“Do as I do, not as I say”: Using social learning
theory to unpack the impact of role models
on students' outcomes in education
Janet N. Ahn
| Danfei Hu
| Melissa Vega
William Paterson University
The Pennsylvania State University
New York University
Janet N. Ahn, Department of Psychology,
William Paterson University, 300 Pompton
Road, Wayne, NJ 07470.
Role modeling has received much attention in education
research, uncovering the mechanisms by which imitation
occurs (e.g., the aspects of role models that make them
more or less effective) and identifying the outcomes associ-
ated upon imitating the model. Nonetheless, certain social-
cognitive processes involved in role modeling tend to be
overlooked. This oversight is puzzling given that these pro-
cesses, such as retention and reproduction of modeled
behavior, are of great importance to role modeling
processes—the consideration and inclusion of such pro-
cesses can provide crucial insight. This paper provides an
overview of the role model research in education to date,
detailing researchers' focus and emphasis on identifying
aspects of role model effectiveness. We then analyze how
including the component processes of social learning or
observational theory can add value and application to
advance role modeling research. Finally, we provide recom-
mendations to close the gap between current research
trends and what has been previously theorized on modeling
to help inform ongoing future investigations.
It goes without saying that when people are asked to identify who or what greatly influenced them to become the
person they are today, many do not hesitate in naming specific individuals such as close family members, admired
celebrities, or whomever they deem to be role models. In the broadest sense, role models are people who have or
had a profound and significant (usually positive) impact on a person's life. Role models exemplify specific goals,
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behaviors, and strategies that role aspirants (people exposed to role models who consciously and even unconsciously
follow in the latter's footsteps) internalize and imitate. Role models are particularly useful in the field of education as
a source of inspiration, providing roadmaps for possible career paths and enhancing motivation along the way.
There are two influential role model theories in the current literature: the stereotype inoculation model (SIM,
Dasgupta, 2011) and the motivational theory of role modeling (MTRM, Morgenroth, Ryan, & Peters, 2015). The ste-
reotype inoculation model focuses on in-group role models and defines them as accomplished individuals who share
common characteristic(s) (e.g., race and gender) with certain underrepresented and negatively stereotyped groups in
high-achieving domains (e.g., women in STEM). In-group role models influence role aspirants by alleviating their con-
cerns about group representation in the stereotyped domain and thereby inoculating them from stereotype threat.
Based on this definition, Dasgupta and colleagues argue that in-group role models can be anyone, from widely
renowned experts to peers whom one regularly interacts with in real life. While SIM focuses on how role models can
benefit minority or negatively stereotyped groups, the MTRM provides a much broader definition, describing role
models as “individuals who influence role aspirants' achievements, motivation, and goals by acting as behavioral
models, representations of the possible, and/or inspirations”(Morgenroth et al., 2015, p. 4). This definition delineates
three distinct functions that role models serve in influencing role aspirants: acting as behavioral models, representing
what is achievable, and being inspirational. In the current paper, we adhere to the MTRM's conceptualization of role
models and define them as individuals who exemplify specific goals, behaviors, and strategies that role aspirants
(people exposed to role models who consciously and even unconsciously follow in the latter's footsteps) internalize
As such, the literature on role models in education sheds light onto the various factors that impact role models'
effectiveness, particularly the aspects of the role model (e.g., competence and perceived similarity), and uncovers the
wide range of consequences that occur when role aspirants imitate role models. Despite its expansiveness and infor-
mative insights, the current role model literature in education tends to disproportionately focus on the “attentional”
and “motivational”processes of role modeling (i.e., the aspects that tend to attract observers and role aspirants
the favorable and unfavorable outcomes associated with imitating the role model), and does not consider on balance
the other processes relevant in modeling that facilitate behavior change and/or imitation in the role aspirants—
mainly the “retention”and “motor reproduction”processes (see Bandura, 1972, 1997, 2005). In this vein, the current
understanding of role models does not draw on social-cognitive literature (e.g., social learning theory) to grasp how
role models function and work, even though role models are often seen as those who inspire others to exemplify
similar actions and behaviors. Addressing this disregard is pressing, since research on social-cognitive processes is
greatly informative for the most relevant processes to role modeling such as goal setting, goal striving, and behavior
change (e.g., Bandura, 1977; Fryling, Johnston, & Hayes, 2011; Manz & Sims, 1981; Schunk, 2012). Lastly, the pre-
dominant focus of research on role models in education has been to identify and examine the key attributes that role
models should possess to be considered effective (i.e., more directly focusing on role models). What tends to be lac-
king is the considerable influence role aspirants themselves can exert (e.g., their ambitions, motivation, choices, and
accomplishments) on the role modeling processes. That is, a role model's effectiveness cannot exclusively be viewed
unilaterally—instead his or her effectiveness is largely contingent on and intertwined with the learning processes on
the side of role aspirants (Morgenroth et al., 2015). This dynamic process is often neglected in the current view of
role models in education but can be supported by integrating social-cognitive theories, specifically observational
learning theory (Bandura, 1965, 1969, 1977).
In this paper, we first review social or observational learning theory, specifying the relevant component pro-
cesses that influence the observer's ability to imitate the model. We then provide a targeted recapitulation of domi-
nant trends in the current work on role models, focusing on educational settings. Next, we focus on the disconnect
between these two streams of literature and shed light on how bridging the gap between these areas can help
researchers discern how to investigate modeling behavior going forward. Lastly, we provide suggestions for future
role model work and interventions to incorporate all component processes as laid out in observational learning the-
ory to better understand the functions and capabilities of role models.
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2|SOCIAL OR OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING THEORY
In the 60s and 70s, Albert Bandura and his colleagues made a concerted effort to evaluate and highlight the role of
observation as a necessary antecedent to social learning. In reaction to the predominant understandings of how indi-
viduals acquire knowledge via the unconscious in the psychoanalytic approach (Freud, 1949), the predetermined
sequence of stages in developmental theories (Erikson, 1950; Gesell, Ilg, Learned, & Ames, 1943; Piaget, 1948, 1954;
Sullivan, 1953) and even the direct experience of successive reinforcement in operant conditioning theory (Skinner,
1953), Bandura emphasized the role of social-cognitive processes associated with observing models. He very loosely
defined models as “performers”whose “behavior conveys information to observers about the characteristics of
appropriate responses”to display in a certain situation (Bandura, 1972, p. 37). Further, observers are to “abstract
common attributes exemplified”by this model and then generate a behavior that resembles that which the model “is
inclined to exhibit under similar circumstances”(Bandura, 1972, p. 37). These “matching phenomena,”of observers
attempting to exhibit similar behaviors as the model, are known as “modeling.”
At the core of observational learning theory is understanding the role of modeling in inspiring learning and imita-
tion in observers. Specifically, a desired behavior can be acquired by merely observing a model who demonstrates
that behavior, without (the observer) having to personally and directly experience the consequences associated with
engaging in that behavior (Bandura, 2005; Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963; S. K. Gibson, 2004b; Horn & Williams,
2004). In a seminal experiment, children were exposed to one of four types of models- a model who either displayed
acts of aggression and was rewarded for such behavior, a model who was aggressive then punished, or children were
alternately placed in one of two control conditions, in which they observed a non-aggressive model or no model at
all. Importantly, the greatest amount of imitative behavior was exhibited in the aggressive-rewarded group than in
the other three groups. Bandura concluded that “by observing a model of the desired behavior, an individual forms
an idea of how response components must be combined and sequenced to produce the new behavior”(Bandura,
1977, p. 35). Though such a notion seems rather simple and intuitive, the implications it has for learning and imitative
behavior is significant yet frequently overlooked.
2.1 |Processes of observational learning
According to Bandura (1969, 1971, 1977), there are four critical processes involved in observational learning:
(a) attention, (b) retention, (c) motor reproduction, and (d) motivation and reinforcement. First, attentional processes
matter because “simply exposing persons to sequences of modeling stimuli does not in itself guarantee that they will
attend closely to the cues”(Bandura, 1972, p. 41). That is, a particular model must attract the attention of an
observer, and the observer should perceive that model as worthy of imitation. This process is critical in determining
whether or not the observer will model the observed behavior. Second, in the retention process, the observer should
retain and register the original observational inputs or actions of the model in some symbolic form via imagery or
verbal coding. Additionally, repetitive rehearsal of registered imagery or verbal elements of the model's behavior can
significantly heighten the retention of observed behavior. Next, motor reproduction processes “involves the use of
symbolic representations of modeled patterns to guide over performances”(Bandura, 1972, p. 46). In other words,
an observer behaviorally follows a series of instructions to enact novel behaviors that are not externally prompted or
depicted but instead are reproduced internally through “symbolic representations of the behavior as guides to appro-
priate action”(Manz & Sims, 1981, p. 107). Lastly, motivational and reinforcement processes refer to the perceived
favorable or unfavorable consequences of mimicking the model's actions that are likely to increase or decrease the
likelihood of imitation.
According to Bandura, each of these components is crucial in determining whether or not imitation occurs upon
exposure to a model. It is noteworthy that observational theory placed much emphasis on the attentional, cognitive,
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and motivational processes associated with the observer rather than the model. And yet, in the current view of role
modeling in educational settings, the opposite is true—heavy emphasis has been placed on the respective processes
associated with the model more than the observer (D. E. Gibson, 2004a; Morgenroth et al., 2015). Additionally, the
existing role model literature frequently hones in on the attentional and motivational processes relevant to modeling
(e.g., aspects that attract the observer to the model and the favorable or unfavorable outcomes associated with imi-
tating the model) while largely neglecting the other very relevant processes that matter for modeling according to
observational learning theory, such as the retention and motor production processes. In the following section, we
provide an overview of the current role model literature in education to highlight its preexisting disconnect from
observational learning theory and then suggest ways to integrate these two areas into a more coherent framework
for considering role modeling processes and outcomes.
3|ROLE MODELS IN EDUCATION
The majority of research investigating role models in education can be summed up in two streams: (a) identifying key
aspects of role models that make them effective, or ineffective (see Betz & Sekaquaptewa, 2012; Hurd,
Zimmerman, & Xue, 2009; Lockwood, Jordan, & Kunda, 2002), in influencing role aspirants and (b) examining the
outcomes (mostly favorable) associated with imitating the model. These streams reflect what Bandura refers to as
the “attentional”and “motivational and reinforcement”processes of modeling.
3.1 |Attentional process: Aspects of role models that “attract”role aspirants
First, an effective role model should demonstrate competence and attainable success in the desired or relevant
domain. Competence matters because role models are those who exhibit skills that others lack and are subsequently
motivated to learn from them (e.g., Kemper, 1968; Marx & Ko, 2012; Marx & Roman, 2002). For example, Marx and
Roman (2002) observed that exposure to a highly competent female role model in math tended to buffer women's
math test performance (a notably stereotypically threatening situation), as opposed to exposure to a less competent
female model in math. Additionally, a role model's accomplishments should be deemed attainable (e.g., Hoyt &
Simon, 2011; Lockwood & Kunda, 1997, 1999). Attainability is important because it influences role aspirants' expec-
tations regarding the kind of success that is possible to achieve. For instance, Lockwood and Kunda (1997) found
that freshmen in college, as compared to the seniors, were more motivated by a successful senior student's academic
achievements. The researchers reasoned that the freshmen were more motivated than their fourth year counterparts
because, with a few years still ahead of them, the role model's success seemed more attainable.
Second, an effective role model is someone that others can identify as similar or self-relevant (e.g., Lockwood &
Kunda, 1997; Marx & Ko, 2012). Perceived similarity is critical because upward social comparisons are particularly
self-enhancing when shared similarities with a superior other are highlighted (Collins, 1996, 2000). Perceived similar-
ity can be acquired from a number of sources, such as shared group membership (e.g., the same gender or race), simi-
lar past experiences, or common interests (Dasgupta, 2011; Marx & Goff, 2005; Marx, Ko, & Friedman, 2009;
Marx & Ko, 2012; O'Brien et al., 2017). For instance, Cheryan, Siy, Vichayapai, Drury, and Kim (2011) found that a
greater sense of perceived similarity engendered anticipated success in the specified field. Women who interacted
with models who seemed more similar and relatable (i.e., a model who seemed to defy his or her stereotypical role,
such as a computer scientist who dressed casually and appeared socially competent) versus those who were less sim-
ilar (i.e., a model who exemplified his or her stereotype, such as a computer scientist who dressed like a nerd and
appeared to lack interpersonal skills) increased their interest in computer science. Further, reminding women of other
women's achievements (e.g., role models) can alleviate the detrimental effects of women's mathematics stereotypes.
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For instance, McIntyre, Paulson, and Lord (2003) demonstrated that women performed significantly better on a
quantitative GRE exam when they first read biographical essays of women who succeeded in various professions.
A third aspect that is important in affecting a role model's effectiveness is how role models earn their success. It
has been suggested that people are more likely to benefit from a role model's success if the said success is attributed
to internal, controllable, and stable factors rather than success attributable to external, uncontrollable, and unstable
factors (Weiner, 1979, 1985). For example, effort, relative to inborn talent, is perceived as more controllable in the
sense that it is more subject to “volitional control”(e.g., Good, Aronson, & Inzlicht, 2003; Weiner, 1979, 1985).
Research has shown that girls performed as well as boys on a difficult math task when exposed to a hardworking role
model whose success was attributed to effort versus innate talent. Conversely, girls' performance worsened, com-
pared to boys, when exposed to a role model whose success was attributed to innate talent (Bàges, Verniers, &
3.2 |Motivational process: Outcomes associated with imitation
Another area that has received considerable attention in role model research is the examination and identification of
the outcomes (mostly favorable) for observers when models are imitated. This process most closely resembles
Bandura's “motivational process”, which is the process of reinforcing the likelihood of imitation because of the asso-
ciated favorable outcomes. That is, observers will be motivated to perform the modeled behaviors for its rewarding
outcomes. Current research identified several valued outcomes that provide such “rewards”: an enhanced sense of
belonging (e.g., Dasgupta, 2011; Rosenthal, Levy, London, Lobel, & Bazile, 2013), increased self-efficacy (Stout,
Dasgupta, Hunsinger, & McManus, 2011), and increased achievement (Lin-Siegler et al., 2016).
One valued outcome of modeling in education is that it leads to an enhanced sense of belonging, especially for
typically negative-stereotyped groups in STEM fields (e.g., women and racial minorities; Dasgupta, 2011; Steele,
1997; Williams, Phillips & Hall, 2014). Indeed, women are stereotyped as being unsuited for STEM, since STEM is
widely seen as masculine and thus incongruent with their gender role, while racist stereotypes categorize African
Americans and Latinos as intellectually inferior to European Americans (Drury, Siy, & Cheryan, 2011; Schmader &
Johns, 2003; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Steele, 1997). Thus, these groups are expected to perform poorly in STEM,
since succeeding in this intellectually rigorous, male-dominated domain is perceived as unlikely with their capabilities
(Dasgupta, 2011; Steele, 1997). However, exposure to competent, in-group role models challenges such stereotypes
for these individuals by demonstrating that people like them belong and can flourish in these seemingly inauspicious
domains (Dasgupta, 2011). In one study (Rosenthal et al., 2013), undergraduate women pursuing a premedical track
either read narratives about thriving female physicians who defied stereotypes by succeeding in a male-dominated
career or were given no reading material. Women exposed to the narratives, relative to those who were not,
reported a greater sense of belonging in their premedical track. Such favorable outcome of imitating a model
(i.e., enhanced sense of belonging) has been one emphasis of current research in modeling in education.
Another favorable outcome associated with the motivational process is increased self-efficacy among observers.
Female undergraduates were taught introductory calculus for a semester by either female or male professors (i.e., in-
group or out-group role models). To measure self-efficacy, students reported their expected course grade at the
beginning and end of the semester. Women taught by female professors reported greater self-efficacy at both time
points compared to those who were taught by male professors. Notably, female students' self-reported identification
with the female professors predicted their increased self-efficacy. Further, women taught by a female professor
demonstrated more proactive in-class participation (i.e., answering more questions asked by the professors) by the
end of the semester relative to those taught by male professors (Stout et al., 2011). Such findings indicate that con-
tact with an efficacious, in-group role model encourages women to view themselves as similarly efficacious, thus
reinforcing observers' motivations to emulate the model.
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Additionally, researchers have examined increased performance and achievement. One set of studies utilized
famous scientists (i.e., role models) to show students that they can similarly succeed in STEM by working hard to
overcome the inevitable academic obstacles in one's educational career (Lin-Siegler et al., 2016). In this work, high
school students read narratives that highlighted either how famous scientists overcame their struggles and
succeeded or narratives that solely emphasized the scientists' achievements. The researchers observed that students
who read the former experienced improved science class performance relative to those who only read about the sci-
entists' achievements. In other words, vicarious reinforcement (i.e., learning by observing how others succeed
through hard work and failures) increased students' own performance.
Research also highlights how two processes (e.g., the attentional and motivational processes) can coexist or co-
occur. For instance, Bàges, Verniers, and Martinot (2016) demonstrated that depicting how role models earn their
success is an aspect that strongly impacts a role aspirant's performance, which speaks to a combination of both
attentional and motivational processes. Relatedly, Shapiro, Williams, and Hambarchyan (2013) found that exposure
to a successful Black role model, relative to exposure to a White role model, acted as a buffer for Black students
against the negative effects of an induced group stereotype threat, as evidenced by increased performance on a
GRE-like exam. These findings display a combination of the attentional and motivational processes.
In sum, most of the role model research in education has focused primarily on two processes crucial to modeling:
(a) the attentional processes and (b) the motivational processes. However, what is most notably missing are the other
two processes of modeling: the retention (encoding of role models' actions) and motor reproduction processes
(behavioral replication of role models' actions). In the following section, we consider this gap between what has been
theorized and constructed in early modeling and what has and is being targeted in the current role model literature.
We then explore and provide recommendations to potentially bridge the gap between these areas.
4|BRIDGING THE GAP AND RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE
Although Bandura acknowledges that the retention process is “one that has virtually been ignored in theories of imi-
tation”(Bandura, 1972, p. 41), he writes about it considerably, even detailing the various components that are
involved in the process of symbolically representing the model's behavior in the mind of the observer. In order for
observers to reproduce the modeled behavior, the observer should retain the model's “observational inputs in some
symbolic form”(Bandura, 1972, p. 43). Observers need to actively code and organize (through both imaginal and ver-
bal representations) the model's behavioral outputs into more readily accessible and memorable templates that will
ultimately guide the observer for subsequent response reproduction (Schunk, 2012; Renkl, 2014). According to
Bandura, this process, of the observer cognitively coding and internalizing the modeled behavior, is precisely how
observational learning should be better understood, rather than solely emphasizing the observers' ability to enact the
sequences of the model's behavior. Bandura and colleagues stressed the importance of symbolic coding in the acqui-
sition and retention of modeled behavior in several studies. They demonstrated that children who verbally coded the
modeled behaviors of the model tended to reproduce more matching responses than those who were not encour-
aged to verbally code (Bandura, Grusec, & Menlove, 1966; see also Gerst, 1971). More explicitly, “coders,”or those
who were asked to learn each modeled activity by dividing it into its individual components, were better at
reconstructing the modeled behavior than “noncoders,”or those who were left to their own devices to learn the
modeled activity (Bandura & Jeffrey, 1973).
Two, more recent sets of studies also explicate how “coders,”relative to “noncoders,”are better at retaining,
and ultimately reproducing, previously modeled behavior. Yi and Davis (2003) directly tested Bandura's theory by
examining whether incorporating symbolic coding into a role modeling-based training intervention enhanced partici-
pants' computer skill learning via facilitation of the retention process. Participants enrolled in a computer training
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workshop series in which an actor modeled the exact steps needed to enact a target computer skill. After watching
this modeled behavior, “coder”participants were instructed to write out key, summarizing points from the videos
and reread their summaries while visualizing themselves act out the summarized (i.e., verbally coded) behaviors as
many times as possible within 5 min. “Noncoder”participants skipped this step. All participants then practiced the
modeled behavior before completing a measure of observational learning and a series of knowledge and perfor-
mance tests. Results indicate that the retention enhancement activities improved participants' computer learning
and skill acquisition by strengthening the retention process. In the second set of studies, Davis and Yi (2004) repli-
cated these findings, further demonstrating that the incorporation of symbolic coding into role modeling
interventions strengthens the latter's effects on learning and computer task performance. Such evidence suggests
that this internalized, cognitive process of initial coding, storing, rehearsing, and ultimately retrieving from memory
what the observer symbolically represented in their mind about the model's behavior is crucial for observational
learning. Despite some empirical indication of this process, it is, for the most part, lacking in the current role model
Another process of modeling that has not received much attention is the motor reproduction process, which
“involves the use of symbolic representations of modeled patterns to guide overt performances”(Bandura, 1972,
p. 47). It is the process where the observer attempts to externally and behaviorally reproduce the model's behavior
as guided by the symbolic representations the observer internalized. To illustrate, imagine an observer (e.g., a female
student) is exposed to a role model's (e.g., a female scientist) narrative/biography. In this narrative, the student learns
how the female scientist struggled and failed on her route to eventual success. The student learns about the difficul-
ties that the scientist encountered, the actions taken to overcome, and the accomplishments that the scientist
achieved. By proceduralizing the path to success, the student can encode a behavioral script that she can follow
when she encounters similar difficulties and allows her to reproduce those actions since they have been specified by
the model. For instance, the script might detail how the female role model, during her time a as a student, sought out
her class's teaching assistant after doing poorly on a test and asked for help with identifying her areas of weakness
and, together, created an individualized problem set for her to practice with and thus strengthen her learning
Importantly, the various component processes should be associated with distinct outcomes in education
(i.e., learning vs. performance/achievement). Learning is defined as “relatively permanent changes in comprehension,
understanding, and sets of acquired skills that will support long-term retention and transfer,”whereas achievement or
performance refers to the “temporary fluctuations in behavior or knowledge that can be observed and measured dur-
ing or immediately after the acquisition process”(Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015). Thus, we interpret the retention and
motor reproduction processes as associated with learning. These processes involve a highly cognitive component
that enables observers to imitate the model by via a feedback loop in which the observer adjusts and adapts their
behavior based on what was internalized. Notably, an internal feedback loop is crucial for learning (Narciss, 2008).
On the other hand, the motivational process is associated with achievement/performance since this process empha-
sizes the tangible, favorable outcomes upon imitation that reinforces role modeling.
In sum, the current role model research heavily emphasizes the “achievement”outcome for students, or the
motivational process, rather than the learning outcome (e.g., retention and reproduction processes). However,
there are simple experimental techniques that can be applied in future research to ensure that observers (or role
aspirants) are indeed retaining and reproducing the model's behaviors. For instance, researchers can increase the
dosage of role model exposure. It is typical in role model literature, particularly for lab studies, that role aspirants
tend to be exposed to role models in brief and limited ways. Indeed, role aspirants tend to view a profile of the
role model (Pietri et al., 2018), or a single-paged resume of the role model (Marx & Ko, 2012), or read brief biog-
raphies or struggle narratives of the role model (e.g., Hong & Lin-Siegler, 2012; Lin-Siegler et al., 2016;
Lockwood & Kunda, 1997; Rosenthal et al., 2013; Shin, Levy, & London, 2016). However, it is worth considering
whether these types of exposure are truly enough for role aspirants to be able to retain and process key and
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relevant components about the model. Research has suggested that increased/extensive exposure to role models
may produce better role modeling outcomes. For example, Asgari, Dasgupta, and Cote (2010) showed that fre-
quent contact, in terms of both quality (i.e., support from faculty) and quantity, with female faculty predicted
greater in-class participation among female college students such that those students were more assertive in
intellectual settings (i.e., classrooms). Thus, aside from doing a quick manipulation check that role aspirants have
basic memory recall of the role model, researchers should delve into what role aspirants internalize and retain
about the role model to ultimately enact the modeled behaviors. Future research should focus on either doing
more extensive testing (e.g., involving more cognitive tests) to see what role aspirants internalize from the model
exposure or increase the dosage of role model exposure (by repeated or prolonged exposure) to enhance the
opportunity for retention processing.
On this note, the motor reproduction process suggests an internal feedback loop in which the observer recur-
sively adjusts and adapts their behavior based on what they internalized about the model's behavior. This internal-
ized process, of reproducing the model's behavior, is less emphasized in the current role model literature.
Conversely, the majority of empirical research has disproportionally focused on depicting the success of role models
(e.g., what they have achieved), rather than the actions taken to succeed. A detailed behavioral script—“a procedural
knowledge structure or schema for understanding and enacting behavior”(Manz & Sims, 1981, p. 527)—is important
because the intrapersonal interpretation and imitation of role models' behavioral scripts are fundamental to vicarious
learning (e.g., Gioia & Manz, 1985; Manz & Sims, 1981). Based on the recall of those scripts, observers can structure
expectations about the necessary/appropriate steps to be taken to accomplish goals and about the likely subsequent
consequences that will result from their actions. However, presentation of such behavioral scripts or proceduralizing
the model's behavior is less emphasized in the extant empirical role model research (with the exception of some,
e.g., Hong & Lin-Siegler, 2012; Lin-Siegler et al., 2016). Going forward, researchers can improve in this regard by
decomposing the model's behavioral process, making it externally accessible and explicit to role aspirants, and also
paying more attention to the behavioral sequences of the role aspirants.
Finally, though Bandura exerted much effort detailing the observer or role aspirants' cognitive and motivational
process, the current literature on role models in education tend to place less emphasis in that regard. Of course,
there is some research that has investigated the role aspirants' processes (e.g., the effects of role aspirants' self-
esteem on imitative behavior, see Weiss, 1977, and cultural differences in role aspirants affect role model choices,
see Lockwood, Marshall, and Sadler, 2005). However, the span of work does not parallel Bandura's emphasis of its
importance to the modeling process and outcome. For instance, assessing the dynamic and mutual processes of how
an observer externalizes a model's behavioral sequence (as well as how the former internalizes, cognitively processes,
and registers such behavioral sequences before subsequently reproducing such behaviors) is entirely lacking in the
current investigations. More research should further consider the process of imitative learning and behavior for role
The extant role model literature in the context of education covers a wide range of topics in depth, such as modeling
mechanisms and outcomes, but tends to neglect crucial social-cognitive processes that prove useful in providing fur-
ther insights. Drawing heavily upon social learning or observational theory (Bandura, 1965, 1969, 1977), we incorpo-
rate both the attentional, cognitive, and motivational processes of role models, as well as these same processes
associated with role aspirants, to provide a more comprehensive and integrated understanding of role models in edu-
cation. We argue that linking these two bodies of literature can generate new research questions that better under-
stand the dynamics of the role modeling process and thus yield greater benefits for role aspirants.
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This research was supported (in part) by a Summer Stipend from the Research Center for the Humanities and Social
Sciences at William Paterson University.
Janet N. Ahn https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3266-9684
The term “observer”has been used in observational learning theory to refer to the person who watches and observes the
model. In research on role models in education, those who observe models have been referred to as “role aspirants”—in
this manuscript, we use these two terms interchangeably.
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Dr. Janet N. Ahn is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at William Paterson University and the Director of the
Motivation and Innovation (M+I) Lab. She received her BA in Psychology from Barnard College, Columbia Uni-
versity and completed her PhD in Social Psychology from New York University. She has also completed a post-
doctoral fellowship at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research investigates human goal pursuit and
motivation. She has examined how people's goal pursuit is affected by what they infer about others' goals (via
projection) and what they believe about others based on their attributes (via transference and stereotyping). She
currently investigates interventions to increase students' motivation and persistence in STEM fields as well as
developing innovative technological tools to increase student retention in college. She has published in more
than a dozen journals including recent publications on gendered distributions of mental labor in heterosexual
relationships (Motivation Science, 2019) and self-assessment interventions in physics learning for high school stu-
dents (Educational Psychology, 2019). Additionally, her work has been featured in various media outlets such as
Women's Health Magazine, NPR, American Educator, the Business Insider, CBS, and USA Today.
Danfei Hu is a third year PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University.
She obtained her MA in Cognitive Science and MS in Applied Statistics from Teachers College, Columbia Univer-
sity prior coming to Penn State. Danfei is broadly interested in the cognitive and motivational components of
emotional processing and emotion regulation. She is also interested in questions related to how stigmatized
group members are influenced by the stereotypes that they face.
Melissa Vega is a second year master's student in the General Psychology MA Program at New York University.
She graduated from Northwestern University in 2015 with a BA in Psychology and a minor in Gender Studies.
Prior to studying at NYU, she was the lab manager for the Education for Persistence and Innovation Center
(EPIC), an interdisciplinary research center at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is interested in the
influence of sociocultural group stereotypes on individuals' attitudes towards diversity and perceptions of threat
and discrimination. She is also interested in the environmental cues that aggravate gender and racial imbalances
in academic and organizational settings.
How to cite this article: Ahn JN, Hu D, Vega M. “Do as I do, not as I say”: Using social learning theory to
unpack the impact of role models on students' outcomes in education. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2019;
12 of 12 AHN ET AL.