Thorndike’s trial and error theory B.Ed notes | Thorndike Experiment

Thorndike’s trial and error theory


Behaviorism is a psychological perspective that focuses on comprehending the actions of both humans and other animals. This approach is distinctly centered on the examination of observable stimulus-response behaviors. According to behaviorism, the entirety of human and animal behaviors is acquired through direct interactions with the surrounding environment, rather than being predetermined by genetic factors or heredity.

Edward Lee Thorndike

Edward Lee Thorndike (August 31, 1874 – August 9, 1949) was an American psychologist

Thorndike created a theory of learning based on his research with animals.

Thorndike studied learning in animals.  He devised a classic experiment in which he used a puzzle box to empirically test the laws of learning.

Thorndike’s trial and error theory

Thorndike propounded this theory in 1898 and was published in 1913.

According to this theory if an organism is kept in a new situation, it shows different kinds of faulty responses.

When that being is repeatedly kept in that situation, its error in responses keep decreasing. ¢After putting the being through a number of trials repeatedly a situation is reached when there is no error in the responses.

Skinner’s Experiment

Thorndike Experiment

Thorndike has expounded his theory of trial and error on the basis of experimental studies on rats, cats, monkeys, chicken, fishes etc. His experiment on cats were widely acknowledged.

He prepared a puzzle box of iron bars with only one door that could be opened by pressing a lever. He put a hungry cat in the puzzle box with the door closed. A fish was placed outside the box.The cat could eat the fish only if it could get out of the puzzle box.

The door of the box could be opened only by manipulating the lever. The fish was a stimulus for the cat. ¢The cat could see the fish but did not know how to get out of the puzzle box. The cat reacted in a variety of ways to come out of the box.

It jumped, it scratched and pushed the door, it tried to rip the lever with its teeth. However after severel attempts it managed to open the door.Thorndnike repeated the same process several times.

The cat was kept hungry inside the box. It repeated the same random efforts to come out of the box. Gradually and by repeated attempts it came to learn that the key to open the door is near the level.

During the experimentation it was observed that the cat stopped making incorrect responses. Finally it came to realize that the door opened when the lever was pressed.

Now when the cat was kept hungry it simply came out by pressing the lever and ate the fish.

Essential elements of Thorndike’s theory

  1. Definite Goals:
    • Learning requires specific and well-defined goals.
    • Goals provide direction and purpose to the learning process, guiding individuals in their efforts to achieve desired outcomes.
  2. Motivation:
    • Motivation plays a crucial role in the learning process.
    • Motivation is derived from necessity and serves as the driving force that inspires individuals to work toward the achievement of their goals.
  3. Obstacle Encounter:
    • Individuals face obstacles or challenges while striving to achieve their goals.
    • Overcoming obstacles is integral to the learning process. Individuals develop problem-solving skills and resilience as they navigate challenges.
  4. Various Responses:
    • The achievement of a goal triggers various responses, which can include unsuccessful, meaningless, or unsuccessful actions.
    • Even unsuccessful responses contribute indirectly to achieving goals by providing insights and learning experiences.
  5. Chance Success:
    • Amidst various unsuccessful responses, there are chance successful responses.
    • Some responses, though initially by chance, prove successful. This element recognizes the role of trial and error in the learning process.
  6. Elimination of Unsuccessful Responses:
    • Through the learning process, unsuccessful responses are gradually eliminated.
    • Eliminating unsuccessful responses is a part of refining and optimizing behavior, focusing on more effective strategies.
  7. Establishment of Right Responses:
    • Correct or effective responses are established through the learning process.
    • Learning involves the identification and reinforcement of behaviors that lead to successful goal achievement.
  8. Achievement of Goal:
    • The ultimate outcome of the learning process is the successful achievement of the set goal.
    • The culmination of learning is the attainment of the specified objective, reinforcing the connection between actions and outcomes.

Educational implications of Thorndike’s theory

  1. Setting Goals:
    • Thorndike’s theory suggests that having clear goals enhances motivation and directs efforts toward achievement.
    • Educators should help students set specific, achievable goals, fostering a sense of purpose and motivation in their learning journey.
  2. Motivating the Students:
    • Motivation is a key factor in learning according to Thorndike.
    • Teachers can enhance motivation by setting goals, providing rewards for accomplishments, and implementing appropriate consequences for certain behaviors.
  3. Gradual and Systematic Learning:
    • Thorndike’s theory emphasizes that learning is a gradual and systematic process.
    • Students should not be pressured to learn quickly. Instead, educators should recognize the importance of allowing students the time and practice needed to master concepts.
  4. From Easy to Difficult:
    • Thorndike suggests progressing from simple to complex tasks.
    • Teachers should structure lessons in a way that introduces simpler concepts first, gradually building up to more complex topics to support effective learning progression.
  5. Emphasis on Exercise:
    • Thorndike’s theory highlights the importance of exercise and practice in the learning process.
    • Teachers should incorporate hands-on activities, exercises, and practical applications to reinforce learning through trial and error.
  6. Useful for Mentally Retarded Students:
    • Thorndike’s theory suggests that mentally retarded students can benefit from gradual learning through trial and error.
    • Educators working with mentally retarded students should employ patient, incremental teaching methods, allowing for repeated practice and reinforcement.
  7. Development of Positive Attitudes:
    • Thorndike’s theory implies that successful learning experiences contribute to positive attitudes.
    • Teachers should create an environment that fosters positive attitudes by recognizing and reinforcing students’ achievements, promoting a sense of accomplishment.
  8. Development of Skills:
    • Thorndike’s theory emphasizes the acquisition of skills through practice and exercise.
    • Teachers should design lessons and activities that focus on skill development, providing opportunities for students to apply and refine their abilities.
  9. Self-Learning:
    • Thorndike’s theory suggests that individuals can learn through trial and error.
    • Encouraging self-learning, where students take an active role in exploring and discovering concepts, aligns with Thorndike’s emphasis on learning through experience.

Limitations of Trial and Error Theory

Energy consuming ¢The theory requires a good deal of energy because transfer of learning is minimum under trial and error.

Random efforts ¢It is not desirable to do random efforts because doing anything without insight is meaningless. The theory ignores the role of understanding, experience, and insight in learning.

Emphasis on rote learning ¢The theory over-emphasises the role of rote learning.

Not much useful for bright students ¢The theory may be useful for less intelligent and backward students but not much useful for bright and intelligent students.

Not much useful for higher classes ¢The theory is useful in case of students of lower classes, but for students of higher classes, the theory does not provide much guidance.

Laws of Learning from Thorndike’s theory

On the basis of experiments Thorndike gave some laws of learning

Primary Laws

Law of Readiness ¢This law states that learning can only take place when a student is ready to learn. When students feel ready, they learn more effectively and with greater satisfaction.

Law of Exercise ¢The more a person practices something, the better he or she is able to retain that knowledge.   ¢It is further divided into ¢Law of Use ¢Law of Disuse

Law of Effect ¢Learning is strengthened when associated with a pleasant or satisfying feeling. Learning is more likely to happen again in the future and it is weakened when associated with an unpleasant feeling,

Secondary Laws

Law of Multiple Response ¢Confronted with a new situation the organism responds in a variety of ways arriving at the correct response.

Law of Mental Set or Attitude ¢The learner performs the task well if he has his attitude set in the task.

Law of Partial activity ¢In trial and error process an individual selects the correct responses and leaves the unnecessary ones.

 This law states that teaching should be done in parts. It is more true in the case of children’s education.

Law of Analogy and assimilation ¢The organism makes responses by comparison or analogy and assimilation. A new situation provokes similar responses in an individual that he had made earlier in similar situations and had met with success

Law of Associative Shifting ¢According to this law we can get any response, from the learner of which he is capable, associated with any situation to which he is sensitive.

Law of Primacy Primacy, the 1st impression is the last impression . It creates a strong, almost unshakable impression and underlies the reason an instructor must teach correctly the first time and the student must learn correctly the first time.

Law of Recency The principle of recency states that things most recently learned are best remembered.

Law of belongingness This law tells if the answer is relevent to situation  then this can be memorized very rapidly.

Law of Intensity of stimulus : According to this law if the stimulus is intense, his response would also be intense

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