Vicarious Learning Theory & How To Leverage it in eLearning

by | eLearning Concepts

Whether you are onboarding new employees, retraining old ones on newer methods, or implementing new policies, using vicarious learning theory when constructing eLearning presentations, lessons, and other teaching tools will lead to greater student retention and comprehension. Let’s dive into why that is.


What is Vicarious Learning Theory?

Vicarious learning theory states that an individual can successfully learn by observing another person taking an action, understanding the reason behind that individual’s success or failure, and then imagining themselves taking the correct course of action, without needing to actually do the action themselves. A handy way to remember this is the acronym OUI (especially if you speak French). Another vicarious learning definition is: learning through observation and mental effort.


The Difference Between Vicarious Learning and Observational Learning

It is important to realize that vicarious learning theory has two other parts beyond the “observation” part of the process (the U and I in OUI). Vicarious learning theory leans heavily on the student’s ability to both visualize themselves doing the activity and know why the action they’re imagining is the correct course of action. While there is some evidence to suggest that simply watching another person do an action will help teach the observer, success rates improve dramatically when the mind gets involved as well.

Studies performed by sociologists like Albert Bandura and students of social learning theory have shown that it is easier for a student to implement OUI if the person they are observing is similar to them, whether in age, sex, appearance or accent. Keep this in mind if you are planning to implement vicarious learning theory; a mechanic wants to learn from someone who looks like a mechanic, not from someone who looks like they work on Wall Street.


Examples of Vicarious Learning In The Real World

You likely know how effective vicarious learning theory is if you have ever tried to teach a group of people a board game they have never played. The most effective way to teach the entire group quickly (so as to speed up the amount of time spent playing instead of teaching) would be to demonstrate how the game works yourself, while the others watched. As they watch, you tell them to imagine their own strategies for playing, how they want to hold the cards or the game pieces, how it would feel to move a token and do a successful turn. You would demonstrate a strategy for a certain card or piece, perhaps introduce a counter-move, and then conclude your turn.

This “practice round” before true play begins works very well because of vicarious learning theory: players get just as much out of watching and using their minds as they do out of playing blindly and learning as they go.

In a corporate environment, vicarious learning theory looks like this: instead of taking ten minutes with each individual in a class to train them how to use a new machine, you can train one person in front of the others, relying on their metacognitive ability to OUI, even though their hands are idle. Keep in mind that to be as effective as possible in this situation, the instructor would need to get the other students involved by asking them to complete the OUI process, imagining themselves doing the action and offering an explanation of why it was successful.


How to Use Vicarious Learning Theory in eLearning

Vicarious learning theory flourishes in an eLearning setting because it boosts the power of existing tools commonly used when teaching digitally. For example: demonstration videos, instead of only relying on the “observation” part of OUI, can be modified to include thought exercises and examples where the viewer mentally transports themself into the situation they are observing. Follow this up with a short Q/A session (live or simulated) where the student explains what they think the thought process was that led to a success, and you begin to see where the benefits come in.

eLearning also benefits from Vicarious Learning Theory because a successful eLearning course depends quite heavily on the instructor. Here is how to use OUI and vicarious learning theory in your own eLearning course.

For this example, imagine you are using an eLearning video to teach an employee how to use a new machine in an automotive shop. In order to help the student achieve a successful OUI, there is a narrator on screen who looks like the type of person who would know how this sort of machine works. Perhaps there is grease on their hands, a smudge of dirt on their face. This is clearly someone who works here; and they know what they’re talking about.

This narrator is shown placing their hands on the machine, and they describe how it feels to them. The cold steel orb at the end of the lever, the glossy texture of the startup button; the satisfying click as the lever is pushed into place correctly. Focusing on tactile details helps improve the student’s chance to successfully OUI. They can observe and hear, (it is a video, after all) but adding in elements of the other senses can greatly enhance the student’s ability to imagine themselves in the same situation.

So: the video shows the narrator as they set the machine up properly and have it execute its function, describing all the while what it feels like to get things right, the vibration of the handle as the gears are set properly, the smell of freshly cut metal in the air. All of these elements help the imagination of the viewer, allowing them to OUI more successfully.

After watching the machine get set up and used successfully, the narrator steps back and gives a new character the reins. This new character is “the trainee,” and they might also look like the type of person working in an automotive shop, but a less trustworthy one. Perhaps they are acting cocky or nervous, or wearing clothes that a normal automotive professional would not wear.

The student will then watch this trainee make the wrong choices, which leads to an unhappy grinding instead of a satisfying click from the lever, or a burning plastic smell instead of the scent of freshly shorn metal. It is important here that the trainee is shown making mistakes, because this also helps the student watching with their OUI cycle. The student gets the opportunity to mentally correct the trainee as they observe them making a mistake, creating a full OUI.

At the end of the video, give the student the opportunity to explain what the trainee did wrong. This reinforces the right choice and helps cement the learning in the mind of the student.


When Is Vicarious Learning Theory The Wrong Choice?

Students who struggle with their imaginations, as well as ones with low self confidence, tend to do less well with vicarious learning. If for whatever reason your student cannot visualize themselves succeeding at the task, or they cannot comprehend the rationale behind the choices that were shown, they will not be able to complete a OUI cycle and will get less benefit. Not no benefit; observational learning is still taking place; it is just less efficient than a complete OUI.

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