Thorndike and the 3 Laws of Learning

Who I am
Joe Dispenza

Author and references

Are there any laws of learning? Any general rules that are always applicable and that always work?

Second Edward Lee Thorndike, one of the fathers of cognitive psychology, absolutely yes.

Already more than 100 years ago, with his pioneering work at Columbia University, Thorndike demonstrated that, in learning, there are always valid fundamental principles, common to all biological forms, human beings included.

He called them:

  • The law of readiness
  • The law of exercise
  • The law of effect

Their validity is not limited to the field of study, but embraces all learning, in the broadest and most complex meaning of the word.

Here you go.

Law of readiness

You learn best when you are in the right mental, physical and emotional condition. When, in short, you are really ready to do it.

But what does it mean, as Thorndike said, to be in the right mental, physical and emotional conditions to learn?

It means knowing how to create an environment around yourself that, from every point of view, helps you to learn.

It starts from the most obvious - but not the easiest - things like avoiding distractions and choosing the right time and place, to the more complex ones, how to clearly define your goals and stay motivated about them.

In this context, during the school period, teachers are of crucial importance, who can more or less help define your goals and make them interesting.

"The art of the teacher is to awaken the joy of creativity and knowledge"

Unfortunately, not all teachers are like prof. Keating of the Fleeing Moment.

However, this should not become an excuse, on the contrary, a bad teacher can be the occasion:

  • to learn to seek motivation especially within yourself. 
  • to learn to choose your teachers. At school you can't do that much, but in life you can!

Therefore, whenever you do not get the results you want, or get there but with great effort, ask yourself if your starting situation, your "physical, emotional, mental" environment, is helping or hindering you.

And then, act accordingly.

Law of the exercise

It establishes that the things that are repeated the most are the ones that are learned best, and therefore exercise and practice are essential for learning. Thorndike clearly states that it is impossible to learn something that has a minimum of complexity well by doing it or repeating it once.

From a certain point of view, the law of exercise is almost banal: to learn you have to practice, nice discovery!

What is not trivial, however, is to understand like exercise e how long time.

Let's say one thing right away: passively spending time with your head on a book does not necessarily mean satisfying this second law.

Indeed, there are those who break this law precisely because they study too much - and badly.

Perhaps because he lacks concentration, perhaps because he uses ineffective techniques, or perhaps because he uses the wrong material.

One piece of advice I can give you, and which follows Thorndike's ideas, is to mix together various strategies and learning sources: read, listen, underline, schematize, ask yourself, question, repeat, practice.

In short, what you have to learn must be "worked" physically and mentally, through processes of transformation, decomposition, elaboration that follow one another in different cycles.

In this lies the secret of the word exercise: an active effort, which is repeated over time, possibly in ways that vary from time to time.

Whenever you can, combine the study phase with an operational phase.

Learning a language if you never speak it, understanding how an object works without ever using it, reading the description of a red blood cell in a book without ever looking at one under a microscope, are all partial exercise strategies.

Continuously look for opportunities to integrate theory with practice: you will learn faster, with more satisfaction and with better results.

Law of effect

It is perhaps, among the three, the one that makes us understand how similar we are to all other animals. As for them, in fact, learning is strengthened when it is associated with positive and gratifying sensations, while on the contrary it decreases when it is associated with negative and frustrating sensations.

In complying with the third law, ask yourself:

"What do I feel while learning? "

You see, the results and consequences of our actions they have a disruptive effect on our Ego and our future behavior.

Therefore, if we are happy because we have achieved some objectives, the effort we have made seems lighter and, the next time, our aptitude for learning will be improved.

But when we are frustrated with our results, the feeling of failure the perception of the effort made increases, and our ability to learn is impaired.

It is therefore essential to foster self-confidence and make learning as pleasant as possible.

In fact, we have always tended to repeat pleasant experiences and avoid unpleasant ones.

Get in the habit of giving yourself then of small prizes while you study or learn, or immediately after: for example, take a relaxing walk at the end of the day, listen to your favorite song between subjects, take a vacation after an exam.

But, above all, try to be successful in the initiatives you take.

A failed exam, a bad impression at work, a decision not to prepare for a competition or an exam, are not in themselves the end of the world. If one never makes mistakes it is because he never leaves his comfort zone.

But when these things are repeated too often, that's it slowly they destroy your ego e they take away the desire to try your hand with something new.

Therefore, when you dedicate yourself to something, always do it with seriousness and determination: in fact, not only the result is at stake, but also the psychological consequences that derive from it.


As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the 3 laws of learning formulated by Thorndike are the same for every living being.

And, therefore, both for a sea sponge and for us, it is true that:

  • to learn you need the right starting conditions
  • any meaningful learning needs repetition
  • positive feedback strengthens it, negative feedback weakens it

Many might then think that the fundamental difference between us and the sea sponge lies in the amount of things we can learn.

But in reality this is not the case.

The real difference lies in the fact that we are not only aware of the existence of these 3 laws, but we are also able to actively act on them thanks to what psychologists call "metacognition": that is, the ability to know , understand and then direct our learning processes.

This makes our mental possibilities not limitless, but definitely much wider than what we normally think.

From this point of view, Thorndike's most important contribution in my opinion was to support - unconsciously and 100 years before its definition - the mentality of the "growth mindset"

That is, the belief that the mental abilities of each of us are not something fixed, but something on which we can act actively, both from a positive and a negative point of view.

Thorndike tells us once more that we can be better every day, and he even gives us three principles we can work on to do so. Not exploiting them would then be a real shame!

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