and also that you’re making an effort to commit the learning to memory.

4. Take Good Notes

Does this 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 lot.

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 the said learning. 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 remember right!

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 refreshes (our body produces a fluid at night that flushes toxins away from the brain). Here’s how I create my routine: Powerful Daily Routine Examples for a Healthy and High-Achieving You

Give your mind a few minutes to disconnect throughout the day so when you need it to connect with your surroundings, it is ready to do so. Take a look at this guide on meditation: Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly It can give you some great tips!

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, a drink or even a few moments in the sun will do you a world of good.

7. Play Mind Games

No, not the mind games that mess with another person. We mean the kind that keeps your mind sharp and focused.

Memory games with cards, find the difference, Sudoku, crosswords are all games that will help. You could also memorize an image then recall it by either writing about it or drawing it yourself.

You can find some more ideas to boost mind power in the article 7 Brain Training Habits to Easily Boost Your Brain Power.

Bottom Line

So, here’re 7 ways you can try to make the most of observational learning. They’re strong, proven techniques that will make this type of learning effortless yet successful.

More About Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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