Thorndike and the Laws of Learning

One of the pioneers of educational psychology, E.L. Thorndike formulated three laws of learning in the early 20th century. [Figure] These laws are universally accepted and apply to all kinds of learning: the law of readiness, the law of exercise, and the law of effect. Since Thorndike set down his laws, three more have been added: the law of primacy, the law of intensity, and the law of recency.

Thorndike and the Laws of Learning
E. L. Thorndike (1874–1949)


The basic needs of the learner need to be satisfied before he or she is ready or capable of learning (see Human Behavior). The instructor can do little to motivate the learner if these needs have not been met. This means the individual should want to learn the task being presented and possesses the requisite knowledge and skill. In SBT, the instructor attempts to make the task as meaningful as possible and to keep it within the learner’s capabilities.

Learners best acquire new knowledge when they see a clear reason for doing so, often show a strong interest in learning what they believe they need to know next, and tend to set aside things for which they see no immediate need. For example, beginning flight learners commonly ignore the flight instructor’s suggestion to use the trim control. These learners believe the control yoke is an adequate way to manipulate the aircraft’s control surfaces. Later in training, when they need to divert their attention away from the controls to other tasks, they realize the importance of trim.

Instructors can take two steps to keep their learners in a state of readiness to learn. First, instructors should communicate a clear set of objectives to the learner and relate each new topic to those objectives. Second, instructors should introduce topics in a logical order and leave learners with a need to learn the next topic. The development and use of a well-designed curriculum accomplish this goal.

Readiness to learn also involves what is called the “teachable moment” or a moment of educational opportunity when a person is particularly responsive to being taught something. One of the most important skills to develop as an instructor is the ability to recognize and capitalize on “teachable moments” in aviation training. An instructor can find or create teachable moments in flight training activity whether it is pattern work, air work in the local practice area, cross-country, flight review, or instrument proficiency check.

Teachable moments present opportunities to convey information in a way that is relevant, effective, and memorable to the learner. They occur when a learner can clearly see how specific information or skills can be used in the real-world.

For example, while on final approach several deer cross the runway. Bill capitalizes on this teachable moment to stress the importance of always being ready to perform a go-around.


Learning involves the formation of connections, and connections are strengthened or weakened according to the law of effect. The law states that behaviors that lead to satisfying outcomes are likely to be repeated whereas behaviors that lead to undesired outcomes are less likely to recur. For example, if Bill teaches landings to Beverly during the first flight, she is likely to feel inferior and be frustrated, which weakens the intended learning connection.

The learner needs to have success in order to have more success in the future. It is important for the instructor to create situations designed to promote success. Positive training experiences are more apt to lead to success and motivate the learner, while negative training experiences might stimulate forgetfulness or avoidance. When presented correctly, SBT provides immediate positive experiences in terms of real-world applications.

To keep learning pleasant and to maintain motivation, an instructor should make positive comments about the learner’s progress before discussing areas that need improving. Flight instructors have an opportunity to do this during the flight debriefing. For example, Bill praises Beverly on her aircraft control during all phases of flight but offers constructive comments on how to better maintain the runway centerline during landings.


Connections are strengthened with practice and weakened when practice is discontinued, which reflects the adage “use it or lose it.” The learner needs to practice what has been taught in order to understand and remember the learning. Practice strengthens the learning connection; disuse weakens it. Exercise is most meaningful and effective when a skill is learned within the context of a real-world application.


When an error occurs pouring a concrete foundation for a building, undoing and correcting the job becomes much more difficult than doing it right the first time. Primacy in teaching and learning, what is learned first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable impression and underlies the reason an instructor needs to teach correctly the first time.

Also, if the task is learned in isolation, it is not initially applied to the overall performance, or if it needs to be relearned, the process can be confusing and time consuming. The first experience should be positive, functional, and lay the correct foundation for all that is to follow.


Immediate, exciting, or dramatic learning connected to a real situation teaches a learner more than a routine or boring experience. Real-world applications (scenarios) that integrate procedures and tasks the learner is capable of understanding make a vivid impression, and he or she is least likely to forget the experience. For example, using realistic scenarios has been shown to be effective in the development of proficiency in flight maneuvers, tasks, and single-pilot resource management (SRM) skills.


The principle of recency states that things most recently learned are best remembered. Conversely, the further a learner is removed in time from a new fact or understanding, the more difficult it is to remember. For example, it is easy for a learner to recall a torque value used a few minutes earlier, but it is more difficult or even impossible to remember a value last studied or used further back in time.

Instructors recognize the principle of recency when they carefully plan a summary for a ground school lesson, a shop period, or a postflight critique. The instructor repeats, restates, or reemphasizes important points at the end of a lesson to help the learner remember them. The principle of recency often determines the sequence of lectures within a course of instruction.

In SBT, the closer the training or learning time is to the time of the actual scenario, the more apt the learner is to perform successfully. This law is most effectively addressed by making the training experience as much like the scenario as possible.

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