Trial and Error Theory of Learning and its Educational Implications

Edward Lee Thorndike (born August 31, 1874 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, U.S.-died August 9, 1949 in Montrose, New York), American psychologist whose study on animal behaviour and the learning process led to the idea of connectionism, which claims that behavioural reactions to specific stimuli are developed by a trial and error process that alters brain connections between the stimuli and the most pleasing responses.

Trial and error is based on random activities to accomplish a goal. Thorndike’s animal experiments demonstrated that learning is a mechanical process of linking responses to stimuli. There is no awareness, thinking, reasoning, or comprehension. The animal’s responses are mechanical. Replies that result in a reward are taught; responses that do not result in a reward are not learned. The animal lacks the ability to comprehend, think, and reason. Through trial and error, the animal learns mechanically.

According to Thorndike, at the beginning, we make wrong movements and commit errors. As we go through a series of practice trials, errors are reduced and responses are mastered. The gradual reduction of errors over trials gives the name, trial-and-error form of learning.

Thorndike’s Experiment on Cat

His famous experiment examined trial-and-error learning using a hungry cat as the subject, a piece of fish as the prize, and a puzzle box as the tool.

A hungry cat was placed inside the puzzle box for this standard experiment, while a piece of fish was kept outside the box. Unless the door was opened, the cat could not get to the fish. The experimenter asked the cat to carry out a straightforward activity in order to get out of the box. The door could only be opened by the cat pulling a loop or pulling a lever. The cat was able to escape after the door was unlocked and receive the fish as reward.

First test: A hungry cat is put inside the box. Fish kept outside serve as a motivation. Cat started acting erratically to acquire food. Cat squeezes through gaps, paws through openings, and claws and chews at wire bars. Before the cat accidentally came up with the right response, all the extraneous responses went on for several minutes. The hungry cat emerged and was rewarded with a fish.

Second Trial: A hungry cat is placed in a puzzle box in the second trial. Keeping fish outside of the enclosure served as motivation. The cat once more made erratic moves to escape the enclosure. But the cat emerged from the box more quickly.

Response latency (time to draw the loop) decreased as the number of trials increased. As the number of trials grew, the cat’s incorrect replies (errors) similarly dropped. The cat eventually mastered the technique. When it was placed in the box, it immediately tugged the loop to free itself and receive a well-earned prize. Trial-and-error learning got its name because mistakes were smaller as more trials were conducted. The cat corrected its mistakes.

Laws of Learning

  • Laws of Learning: Based on experiments Thorndike Suggested certain laws which governed human learning. The primary laws suggested are the law of readiness, exercise and effect.
  • Law of Readiness: According to this law, learning only occurs when a person is ready to learn. If a youngster is not ready to learn, no amount of effort will make them learn. This concept fits in perfectly with the saying, “You can bring a horse to the pond, but you can’t make it drink water until it is thirsty.” To put it another way, a youngster who is ready to learn learns more quickly, effectively, and with greater satisfaction than a child who is not. The Law of Readiness, therefore, refers to the mental process of action readiness. The goal is not to push a young child who is not ready to learn. Failure to learn is the effect of pressuring a person to learn when they are not ready.
  • Law of Exercise: The function of practice in learning is described by this rule. This law states that practice or exercise makes learning more effective. The proverb “Practice makes perfect” well describes this law. The law is further divided into the laws of use and disuse. According to the rule of usage, a stimulus and reaction are more strongly linked when they occur, are used, or both. In other words, using any reaction makes it stronger, quicker, simpler, and more definite. According to the rule of disuse, the strength of a link between a stimulus and a response that may be modified weakens over time when it is not created. This implies that any act that is not consistently practised progressively deteriorates. Anything that goes a particular amount of time without being utilised, trained, or practised tends to be forgotten or loses strength, efficiency, or promptness.
  • Law of Effect: The most crucial of Thorndike’s rules is that a connection between stimulus and reaction becomes stronger when it is accompanied by a pleasing condition. On the other side, a connection’s power is diminished or weakened when it is accompanied by an uncomfortable circumstance. Nothing succeeds like success, according to the adage, and this law is no exception. In other words, replies that make a student feel satisfied or comfortable are reinforced, but those that make a learner feel annoyed or uncomfortable are diminished. In his 1930 modification of this concept, Thorndike noted that rewards reinforced responses but that punishment did not necessarily result in a weaker one. Then he placed more emphasis on the reward aspect than on the punishment aspect of the Law of Effect.

Educational Implications of the trial and error theory

  • According to this principle, the work might be approached from the easiest to the most difficult side. This method will aid the less fortunate and backward youngsters.
  • A tiny kid learns some abilities, such as sitting, standing, walking, and running, solely via trial and error. In teaching, the child also corrects his or her writing after making mistakes.
  • This philosophy places a greater focus on motivation. Thus, before beginning to teach in the classroom, pupils must be appropriately motivated.
  • Man matures via practice. The essential characteristic of the trial-and-error approach is practice. Practice aids in the reduction of mistakes made by the youngster when learning any idea.
  • Habits are created by repetition. With the aid of this approach, children’s bad behaviours may be changed and their positive ones strengthened.
  • The impacts of incentives and punishment can have an impact on the child’s learning. Thus, the approach emphasises the teacher’s use of reward and punishment in the classroom.
  • The hypothesis might be very useful in modifying the behaviour of delinquent youngsters. The instructor should apply this philosophy to treat such pupils.
  • The instructor can use this idea to regulate the children’s negative emotions such as rage, envy, and so on.
  • Using this approach, the instructor can improve his teaching methods. He must monitor the effects of his teaching methods on the pupils and should not be afraid to make modifications if necessary.
  • The theory emphasises oral drill practice more. As a result, a teacher should do oral drills on the topics covered in class. This aids in furthering the learning.