For more than 40 years, researchers and teachers in physical education have been concerned with the way certain variables affect the learning experiences of students (e.g., Ammons, 1947; Caplan, 1969; Digman, 1959). Many researchers have compared the influence of constant practice and distributed practice methods on students' acquisition of motor skills. In constant practice, only one experimental task or activity is presented per session. According to Drowatzy (1970), this is commonly referred to as "massed practice," "fixed-format," or the "serial" approach. Distributed practice typically includes rest pauses or alternate skills learning between practice trials. Physical educators and coaches have successfully used both forms of learning with students without disabilities.
According to Ammons (1950), Caplan (1969), Digman (1959), and Koonce, Chambliss, and Irion (1964), distributed practice conditions are superior for people without disabilities. However, Ammons (1947), Harmon and Oxendine (1961) and Young (1954) have indicated that massed practice is also effective. Other studies showed no significant differences in learning for people without disabilities, for massed and distributed practice (Carron, 1969; Graw, 1968; Stelmach, 1969; Whitley, 1970). In most cases, the conditions of these studies were not comparable. Moreover, these studies did not address the needs of people with disabilities--nor, more specifically, those with autism.
In the past 10 years, however, research in special education concerning the academic classroom performance of children with autism has become more prevalent (Dunlap, 1984; Dunlap & Koegel, 1980a; Winterling, Dunlap, & O'Neill, 1987). Many of these studies involved various forms of distributed practice. A classic case was Dunlap's (1984) investigation.
In Dunlap (1984), a specific type of distributed learning referred to as "task variation with maintenance tasks interspersed" was compared with a constant task condition in a special education classroom for students with autism. Dunlap's results indicated that the task variation condition was significantly more effective than the constant task condition for learning cognitive skills in the special education classroom. However, Dunlap's findings are not necessarily transferable to a physical education setting. Singer (1975) and Gagne (1973) suggested that there are five domains of learning--motor skills, verbal skills, intellectual skills, cognitive strategies, and attitudes--and that a particular learning condition or technique can be successful for one of the five domains of learning and not necessarily for another. In fact, Singer and Gagne both indicated that the conditions or techniques that are the most powerful or successful are usually unique to a specific domain.
The question addressed here is: Is the distributed-learning technique used by Dunlap (1984) more effective than a constant task condition in teaching gross motor skills to students with autism? We have been concerned that procedures used in physical education classes for students with autism have not maximized instructional time. Nor have the procedures accounted for individual learning characteristics such as slow acquisition, short attention span, and a reduced ability to generalize (French & Jansma, 1982; Sherrill, 1986), which differentiate people with autism from other learners (Mulligan, Guess, Holvoet, & Brown, 1980).
In the area of motor learning, most of the research has been directed toward the acquisition of fine motor skills in novel motor tasks. Little information is available concerning the acquisition of gross motor skills, and the literature appears to be void in studies involving practice conditions for gross motor skills by people with autism.
The design for this study was a pretest-posttest configuration; two experimental task sequences were analyzed for skill acquisition. …