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Educational psychologists and pedagogues have identified several principles of learning, also referred to as laws of learning, which seem generally applicable to the learning process. These principles have been discovered, tested, and used in practical situations. They provide additional insight into what makes people learn most effectively. Edward Thorndike developed the first three "Laws of learning:" readiness, exercise, and effect. Since Thorndike set down his basic three laws in the early part of the twentieth century, five additional principles have been added: primacy, recency, intensity, freedom and requirement.
The majority of these principles are widely applied in aerospace instruction, and some in many other fields, as outlined below:
Readiness implies a degree of concentration and eagerness. Individuals learn best when they are physically, mentally, and emotionally ready to learn, and do not learn well if they see no reason for learning. Getting students ready to learn, creating interest by showing the value of the subject matter, and providing continuous mental or physical challenge, is usually the instructor’s responsibility. If students have a strong purpose, a clear objective, and a definite reason for learning something, they make more progress than if they lack motivation. In other words, when students are ready to learn, they meet the instructor at least halfway, simplifying the instructor’s job.
Since learning is an active process, students must have adequate rest, health, and physical ability. Basic needs of students must be satisfied before they are ready or capable of learning. Students who are exhausted or in ill health cannot learn much. If they are distracted by outside responsibilities, interests, or worries, have overcrowded schedules, or other unresolved issues, students may have little interest in learning.
The principle of exercise states that those things most often repeated are best remembered. It is the basis of drill and practice. It has been proven that students learn best and retain information longer when they have meaningful practice and repetition. The key here is that the practice must be meaningful. It is clear that practice leads to improvement only when it is followed by positive feedback.
The human memory is fallible. The mind can rarely retain, evaluate, and apply new concepts or practices after a single exposure. Students do not learn complex tasks in a single session. They learn by applying what they have been told and shown. Every time practice occurs, learning continues. These include student recall, review and summary, and manual drill and physical applications. All of these serve to create learning habits. The instructor must repeat important items of subject matter at reasonable intervals, and provide opportunities for students to practice while making sure that this process is directed toward a goal.
The principle of effect is based on the emotional reaction of the student. It has a direct relationship to motivation. The principle of effect is that learning is strengthened when accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling, and that learning is weakened when associated with an unpleasant feeling. The student will strive to continue doing what provides a pleasant effect to continue learning. Positive reinforcement is more apt to lead to success and motivate the learner, so the instructor should recognize and commend improvement. Whatever the learning situation, it should contain elements that affect the students positively and give them a feeling of satisfaction. Therefore, instructors should be cautious about using punishment in the classroom.
One of the important obligations of the instructor is to set up the learning situation in such a manner that each trainee will be able to see evidence of progress and achieve some degree of success. Experiences that produce feelings of defeat, frustration, anger, confusion, or futility are unpleasant for the student. If, for example, an instructor attempts to teach advanced concepts on the initial engagement, the student is likely to feel inferior and be frustrated. Impressing upon students the difficulty of a task to be learned can make the teaching task difficult. Usually it is better to tell students that a problem or task, although difficult, is within their capability to understand or perform. Every learning experience does not have to be entirely successful, nor does the student have to master each lesson completely. However, every learning experience should contain elements that leave the student with some good feelings. A student’s chance of success is definitely increased if the learning experience is a pleasant one.
Primacy, the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakable, impression. Things learned first create a strong impression in the mind that is difficult to erase. For the instructor, this means that what is taught must be right the first time. For the student, it means that learning must be right. “Unteaching” wrong first impressions is harder than teaching them right the first time. If, for example, a student learns a faulty technique, the instructor will have a difficult task correcting bad habits and “reteaching” correct ones.
The student's first experience should be positive, functional, and lay the foundation for all that is to follow. What the student learns must be procedurally correct and applied the very first time. The instructor must present subject matter in a logical order, step by step, making sure the students have already learned the preceding step. If the task is learned in isolation, is not initially applied to the overall performance, or if it must be relearned, the process can be confusing and time consuming. Preparing and following a lesson plan facilitates delivery of the subject matter correctly the first time.
The principle of recency states that things most recently learned are best remembered. Conversely, the further a student is removed time-wise from a new fact or understanding, the more difficult it is to remember. For example, it is fairly easy to recall a telephone number dialed a few minutes ago, but it is usually impossible to recall a new number dialed last week. The closer the training or learning time is to the time of actual need to apply the training, the more apt the learner will be to perform successfully.
Information acquired last generally is remembered best; frequent review and summarization help fix in the mind the material covered. Instructors recognize the principle of recency when they carefully plan a summary for a lesson or learning situation. The instructor repeats, restates, or reemphasizes important points at the end of a lesson to help the student remember them. The principle of recency often determines the sequence of lectures within a course of instruction.
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.
In contrast to practical instruction, the classroom imposes limitations on the amount of realism that can be brought into teaching. The instructor needs to use imagination in approaching reality as closely as possible. Classroom instruction can benefit from a wide variety of instructional aids, to improve realism, motivate learning, and challenge students. Instructors should emphasize important points of instruction with gestures, showmanship, and voice. Demonstrations, skits, and role playing do much to increase the learning experience of students. Examples, analogies, and personal experiences also make learning come to life. Instructors should make full use of the senses (hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell, balance, rhythm, depth perception, and others).
The principle of freedom states that things freely learned are best learned. Conversely, the further a student is coerced, the more difficult is for him to learn, assimilate and implement what is learned. Compulsion and coercion are antithetical to personal growth. The greater the freedom enjoyed by individuals within a society, the greater the intellectual and moral advancement enjoyed by society as a whole.
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.
The law of requirement states that "we must have something to obtain or do something." It can be an ability, skill, instrument or anything that may help us to learn or gain something. A starting point or root is needed; for example, if you want to draw a person, you need to have the materials with which to draw, and you must know how to draw a point, a line, a figure and so on until you reach your goal, which is to draw a person.
The principles of learning have been presented as an explanation for why learning games (the use of games to introduce material, improve understanding, or increase retention) can show such incredible results. In particular, the principles of learning present conditions which are very similar to a number of the design techniques used in games. Games use the technique of Flow, which is "the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it." (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi) The primary aim of flow in games is to create intrinsically motivating experiences, which is a part of the principle of readiness.
Games use many other techniques which tie to the principles of learning. They use practice to prolong game play, which is part of the principle of exercise. Game designers also place heavy emphasis on feedback, which goes with practice as part of exercise. Games use the technique of simplicity to reduce distractions, balance difficulty versus skill, and accurately correlate actions to corrective feedback. This impacts flow and motivation and increases the positive feelings toward the activity, which links back to the principles of exercise, readiness, and effect. Games use immersion and engagement as ways to create riveting experiences for players, which is part of the principle of intensity. Finally, part of the primary appeal of games is that they are fun. Although fun is hard to define, it is clear that it involves feelings such as engagement, satisfaction, pleasure, and enjoyment which are part of the principle of effect.