Learning from observation of persons (models)

In his article ‘Toward an Instructionally Oriented Theory of Example-Based Learning, (Cognitive Science 38 (2014) 1–37, DOI: 10.1111/cogs.12086)  Alexander Renkl gives an overview of the main research results about observational learning from models or learning by observing other persons’ behaviour. In his article he focus on academic learning by abstract modelling.

Below the relevant text of Renkl is summarised. 

Relevance and effectiveness of examples
Renkl and other authors stress the claim from Bandura (1999)  “…human beings have evolved an advanced capacity for observational learning…” (p. 25). Hence, it is a “natural” conclusion to rely on this learning mechanism for fostering the acquisition of academic cognitive skills.
Relevant design principles are:

  • Use as  many different models possible, because this increase the possibility that the students can identify with one model and learn effectively from it.
  • There’s a positive effect of abstract modelling when acquiring academic skills. Renkl gives as an example: modelling fosters college students writing skills more than working on practical problems.
  • Video models appears to be more effective than learning by scripted doing. (Rummel, Spada and Hauser, 2009)

Phases of skill acquisition

In the development of academic skills four levels can be found (Schunk and Zimmerman (1997, 2007): observational, emulative, self-controlled, and self-regulated.
Renkl explains:

  • In the observational phase the students benefit from observing models explaining and demonstrating a skill. At this observational level, students learn the major features of skills cognitively without necessarily performing the skills.
  • At the emulative phase, the learner imitates or approximates the model’s general pattern or style.
  • At the self-controlled phase the learners demonstrate the skill independently when performing similar tasks. The learner’s mental representation of the skill is still structured after the model. Learners have not yet developed a mental representation independent of the observed model.
  • During the final self-regulated phase, learners adapt their skills to changes in contextual conditions. Now learners can initiate use of the skill and incorporate adjustments in various problem-solving contexts.

Learning processes
Bandura (1986) emphasizes four types of observational learning processes: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation.

  • With respect to attentional processes, it is important that a person demonstrates how to solve a problem. Such complex and perceptually rich models should attract and sustain attention more than verbal or written models (Bandura, 1986). Encouraging learners to identify underlying rules of model behavior fosters transfer (e.g., Decker, 1980). Learners need practice between the model observations. The differences between what the model shows and what the learners can already do, reveals what learners should attend to in subsequent models to correct their deficits.
  •  Retention processes are necessary to transform transitory modelling experiences into stable memory traces. Whereas the complexity of models cannot be fully remembered, succinct symbols represent the core features of model behaviour.
  • Reproduction processes convert the learners’ representations of the abstract rules into appropriate action. Practice can improve these processes. However, if the observer has acquired merely a fragmentary sketch of the modeled behaviour, reproduction processes are hindered.
  • Motivational processes. Learners must be motivated to perform what they have learned. For example, they need the self-efficacy to assume that they can perform the skill on their own. (Schunk & Hanson, 1985).

To optimize learning from observing computer based tutorial dialogues, the (watching) learners need support for active processing, for example, in form of self explanation prompts (Gholson & Craig, 2006), the insertion of deep-level questions (Gholson et al., 2009), or collaboratively observing, discussing, and solving problems (Chi et al., 2008).

Renkl summarises:

‘ If observational learning research affirms workplace education research with respect to

  • The relevance and effectiveness of examples.
  • The use of multiple examples.
  • The need to abstract from concrete examples.
  • The social and motivation-inducing nature of the example/ model is emphasized, which opens new possibilities to structure the learning setting (i.e., showing coping models).
  • It is validly argued that after initial mastery of a skill, both automation and making skills more flexible and applicable in new contexts are important.’



  • Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2, 21–41.
  • Chi, M. T. H., Roy, M., & Hausmann, R. G. (2008). Observing tutorial dialogues collaboratively: Insights about human tutoring effectiveness from vicarious learning. Cognitive Science, 32, 301–341.
  • Decker, P. J. (1980). Effects of symbolic coding and rehearsal in behavior-modeling training. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65, 627–634.
  • Gholson, B., & Craig, S. D. (2006). Promoting constructive activities that support vicarious learning during computer-based instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 119–139.
  • Gholson, B., Witherspoon, A., Morgan, B., Brittingham, J., Coles, R., Graesser, A. C., Sullins, J., & Craig, S. D. (2009). Exploring the deep-level reasoning questions effect during vicarious learning among eighth to eleventh graders in the domains of computer literacy and Newtonian physics. Instructional Science, 37, 487–493.
  • Rummel, N., Spada, H., & Hauser, S. (2009). Learning to collaborate while being scripted or by observing a model. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 4,69–92.
  • Schunk, D. H., & Hanson, A. R. (1985). Peer models: Influence on children’s self-efficacy and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 313–322.
  • Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (1997). Social origins of self-regulatory competence. Educational Psychologist, 32, 195–208.
  • Schunk, D. H., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2007). Influencing children’s self-efficacy and self-regulation of reading and writing through modeling. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 23,7–25.