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Thorndike’s Trial & Error Theory and Its Application

Thorndike’s Trial & Error Theory and Its Application

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 accidentally. 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 to poem or a mathematical table, and music etc. need exercise and repetition of various movements and actions May times.

  1. 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. These are:

  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 emphasized 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.

Experiment 1-

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 outside 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.

Experiment 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.

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