In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Meaning of Thorndike’s Trial and Error Theory 2. Experimental Evidences of Thorndike’s Trial and Error Theory 3. Educational Implications 4. Some Objections.
Meaning of Thorndike’s Trial and Error Theory:
Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949) is generally considered to have been the foremost educational psychologist not only of the United States but of the world. He contributed to research and theory in the field of learning and genetic psychology, testing and social psychology, testing and social psychology.
Thorndike first stated the elements of his theory of learning in 1913 that connections are formed in the nervous system between stimuli and response. These connections formed are illustrated by the symbols S-R. Another word used to describe these connections is the word ‘bond’ and hence,’ this theory is sometimes called a ‘Bond Theory of learning’. Thorndike has written- “Learning is connecting. The mind is man’s connection system.”
According to Thorndike learning takes place by trial and error. Some people call it, “Learning by selection of the successful variant,” accordingly when no ready-made solution of a problem is available to the learner, he adopts the method of trial and error. He first, tries one solution. If it does not help him, he rejects it, then, he tries another and so on. In this way he eliminates errors or irrelevant responses which do not serve the purpose and finally discovers the correct solution.
Thus, in trial and error method, the learner makes random activities and finally reaches the goal accidently. Here, one thing should be remembered that in trial and error also, there are often systematic and relevant responses. Activities are not wholly random. All these activities, though apparently random are suggested to him by the situation and the learner proceeds on accordingly. The stages through which the learner has to pass are Goal, Block (hinderances), Random Movements or multiple response, chance success, selection and Fixation.
When and how the connection is accomplished was stated first in the following three laws:
1. Law or Readiness:
First primary law of learning, according to him, is the ‘Law or Readiness’ or the ‘Law of Action Tendency’, which means that learning takes place when an action tendency’ is aroused through preparatory adjustment, set or attitude. Readiness means a preparation for action. If one is not prepared to learn, learning cannot be automatically instilled in him, for example, unless the typist, in order to learn typing prepares himself to start, he would not make much progress in a lethargic and unprepared manner.
2. Law of Exercise:
The second law of learning is the ‘Law of Exercise’, which means that drill, or practice helps in increasing efficiency and durability of learning and according to Thorndike’s S-R Bond Theory, the connections are strengthened with trail or practice and the connections are weakened when trial or practice is discontinued.
The ‘law of exercise’, therefore, is also understood as the ‘law of use and disuse’ in which case connections or bonds made in the brain cortex are weakened or loosened. Many examples of this are found in case of human learning. Learning to drive a motor-car, typewriting, singing or memorizing a poem or a mathematical table, and music etc. need exercise and repetition of various movements and actions May times.
3. Law of Effect:
The third law is the ‘Law of Effect’, according to which the trial or steps leading to satisfaction stamps in the bond or connection. Satisfying states lead to consolidation and strengthening of the connection, whereas dis-satisfaction, annoyance or pain leads to the weakening or stamping out of the connections.
In fact, the ‘law or effect’ signifies that if the responses satisfy the subject, they are learnt and selected. While those which are not satisfying are eliminated. Teaching, therefore, must be pleasing. The educator must obey the tastes and interests of his pupils. In other words, greater the satisfaction stronger will be the motive to learn. Thus, intensity is an important condition of the ‘law of effect’.
Besides these three basic laws, Thorndike also refers to five sub-ordinate laws which further help to explain the learning process.
1. Law of Multiple-Response:
According to it the organism varies or changes its responses till an appropriate behaviour is hit upon. Without varying the responses, the correct response for the solution might never be elicited. If the individual wants to solve a puzzle, he is trying in different ways rather than mechanically persisting in the same way. Thorndike’s cat in the puzzle box moved about and tried many ways to come out till finally it hit the latch with her paw which opened the door and it jumped out.
2. The Law of Set or Attitude:
Learning is guided by a total set or attitude of the organism, which determines not only what the person will do but what will satisfy or annoy him. For instance, unless the cricketer sets himself to make a century, he will not be able to score more runs. A student, similarly, unless he sets to get first position and has the attitude of being at the top, would while away the time and would not learn much. Hence, learning is affected more in the individual if he is set to learn more or to excel.
3. Pre-Potency of Elements:
According to this law, the learner reacts selectively to the important or essential element in the situation and neglects the other features or elements which may be irrelevant or non-essential. The ability to deal with the essential or the relevant part of the situation makes analytical and insightful learning possible. In this law of pre-potency of elements, Thorndike is really anticipating insight in learning which was more emphasised by the Gestations.
4. Law of Response by Analogy:
According to this law, the individual makes use of old experiences or acquisitions while learning a new situation. There is a tendency to utilize common elements in the new situation as existed in a similar past situation. The learning of driving a car, for instance, is facilitated by the earlier acquired skill of driving a motor-cycle or even riding a bicycle, because the perspective or maintaining a balance and controlling the handle helps in steering the car.
5. The Law of Associative Shifting:
According to this law we may get any response, of which a learner is capable, associated with any other situation to which he is sensitive. Thorndike illustrated this by the act of teaching a cat to stand up at a command. A fish was dangled before the vat while he said ‘stand up’. After a number of trials by presenting the fish after uttering the command ‘stand up’, he later ousted the fish and the overall command of ‘stand up’ was found sufficient to evoke the response to the cat by standing up on her hind legs.
Experimental Evidences of Thorndike’s Trial and Error Theory:
Various experiments have been performed on men as well as animals to study this method. Thorndike made several experiments on rats and cats. Two important experiments are mentioned here.
Thorndike’s most widely quoted experiment was with the cat placed in a puzzle box. The hungry cat was put in the puzzle box and a fish, as an incentive, was put out-side the cage a little beyond its reach. The box was designed in such a way that the door of the cage can be released by some simple act like depressing a lever inside the cage.
At first, the cat made a great deal of varied attempts to reach the food in a trial and error fashion such as jumping up and down, clawing at the bars, scratching the cage, whaling around trying to push the bars, pawing and shaking movable parts of the cage etc., but all attempts proved to vain.
Ultimately by chance her paw fell on the loop of the rope and the door opened. The cat jumped out immediately and ate the fish. When next day, the cat was put in the box again, this time she took less time in coming out and in the subsequent trials the time decreased further so much so that the stage reached when the cat came out soon after being put inside by directly striking the latch with her paw without any random movement. This is how she learnt to reach its goal.
Expt. 2 (Experiment with Human Subjects):
Gopalaswamy demonstrated trial and error in human beings through Mirror-Drawing Experiment. This is a classical experiment in the psychology of learning. In this experiment the subject is asked to trace a star-shaped drawing, not looking at it directly, but as it is reflected in a mirror, the subject’s hand movements are visible in the mirror only and not directly. The experimenter observes the movements of the hands and thus, records the time of tracing in successive trials and the number of errors committed in each trial.
In first six trials the subject traces the star with the right hand and then in the next six trials he traces it by the left hand. Two graphs-the Time Curve and the Error Curve are then drawn, which show the general characteristics of trial and error learning. In the original experiment Gopalaswamy arranged his apparatus so that a record was automatically made of all the movements of the styles of the subject as it traced out the pattern. In this way the successive times of tracings and a record of errors was obtained.
Gopalaswamy analyzed the errors into two groups-lower level errors and higher level errors. Those errors which do not involve any noble process on the part of the subject in tracing the star are lower-level errors and those which involve higher process of mind on the perceptual and conceptual level are higher-level errors.
He discovered that improvement in the higher-level responses correlated highly with intelligence and that the improvement in the responses of the lower-level errors did not show much correlation with intelligence. This clears the respective share of trial and error and of higher learning.
For Fundulus fishes Thorndike got a glass tub with a dividing wall of glass in the middle. In the dividing wall there was a hole through which the fish could go from one part to another. By nature Fundulus fish like to remain in shade. The glass tub was filled with water and it was put under such a situation that half of its part remained under shade and the other half was in the sunshine. The fishes were kept in the sunny portion.
They began to try to coming over to the shady portion. By trying again and again the fishes succeeded in tracing the hole of the dividing wall and reached the shady portion one by one. But, at first the fishes took more time in reaching the shady portion, then in the second attempt they took less time and in the third attempt they took the least time. Trying it again finally a stage came when the fishes happened to come one after another in a row to the shady portion immediately in the very first attempt i.e., the number of errors of their wandering here and there amounted to a zero.
Educational Implications of Thorndike’s Trial and Error Theory:
Thorndike’s theory of Trial and Error and his three basic laws of learning have direct educational implications. The ‘Law of Readiness’ lays emphasis on motivation while the ‘Law of Exercise’ compels us to accept a well-known fact ‘Practice makes a man perfect’, and the third one i.e., ‘Law of Effect’ opens fairly a large scope to discuss the role of reward and punishment as an incentive in the child’s learning.
Actually, motivation and learning are inter-related concepts. No motivation; No learning. Here we can remember a proverb, ‘the one man can take horse to the pool of water but twenty cannot make him drink’. This statement clearly shows the impact of motivation on learning. Clearly speaking motive is a force that compels an individual to act or to behave in a particular direction. And, hence the success of a teacher lies in motivating the roomfuls of energy. His prime duty is to produce ‘thirst’ (a motive to drink water) in the horses. Then and only then he may succeed in making the process of learning easier and interesting.
To quote with the experiment to Tolman and Honzik (1930) which they performed in rats will be of interest and situational here. In this experiment the rats were taught to follow a complex pattern of runs and turns through a maze to reach the food. The rats were divided in three groups. First group of rats was neither hungry nor given any food at the end or trial. The second group was hungry but was not given food. The third one was hungry and given food at the end of a trial.
It was concluded that only the third group learned appreciably i.e., the number of errors went on decreasing in each attempt. The logic is simple. To be motivated and unrewarded leaves to you only frustration instead a notable amount of learning. Also nor is it worthwhile to work for a prize you do not want. Thus, it is the motive that gives the reward its value and the satisfaction of reward that fixes the learning of which it is the effect.
Briefly speaking, without motivation or drive learning is impossible, as firstly, it prods the learner into action and secondly, it introduces light and shadow into an otherwise different field. So, teacher’s concern primarily shall be the motivating of goals and releasing tensions which signalise success. Above all he should have a psychological involvement in reaching and has to be charged with values and therefore, naturally motivated himself. The advice of an old principal of a school is very pertinent here.
“Teachers, you are going to be emulated in your talk and walk by your students, but a little less. If you run, your students will walk. If you walk, your students will stand. If you stand, your students will lie down. If you lie down, your students will sleep. And if you sleep in the class, your students will die”. But, one has to admit here that the organism’s level of performance can’t be beyond a physiological limit, whatever incentive we provide to him. For instance, higher bonus to factory workers, more praise to students may lead to a better performance, but no athlete can jump over the Chinese wall, whatever the intensity of motivation is provided.
Another significant aspect of this theory is that to master a complex situation or to elaborate task, practice is must. It is not possible to handle each difficult situation in a single trial, no matter what the degree of motivation or reward is. One cannot blame the entire constitution of India in one reading even if the reward is a crore of Rupees or the threat is to be shot dead otherwise. Each task initially seems to be difficult and fatiguing but as practice continues, it becomes smoother and requires less effort.
Finally, we say that habit or S-R is established. An expert driver, for instance, goes on driving, listening to the radio and taking to his friend sitting by. In the light of class room teaching blundering is a natural phenomenon associated with student learning. But, the teacher should not regard this as a symptom of inefficient teaching, because this is the way the pupils learn. He should not be at all worried when blundering appears.
Insights will emerge as the blundering progresses from simpler associations to higher units. There is not royal road to success. Kennedy-Fraser, the Psychologist concludes, “The teachers who are responsible for the beginning of any new subject should be the best available, since at the point, the pupils have no defensive system of properly formed habits to protect them from the evil effects of bad teaching.”
Actually, we learn by doing. The teachers’ duty should be to arrange situations in which the student has chance to discover for himself what is significant. The blundering must be directed and methods that are wholly futile must be eliminated. But at the same time the teacher must exercise, constant restraint in his supervision.
Further, both punishment and reward may play a significant role in the process of learning. But, experiments go to show that motivation is successfully handled when it is kept in the positive phase. Drastic forms of inhibition tend to spread their effects over the whole learning situation. Sometimes, the teachers impress upon the negative processes. The false response is effectively inhibited when the correct reaction is fixated and the emphasis should be on the latter process. The fixating rewards are most effective when they afford immediate and complete release.
A delay introduced between the successful performance and the releasing reward has a considerable effect on their rate of learning and co-ordination. In school, the satisfactions should be closely coupled with the activity itself otherwise the likelihood of permanent effects is small. Another aspect of motivating problem is simpler than the manipulations of tensions and releases and can be mastered by all. This is that the learner should be kept informed of his progress and promptly.
Finally, though the theory is not widely accepted for its educational significance, yet, there are certain subjects such as mathematics, tables of mathematics, memorising poetry, rules of grammar etc. in which learning by Trial and Error cannot be avoided. All reasoning subjects afford the greatest opportunity for the application of the Trial and Error method.
In Brief, the implications of the theory are:
1. According to his theory the task can be started from the easier aspect towards its difficult side. This approach will benefit the weaker and backward children.
2. A small child learns some skills through trial and error method only such as sitting, standing, walking, running etc. In teaching also the child rectifies the writing after committing mistakes.
3. In this theory more emphasis has been laid on motivation. Thus, before starting teaching in the classroom the students should be properly motivated.
4. Practice leads a man towards maturity. Practice is the main feature of trial and error method. Practice helps in reducing the errors committed by the child in learning any concept.
5. Habits are formed as a result of repetition. With the help of this theory the wrong habits of the children can be modified and the good habits strengthened.
6. The effects of rewards and punishment also affect the learning of the child. Thus, the theory lays emphasis on the use of reward and punishment in the class by the teacher.
7. The theory may be found quite helpful in changing the behaviour of the delinquent children. The teacher should cure such children making use of this theory.
8. With the help of this theory the teacher can control the negative emotions of the children such as anger, jealousy etc.
9. The teacher can improve his teaching methods making use of this theory. He must observe the effects of his teaching methods on the students and should not hesitate to make necessary changes in them, if required.
10. The theory pays more emphasis on oral drill work. Thus, a teacher should conduct oral drill of the taught contents. This helps in strengthening the learning more.
Some Objections to Thorndike’s Trial and Error Theory:
The theory has been criticised by various psychologists on the following grounds. Firstly, the theory is mechanical, for it leaves no room for an end or purpose in any sense whatsoever. On the contrary psychologist Mc Dougall maintained that even the behaviour of the amoeba or the paramecia consists in learning to face novel conditions to serve some unknown purpose Even repeated trials are of no avail if the tendency to learn is not there.
Again, if the tendency is there, even one trial may be fruitful. Mc Dougall and Woodworth insist on readiness for reaching a goal in learning and Lloyd Morgan lays stress on persistency with varied efforts till the goal of learning is achieved. The hungry cat confined in the puzzle-box with food in front of it goes on persistently trying various means until it gets out of it and has food. So, its trials are not blind and mechanical. In fact, they are guided by perceptual attention and feelings of pleasure and pain. Yet, Thorndike pays no attention to these higher order mental processes.
Secondly, in course or repeated trials the numbers of errors are not corrected of themselves or mechanically. The effects of Trial and Error depend to a great extent upon the psycho-physical state of the animal or man. In the absence of any purpose in view the animal is so puzzled, rather than enlightened by the errors committed that it goes on blindly repeating them without end.
Thirdly, Thorndike assumes that learning consists only in the association of several separate movements. But, learning is a whole process related to a whole situation. The hungry cat confined in a puzzle-box with food placed near it does not perceive the situation in a piece-meal fashion but as a whole of hunger food-puzzle box-confinement.
Finally, the laws of learning formulated by Thorndike appear to be unjustified. For instance, the ‘law of effect’ seems to be in consistent with his mechanical point of view. Satisfaction in or the sense of being rewarded by success and dissatisfaction in or the sense of being punished by failure seen to ascribe higher mental processes to animals like cats and rats than are psychologically ascribable to them. Or, it violates Lloyd Morgans’s law.
Similarly, the ‘Law of Exercise’ has been severely criticised on the grounds that it does not regard other factors like motives, interests, special training etc. Mechanical repetition without motive, interest, significance or understanding does not make anyone learn anything and remember it. One rupee-currency note passes hundred times through the hand of a person, but hardly anyone is able to tell the size, the colour and other details of it.
A boy was asked to write hundred times ‘I have gone’ after school. He wrote it mechanically and correctly all the times. But, when he left the school in the absence of the teacher, he wrote “I have written,” ‘I have gone’ correctly one hundred times and since you are not here “I have went home”. After repeating one correct thing so many times he again committed the same mistake. This shows that repetition without motive, interest or understanding is of no avail.
Thus, learning by Trial and Error is not of very much use and should not be resorted to by the teacher as it lays a stress on cramming. Also, there is much wastage of time and energy by this method.