Symbol Systems v. Social Learning Theory

Symbol Systems
Description: Learning is based on coding elements that serve different levels of mental processing. Codes such as pictures, words, or graphs provide the learner with different types of information, with some information requiring less mental processing than others. Schema plays a significant role in how information is interpreted (Salomon, 1981).

Example: A child watches a television program that sings a song about jungle animals. This requires less processing than when the child reads a book about jungle animals.

Social Learning Theory
Description: Learning is based on observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others and reciprocating those interactions. Social Learning Theory moves beyond behaviorism, as the learner encompasses attention, memory, and motivation (Miller N., & Dollard, J, 1941).

Example: a person watches a commercial for Beats Audio and sees a famous athlete wearing a certain pair of headphones. The headphones make the athlete appear desirable. The viewer sees this interaction and buys the same pair.

Why Use Them?
Each of these theories provide insight to learning processes that take place through the use of multimedia.

Both learning theories focus primarily on the influence of multimedia, particularly television.

Symbol systems requires different levels of mental processing for coding and elaboration.

Social Learning Theory relies on the learner observing a particular behavior, and repeating that behavior with the desire of social acceptance.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Hortin, J. A.. (1980). [Review of Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning]. Journal of Instructional Development, 4(1), 36–38. Retrieved from

Kanhadilok, P., & Watts, M.(2014). Adult play-learning: Observing informal family education at a science museum. Studies In The Education Of Adults, 46(1), 23-41.

Miller, N. & Dollard, J. (1941). Social Learning and Imitation. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.

Salomon, G. (1979). Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Salomon, G., Perkins, D., & Globerson, T. (1991). Partners in cognition: Extending human intelligence with intelligent technologies. Educational Researcher, 20(4), 2-9.