Brief notes on Learning by Trial and Error Theory

This is a simple form of learning. When the individual faces a new situation, he makes a number of random movements. Out of those movements, unsuccessful ones are eliminated and the successful ones are retained.

A child trying to open a box makes a number of blind efforts. He cannot think and tries one and then another method till he hits upon the right one.

Similarly, a cat put into a cage tries to get out of it, makes many random movements, out of which one may turn out successful. That is, in this method of learning the individual makes a number of trials. Out of them excepting the last one which is correct all are errors only. Hence the method is called trial and error method. It is also called a hit or miss method.

In this method of learning, the animal or individual at first instance makes many blind attempts and succeeds in one of them. But when he repeats his attempt at the second chance in the same situation, the number of blind efforts gets reduced. In the third chance, the random attempts are further reduced and next time the animal or individual may reach the goal without any blind trial.

An experiment conducted on this method will illustrate this point clearly. A hungry cat was put into a cage and a piece of fish was kept outside. It made random movements inside the cage to get itself out. The number of movements was counted and finally the cat touched the key of the door. The door opened and the cat got out. The same experiment was conducted once again and it was noticed that the cat took less time for getting out of the cage. The third time when the experiment was done, the cat took far less movements for opening the cage. Finally, the cat did not make any more random movements and easily opened the cage. Thus the cat learnt to open the through trial and error.

After a long time, the same cat was again put into the same cage. It was noticed that the cat did forget all that it has learnt. Then it started making random movements again and reached the goal at last. Gradually of course, the number of such movements was reduced. This explained that learning in order to be effective needs continuous practice and without practice learning is unlearned.

The conditions that are necessary for the trial and error method are the following. Firstly, the individual or animal that is to learn must be mentally and physically prepared to learn. The cat would not have tried to get out of the cage if it were not hungry. Secondly, the stimulus must be very strong in order to ensure learning. The piece of fish was enough for the hungry cat. Thirdly, continuous practice is necessary for making learning effective. The cat,-although had achieved the skill of opening the cage without practice is necessary for making learning effective.

The cat, although had achieved the skill of opening the cage without much random movement due to lapse of a long time without practice forgot the same learning and started blind attempts again.

This method of learning by trial and error is very common and fundamental. But it is not economical. It is also slow and tiresome. It is however proved to be the chief method of bring about improvement in the human civilization. It is the source and technology, arts and literature, sports and games.

In the field of education, this trial and error method of learning is very basic to all kinds of teaching and learning process. In this method, teacher has to set goals and generate motives in the young learners. The motive leads to various types of actives in which the learners make varied attempts. Some of these responses are later found successful and rewarding. The successful responses lead to effective learning with satisfaction and unsuccessful one are discarded by the learners.