E.L Thorndike- Trial and Error Theory of Learning


Traditional theories of learning

Q. E.L Thorndike- Trial and Error Theory of Learning

Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) was the first American psychologist who put forward the Trial and Error Theory of learning.

According to Thorndike

“All learning takes place because of formation of bond or connection between stimulus and response.”.

He further says that learning takes place through a process of approximation and correction.

A person makes a number of trials, some responses do not give satisfaction to the individual but he goes on making further trials until he gets satisfactory responses.

Thorndike conducted a number of experiments on animals to explain the process of learning.

His most widely quoted experiment is with a cat placed in a puzzle box.

Thorndike put a hungry cat in a puzzle box. The box had one door, which could be opened by manipulating a latch of the door. A fish was placed outside the box. The cat being hungry had the motivation of eating fish outside the box.

However, the obstacle was the latch on the door. The cat made random movements inside the box indicating trial and error type of behavior biting at the box, scratching the box, walking around, pulling and jumping etc. to come out to get the food.

Now in the course of her movements, the latch was manipulated accidently and the cat came out to get the food. Over a series of successive trials, the cat took shorter and shorter time, committed less number of errors, and was in a position to manipulate the latch as soon as it was put in the box and learnt the art of opening the door.

Thorndike concluded that it was only after many random trials that the cat was able to hit upon the solutions. He named it as Trial and Error Learning.

An analysis of the learning behavior of the cat in the box shows that besides trial and error the principles of goal, motivation, explanation and reinforcement are involved in the process of learning by Trial and Error.

Laws of Learning

Based on Trial and Error Learning Theory, Thorndike gave certain laws of Learning. We shall discuss three fundamental Laws of Learning in this section. These laws are:.

  1. Law of Readiness

This law refers to the fact that learning takes place only when the learner is prepared to learn.

No amount of efforts can make the child learn if the child is not ready to learn.

The saying that ‘you can lead a horse to the pond but you can’t make it drink water unless it feels thirsty’ goes very well with this law.

In other words, if the child is ready to learn, he/she learns more quickly, effectively and with greater satisfaction than if he/she is not ready to learn.

In the words of Thorndike the three stages of this Law of Readiness are

(i) For a conduction unit ready to conduct, to conduct is satisfying.

(ii) For a conduction unit ready to conduct, not to conduct is annoying.

(iii) For a conduction unit not ready to conduct, to conduct is annoying.

Thus, the Law of Readiness means mental preparation for action.

It is not to force the child to learn if he is not ready.

Learning failures are the result of forcing the learner to learn when he is not ready to learn something.

Educational implications of Law of  Readiness

The law draws the attention of teacher to the motivation of the child.

The teacher must consider the psycho-biological readiness of the students to ensure successful learning experiences.

Curriculum / Learning experiences should be according to the mental level of maturity of the child.

If this is not so, there will be poor comprehension and readiness may vanish.

  1. Law of Exercise

This law explains the role of practice in learning.

According to this law, learning becomes efficient through practice or exercise.

The dictum ‘Practice makes a man perfect’ goes very well with this law.

This law is further split into two parts — Law of use and Law of disuse.

The law of use means that a connection between a stimulus and response is strengthened by its occurrence, its exercise or its use. In other words, the use of any response strengthens it, and makes it more prompt, easy and certain.

Regarding the law of disuse, it is said that when a modifiable connection is not made between a stimulus and a response over a length of time, the strength of that connection is decreased.

This means that any act that is not practiced for some time gradually decays.

Anything that is not used exercised or practiced for a certain period tends to be forgotten or becomes weak in strength, efficiency and promptness.

Educational implications

Exercise occupies an important place in learning.

Teacher must repeat, give sufficient drill in some subjects like mathematics, drawing, music or vocabulary for fixing material in the minds of the students.

Thorndike later revised this law of exercise and accordingly it is accepted that practice does bring improvement in learning but it in itself is not sufficient.

Always practice must be followed by some reward or satisfaction to the learner. The learner must be motivated to learn.

  1. Law of Effect

This is most important of Thorndike’s laws, which state that when a connection between stimulus and response is accompanied by satisfying state, its strength is increased.

On the other hand, when a connection is accompanied by an annoying state of affairs, its strength is reduced or weakened.

The saying ‘nothing succeeds like success’ goes very well with this law.

In other words, the responses that produce satisfaction or comfort for the learner are strengthened and responses that produce annoyance or discomfort for the learner are weakened.

Thorndike revised this law in 1930 and according to this revision, he stated that reward strengthened the response but punishment did not always weaken the response.

Then he placed more emphasis on the reward aspect than on the punishment aspect of Law of Effect.

Educational Implications.

This law signifies the use of reinforcement or feedback in learning.

This implies that learning trials must be associated with satisfying consequences.

The teacher can use rewards to strengthen certain responses and punishment to weaken others.

However, the use of reward is more desirable than the use of punishment in school learning.

The teacher for motivating the students for learning situations can exploit the use of reward.

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