The Drill Pad
Instructional Resource Library

Laws of Learning


Anyone who intends to guide and direct the learning activities of others requires a detailed understanding of the nature and processes of learning. Instructors are masters of many skills. What they teach demands a high degree of competence in presenting subject matter. Nevertheless, HOW they teach depends largely on their understanding of the learning process and the ability to apply this understanding.


What is "learning?" Learning takes place when there is a change in a student's behavior. It may not be directly observable. Learning is based on observation of behavior changes that result from a person's interaction with their environment. An individual's learning may involve changes in any of three areas:

  1. Manner of perceiving and thinking.
  2. Physical behavior (motor skills).
  3. Emotional reactions or attitudes.

Learning refers to any of these changes when they occur as a result of an experience. Thus, learning cannot be literally described but the conditions under which it occurs can be identified. The instructor should understand these conditions and apply them when teaching.


  • Purposeful Process. Most people have definite ideas about what they want to achieve. They have goals or clear objectives. Effective instructors seek ways to create new learning situations to meet the trainees' goals. Motivation, the force that impels a person toward a goal, is the instructor's most effective tool to encourage learning. This can be either weak or strong motivation depending on the situation.

  • Internal Experience. The instructor cannot learn for the trainee, nor can he or she pour predigested learning into the trainee's head. The trainee can learn only from his or her own experiences. A person's knowledge is a result of their experiences and manner of perceiving them and reacting to them. No two people have exactly the same experiences. All learning stems from experience. For example, by repeated drill, a trainee can learn to repeat a list of words or to recite the principles of leadership. However, trainees can make the list an actual part of their lives only if they understand them well enough to apply the ideas that they represent correctly in real situations.

  • Active Process. Since learning comes only through experience, the trainee must be actively involved in the experience. This activity can take many forms. Learning is more than simply exposing a trainee to an idea or a skill. Likewise, one cannot safely assume that trainees can apply what they know just because they correctly quote a paragraph from a textbook. The trainee must become actively involved in the learning situation, but just any kind of involving activity will not suffice. The trainee must engage in the appropriate activity. Obviously, learning a physical skill requires experience in performing that skill. The instructor should understand, however, that mental habits are always learned through practice. Even attitudes are developed or modified as an individual reacts emotionally to a stimulus.

  • Multidimensional. Learning is multidimensional. Multidimensional develops new concept. In other words, it is possible to learn other things while concentrating on or practicing the main subject. While practicing drill, the trainees learn teamwork and cooperation. While learning dormitory arrangement, they learn attention to details and following explicit instructions.

  • Individual Process. All trainees do not learn at the same rate. New instructors are likely to be discouraged when they discover that a well-planned lesson does not enable them to teach all the trainees with equal effectiveness. They soon recognize this as a natural and predictable problem because trainees seldom learn at the same rate. Differences in rates of learning are based on differences in intelligence, background, experience, interests, desire to learn, and countless other psychological, emotional and physical factors. Instructors must recognize these differences in determining the amount of subject matter to teach, the rate of which they will cover the material, and the appropriate time to teach it. Once the slower trainees are identified, it is up to the instructor to bring them up to the level of the rest of the flight. You must identify their weak areas, bring the areas to their attention, and show them how to correct them. You may be fortunate and have some trainees who excel. These trainees may be used to help others during their practice. This serves a twofold purpose. The fast learning trainees are relieved from boredom and the slow learning trainees receive the benefit of the peers' expertise.

Laws of Learning

Edward L. Thorndike in the early 1900's postulated several "Laws of Learning," that seemed generally applicable to the learning process. Since that time, other educational psychologists have found that the learning process is indeed more complex than the "laws" identified. However, the "laws" do provide the instructor with insight into the learning process that will assist in providing a rewarding experience to the trainee.

The laws that follow are not necessarily stated as Professor Thorndike first stated them. Over the years, they have been restated and supplemented, but, in essence, they may be attributed to him. The first three are the basic laws: the law of readiness, the law of exercise, and the most famous and still generally accepted, the law of effect. The other three laws were added later as a result of experimental studies: the law of primacy, the law of intensity, and the law of recency.

As with anything else relative to the instruction and learning process, nothing that we do is a singular item; a combination of activities occurs at the same time to make the experience complete.

  • Law of Readiness
    The Law of Readiness means a person can learn when physically and mentally adjusted (ready) to receive stimuli. Individuals learn best when they are ready to learn, and they will not learn much if they see no reason for learning. If trainees have a strong purpose, a clear objective and a sound reason for learning, they usually make more progress than trainees who lack motivation. When trainees are ready to learn, they are more willing to participate in the learning process, and this simplifies the instructor's job. If outside responsibilities or worries weigh heavily on trainees' minds or if their personal problems seem unsolvable, they may have little interest in learning.

  • Law of Exercise
    The Law of Exercise stresses the idea that repetition is basic to the development of adequate responses; things most often repeated are easiest remembered. The mind can rarely recall new concepts or practices after a single exposure, but every time it is practiced, learning continues and is enforced. The instructor must provide opportunities for trainees to practice or repeat the task. Repetition consists of many types of activities, including recall, review, restatement, manual drill and physical application. Remember that practice makes permanent, not perfect unless the task is taught correctly.

  • Law of Effect
    This law involves the emotional reaction of the learner. Learning will always be much more effective when a feeling of satisfaction, pleasantness, or reward accompanies or is a result of the learning process. Learning is strengthened when it is accompanied by a pleasant or satisfying feeling and that it is weakened when it is associated with an unpleasant experience. An experience that produces feelings of defeat, frustration, anger or confusion in a trainee is unpleasant. Instructors should be cautious about using negative motivation. Usually it is better to show trainees that a problem is not impossible, but is within their capability to understand and solve.

  • Law of Primacy
    This law states that the state of being first, often creates a strong, almost unshakeable impression. For the instructor, this means that what they teach the first time must be correct. If a subject is incorrectly taught, it must be corrected. It is more difficult to un-teach a subject than to teach it correctly the first time. For the trainees' first learning experience should be positive and functionally related to training.

  • Law of Intensity
    The principle of intensity states that if the stimulus (experience) is real, the more likely there is to be a change in behavior (learning). A vivid, dramatic or exciting learning experience teaches more than a routine or boring experience. A trainee will learn more from the real thing than from a substitute. Demonstrations, skits, and models do much to intensify the learning experiences of trainees.

  • Law of Recency
    Things most recently learned are best remembered, while the things learned some time ago are remembered with more difficulty. It is sometimes easy, for example, to recall a telephone number dialed a few minutes ago, but it is usually impossible to recall a telephone number dialed a week ago. Review, warm-ups, and similar activities are all based on the principle that the more recent the exercise, the more effective the performance. Practicing a skill or new concept just before using it will ensure a more effective performance. Instructors recognize the law of recency when they plan a lesson summary or a conclusion of the lecture. Repeat, restate, or reemphasize important matters at the end of a lesson to make sure that trainees remember them instead of inconsequential details.



You will soon become directly responsible for literally hundreds of learning situations. The degree of knowledge that you impart to your trainees will depend a great deal on how well you can apply your understanding of the learning process. Learn to recognize the trainees' physical, emotional, and attitudinal states and the effect you can have on these states employing the characteristics and laws of learning. Help to motivate your trainees toward a goal and lessen their frustration by holding confusion to a minimum. Remember that learning is multidimensional and capitalize on this fact.