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Thorndike's Principles of Learning

Thorndike's Principles of Learning

Applications for Dog Training

Edward Thorndike (born 1874) began to develop his “law of effect” in 1905. This concept was central to “principles of learning” (also known as “laws of learning”), which he helped develop later and which underpin a great deal of our current understanding of training.

In most cases, Thorndike's Principles of Learning are used to compare and contrast:

Different behaviours or different contexts within the behaviour of one dog, or;

The same behaviours between two different dogs.

The Law of Effect

The Law of Effect states that

"responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation."

The words “satisfying” and “discomforting” were replaced by “reinforcing” and “punishing” respectively after Skinner advanced his model of Operant Conditioning in 1938.

The Law of Effect is based on a few main aspects/assumptions. Namely:

  • It is impossible to predict in advance what any particular animal (humans included) finds “reinforcing” or “punishing”. One must observe the animal’s behaviour in order to discover what it finds “reinforcing” or “punishing”. Today, we know that members of a species share many behavioural and learning biases/preferences, while members of particular breeds share more, and members of particular litters, more yet.

  • That the frequency and degree of a given behaviour is governed by the feeling it elicits in the animal.

  • A behaviour that is followed by ‘satisfaction’ will be repeated more frequently and more dramatically in the future and a behaviour that is followed by ‘dissatisfaction’ will be repeated less frequently and less dramatically in the future.

  • This suggests that as an animal grows and matures, its behaviour changes in response to its changing environment, gradually becoming progressively more effective or efficient at maximizing ‘satisfaction’ and avoiding or minimizing ‘dissatisfaction’. This concept is still considered “state-of-the-art”.

You may recognize many concepts here that form the bases for later advancements.

The Principles of Learning

Thorndike later added several parallel concepts to the Law of Effect, calling each one of them a “Principle of Learning”. Note this is likely one of the first times in history that the subject’s positive or negative perceptions of training are not only worthy of consideration when designing learning scenarios, but are one of the central concerns. Thorndike’s “Principles of Learning” are as follows:

Readiness – Readiness to learn is easily taken for granted.

Is the animal physically and mentally ready for a learning challenge? Is the animal in good health? Has it properly slept and exercised? Has it had regular good nutrition?

Readiness also includes concentration, eagerness and an understanding of relevance to the trainer as well as the trainee.

Practice – Activities that are most repeated are best remembered.

Effect – Lessons that are ‘satisfying’ are better learned than those that are ‘dissatisfying’

Primacy – It’s much easier to get the lesson right the first time than it is to get it wrong the first time and then have to backtrack and re-teach. Novel experiences or experiences taking place in novel contexts have a greater impact on learning.

Recency – This is related to Practice. Lessons learned or practiced most recently have a greater impact on current behaviour than those practiced less recently.

Intensity – “The more intense the material taught, the more likely it will be retained. A sharp, clear, vivid, dramatic, or exciting learning experience teaches more than a routine or boring experience. The principle of intensity implies that a student will learn more from the real thing than from a substitute. For example, a student can get more understanding and appreciation of a movie by watching it than by reading the script. Likewise, a student is likely to gain greater understanding of tasks by performing them rather than merely reading about them. The more immediate and dramatic the learning is to a real situation, the more impressive the learning is upon the student. Real world applications that integrate procedures and tasks that students are capable of learning will make a vivid impression on them.” (Wikipedia)

Freedom – The principle of freedom states that things freely learned are best learned. Conversely, the further a student is coerced, the more difficult it is for him to learn and implement the lesson. Compulsion and coercion work against learning. Since learning is an active process, students must have freedom: freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action—these are the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility. If no freedom is granted, students may have little interest in learning.

Requirement – In order for a lesson to be learned, everything required for the lesson must be present. This includes the proper environment, previous skills and conditioning, tools, etc.

See also:

Poochperfect blog: The Premack Principle and the spectrum of reinforcement by preference



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