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Ever notice how the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can make you drool? In this lesson, we’ll look at why that is and how it can influence a person’s learning as we explore connectionism and the three laws associated with it.


Elaine is a new teacher, and she recently read a book on teaching that suggested that people’s success in school is closely tied to what happens around them. If a student is rewarded for learning, he or she is likely to continue to learn, for example. Elaine is learning about connectionism, an educational philosophy that says that learning is a product of the relationship between stimulus and response.That may sound pretty technical, so let’s break down connectionism a little further. A stimulus is something that causes a reaction, and a response is just a reaction to a stimulus.

Think about what happens when a big piece of gooey chocolate cake is put in front of you. The sights and smells of the cake are the stimulus, and they are very likely to produce a response in you that involves drooling and maybe even a growling stomach.Edward Thorndike was the psychologist who first proposed that connectionism is key to learning.

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Thorndike, who was popular in the first half of the 20th century, was the first educational psychologist. That is, he was the first person to bring together what psychologists had studied about how the human mind works and what educators knew about how to teach.Connectionism was Thorndike’s main philosophy. He said that learning is about responding to stimuli.

Believe it or not, much of his theory is still used in classrooms today, almost a hundred years later!Let’s look closer at three laws of connectionism and how they might appear in a classroom.

Law of Effect

Remember Elaine? She’s a new teacher and has read about connectionism. She wants to apply it to her classroom, but she’s not sure where to start. What can she do?Connectionism is closely related to the word ‘connect,’ which is just what happens in this theory. The stimulus and its response are connected in a person’s mind, like associating chocolate cake with drooling.

This connection between stimulus and response is called a stimulus-response bond, or an S-R bond. The stronger the S-R bond, the better a person has learned the lesson.What does this mean for education? Imagine that every time one of Elaine’s students studied, she got a good grade, and every time she did not study, she got a bad grade. The stimulus in this case is studying, and the response is the grade. The student has a strong S-R bond between studying and good grades. That is, the student believes that studying leads to good grades.The law of effect is the first of three laws of connectionism.

It says that if a stimulus results in a positive outcome, it strengthens the S-R bond, while if it results in a negative outcome, the S-R bond is weakened.Think about Elaine’s student who gets good grades when she studies. Every time she gets a good grade after studying, the S-R bond is strengthened, and the student learns even more that studying results in getting a good grade.On the flip side of that, every time the student gets a bad grade after not studying, the S-R bond between not studying and good grades is weakened.

The student learns that not studying does not result in good grades and is less likely to not study in the future.Can Elaine do things in her classroom to help strengthen S-R bonds and use the law of effect to her advantage? Absolutely! For example, she could reward effort as well as outcome so that a struggling student who works hard gets a reward for his work.She could also punish bad habits so that a student who does not pay attention gets detention, or something like that. According to the law of effect, her students will be more likely to work hard and less likely to not pay attention if she does those things.

Law of Exercise

As we mentioned, the law of effect is one of three laws that Thorndike put forth to explain the tenets of connectionism. The next one is one that many people will already be familiar with, though you might not call it this: The law of exercise says that the more you do something, the better you are at it.

That is, ‘practice makes perfect’!Why does this work? According to Thorndike, the more you do something, the stronger the S-R bond, and the easier it becomes. Think about Elaine’s students, who are struggling with learning their multiplication tables. They can’t remember if 2 x 2 is 4 or 6!If Elaine has them practice their multiplication with flashcards every single day, they will get better and better at it, until it’s like second nature to them. The S-R bond between seeing 2 x 2 and remembering the answer, 4, is getting stronger.What does this mean for Elaine and other teachers? Repetition is key to learning.

The more a teacher can have his or her students practice skills, the more proficient a student will be at that skill.

Law of Readiness

We’ve seen how Elaine can use the law of effect and the law of exercise in her classroom to help her students learn. The third of Thorndike’s laws of connectionism is the law of readiness, which says that S-R bonds are stronger if an individual is ready to learn.Let’s go back to our chocolate cake for a moment. Let’s say that the piece of cake is put in front of you, but you’re half-asleep because it’s really early in the morning and you haven’t had your coffee yet.

With your eyes half-closed and your attention on how tired you are, you are not as likely to have a strong response as you would if you were awake and alert. So you might drool a little, but the bond between drooling and chocolate cake would not be all that strong.What does this mean for education? Elaine and her fellow teachers will probably recognize the law of readiness in their real-world classrooms pretty clearly. Teachers understand that a student who is not ready to learn will often not learn.

In contrast, when a student is mentally prepared to learn, it is likely that they will.There are a lot of reasons students might not be ready to learn: They might be sleepy, or angry, or worried. They might be hungry, or they might have just heard a juicy piece of gossip that they can’t wait to tell their friends.So what can Elaine do to help prepare her students? Taking a moment or two at the beginning of work to help students transition into the right mindset will help prepare them to learn.

This is true when the students first walk into her class, but it’s also true when they are moving from doing one activity to another, like listening to Elaine talk and then moving to working alone. By reminding her students to prepare themselves to learn and giving them a minute or two to get settled, Elaine can make sure that the strongest S-R bonds are made.

Lesson Summary

Connectionism is the philosophy of Edward Thorndike, which says that learning is a product between stimulus and response. A stimulus is something that causes a reaction, while a response is the reaction to a stimulus.

The connection between the two is called an S-R bond, or stimulus-response bond.Thorndike proposed three laws of connectionism:

  1. The law of effect, which says that a positive outcome strengthens an S-R bond, while a negative outcome weakens it.
  2. The law of exercise, which states that S-R bonds are strengthened through practice.
  3. And the law of readiness, which says that when a person is prepared to learn, a stronger S-R bond is formed.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done with this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe Edward Thorndike’s contributions to educational philosophy
  • Summarize the philosophy of connectionism
  • Understand the relationship between a stimulus and response and what it is called
  • Recall Thorndike’s three laws of connectionism
  • Explain the impact of the S-R bond on educational success
  • Discuss how an educator can use the three laws of connectionism to their benefit in the classroom

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