5 January 2015

E.L Thorndike- Trial and Error Theory of Learning

CTET 2015 Exam Notes : Child Development and Pedagogy (CDP) 


A learning theory is an attempt to describe how people and animals learn, thereby helping us understand the inherently complex process of learning. Learning theories have two chief values according to Hill (2002). One is in providing us with vocabulary and a conceptual framework for interpreting the examples of learning that we observe. The other is in suggesting where to look for solutions to practical problems. The theories do not give us solutions, but they do direct our attention to those variables that are crucial in finding solutions.
The three main categories or philosophical frameworks under which learning theories fall are behavioural, cognitive, and constructivism. Behaviourism focuses only on the objectively observable aspects of learning. Cognitive theories look beyond behaviour to explain brain-based learning. In addition, constructivism views learning as a process in which the learner actively constructs or builds new ideas or concepts.
Now we will discuss theory of behaviorism of  E.L Thorndike- Trial and Error Theory of Learning.

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 behaviour 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.

THEORIES OF LEARNING, E.L Thorndike- Trial and Error Theory of Learning, The Laws of Thorndike, PAVLOV’s CLASSICAL CONDITIONING (1849-1936), B.F. Skinner Theory of Instrumental or Operant Conditioning, CDP Notes, CTET 2015 Exam Notes, Child Development & Pedagogy Study Material

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 behaviour 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.

The Laws of Thorndike

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 dictum 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 :

For a conduction unit ready to conduct, to conduct is satisfying.
For  a  conduction  unit  ready  to  conduct,  not  to  conduct  is annoying.
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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

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