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Unit 1.1 Introduction to Learning Theories


American Psychologist E.L. Thorndike (1874-1949) propagated famous theory of learning which laid the foundation for further research in field of learning theories. Principles of trial and error theory were propagated by him after a series of experiments conducted on a cat.

Thorndike prepared a box with only one door. A latch connected to door, when correctly pressed led to opening of door. A hungry cat was placed inside box and fish in the form of food was kept outside the box. To eat fish, cat performed various frantic acts in the box. In this pursuit suddenly the latch of door got pressed by its claws leading to opening of door, and cat come out of box to eat fish.

Repetition of this experiment led the cat to learn the way of opening door and cat came out of the box as soon as it was made to enter in it.

Thorndike stated that stimulus (hunger) to obtain food lead cat to achieve desired goal (fish). Repetitive efforts of cat helped it in learning the correct ways of opening the door. With each attempt of cat to come out of box, the time to reach goal was minimized and mistakes were lessened. Proper connection between stimulus and response was established ultimately leading to learning.

On the basis of this experiment, three laws of learning were formed:

  1. The Law of readiness: States learning can not take place in absence of willingness or readiness. The cat learnt to open the latch as it was willing to reach the goal.
  2. Law of exercise: According to this law S-R bonding (Stimulus Response) gets strengthened by practice/drill and absence of practice may weaken it. Cat learned to open the latch after repetitive efforts.
  3. Law of effect: States that strength of S-R bonding depends on reward obtained at the end of learning. Pleasing experience/reward leads to strengthening of S-R connection while unpleasing or unattractive experiences lead to weakening. S-R bonding in cat became strong for reward it was getting at the end of each act.

Thorndike revised his laws of exercise and effect after more researches on theory of trial and error. He concluded that mechanical repetition of task or its absence has no bearing on learning or forgetting of task. He further added that it was essential that reward or incentive reinforced S-R bonding but pain or punishment not necessarily weakened it.

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