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Edward Thorndike:
Theory of Connectionism

Edward Thorndike work on animal behaviour and the learning process led to the theory of connectionism and helped lay the scientific foundation for modern educational psychology.

edward thorndike

Thorndike was one of the first pioneers of active learning, a theory that proposes letting children learn themselves, rather than receiving instruction from teachers.

Thorndike's early studies with animal behaviour led him to declare his Law of Effect. The Law of

Effect states that:

  • Responses to a situation that are followed by satisfaction are strengthened
  • Responses that are followed by discomfort are weakened.

Thorndike's Law of Exercise continued this line of thought;

  • Stimulus-response connections that are repeated are strengthened

  • Stimulus-response connections that are not used are weakened.

Edward Thorndike later conducted research that provided evidence that the Law of Exercise lacked validity. Thorndike characterized the two most basic intelligences as Trial-and-Error and Stimulus-Response Association.

Thorndike's Theory of Learning

  • The most basic form of learning is trial and error learning.
  • Learning is incremental not insightful.
  • Learning is not mediated by ideas.
  • All mammals learn in the same manner.
  • Law of readiness: Interference with goal directed behaviour causes frustration and causing someone to do something they do not want to do is also frustrating.
  • a. When someone is ready to perform some act, to do so is satisfying.
    b. When someone is ready to perform some act, not to do so is annoying.
    c. When someone is not ready to perform some act and is forced to do so, it is annoying.

  • Law of Exercise: We learn by doing. We forget by not doing, although to a small extent only.
  • a. Connections between a stimulus and a response are strengthened as they are used (law of use)
    b. Connections between a stimulus and a response are weakened as they are not used (law of disuse)

  • Law of effect: If the response in a connection is followed by a satisfying state of affairs, the strength of the connection is considerably increased whereas if followed by an annoying state of affairs, then the strength of the connection is marginally decreased.
  • Multiple Responses: A learner would keep trying multiple responses to solve a problem before it is actually solved.
  • Set or Attitude: What the learner already possesses, like prior learning experiences, present state of the learner, etc., while it begins learning a new task.
  • Prepotency of Elements: Different responses to the same environment would be evoked by different perceptions of the environment which act as the stimulus to the responses. Different perceptions would be subject to the prepotency of different elements for different perceivers.
  • Response from analogy: New problems are solved by using solution techniques employed to solve analogous problems.
  • Associative Shifting: Let stimulus S be paired with response R. Now, if stimulus Q is presented simultaneously with stimulus S repeatedly, then stimulus Q is likely to get paired with response R.
  • Belongingness: If there is a natural relationship between the need state of an organism and the effect caused by a response, learning is more effective than if the relationship is unnatural.

Edward Thorndike specified three conditions that maximized learning: 

  • The law of effect stated that the likely recurrence of a response is generally governed by its consequence or effect generally in the form of reward or punishment. 
  • The law of recency stated that the most recent response is likely to govern the recurrence. 
  • The law of exercise stated that stimulus-response associations are strengthened through repetition.

Major Contributions

  • Edward Thorndike published about 500 books and articles as learning in fish, methods of statistical analysis and the elements of aesthetic quality in urban life.
  • He studied animal intelligence... known for his 'cats in a puzzle box' experiments on Trial and Error.
  • He applied animal to human educational experience; he was once the leader in this field.

Click here to learn more about Thorndike's Animal Intelligence [Opens in new window]

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