Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

The Effect of Self-Regulated and Experimenter-Imposed Practice Schedules on Motor Learning for Tasks of Varying Difficulty

Academic journal article Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport

The Effect of Self-Regulated and Experimenter-Imposed Practice Schedules on Motor Learning for Tasks of Varying Difficulty

Article excerpt

Research suggests that allowing individuals to control their own practice schedule has a positive effect on motor learning. In this experiment we examined the effect of task difficulty and self-regulated practice strategies on motor learning. The task was to move a mouse-operated cursor through pattern arrays that differed in two levels of difficulty. Participants learned either four easy or hard patterns after assignment to one of four groups that ordered practice in blocked, random, self-regulated, and yoked-to-self-regulated schedules. Although self-regulation provided no special benefit in acquisition, these groups showed the most improved performance in retention, irrespective of task difficulty. Although individual switch strategies for members of the self-regulated groups were quite variable, the impact of self-regulation on motor learning remained similar. These findings add to the growing body of literature suggesting that self-regulated practice is an important variable for motor learning.

Key words: contextual interference, performance-contingent practice, yoked controls

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One goal of motor learning research is to identify factors that optimize the acquisition of motor skills, and in doing so, to better understand the underlying processes that influence the learning process. Although many factors have been shown to be important for motor learning, practice organization is a particularly powerful variable. One of the most frequently studied is the effect of random and blocked practice (commonly termed the "contextual interference" effect--Battig, 1979; Shea & Morgan, 1979). This effect reveals that individuals who practice in high levels of contextual interference (e.g., a random ordering of trials on different tasks) have inferior performance scores during acquisition compared to low levels of contextual interference (e.g., a blocked practice order in which all practice trials of one task are performed before any of another task). The effect of low vs. high contextual interference is reversed in retention, however (the random group is superior in performance compared to the blocked group). Therefore, although blocked performance results in short-term advantages in motor performance, random practice is actually more beneficial for long-term gains (i.e., better for learning). Shea and Morgan's findings generated considerable interest, and researchers have subsequently replicated, extended, and theorized about these findings (for reviews, see Brady, 2004; Magill & Hall, 1990).

Theoretical arguments about the contextual interference effect suggest that blocked practice encourages an impoverished level of cognitive processing (for discussion see Lee & Magill, 1983, 1985; Shea & Zimny, 1983, 1988). This processing deficit should be especially strong when learning motor skills that are relatively simple in task difficulty. In contrast, tasks that have a higher level of difficulty would be expected to encourage greater cognitive processing, and this would be expected to be so despite of the impoverished level of processing promoted in a blocked practice order (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004). Therefore, task difficulty is one of the variables expected to modify the amount of contextual interference experienced during practice, and evidence exists to support this contention. For example, blocked and random groups in Albaret and Thon (1998) learned to draw geometrical patterns that differed in complexity, each pattern having either two, three, or four line segments. The typical contextual interference effect was found for those individuals who practiced the two- and three-segment patterns. However, the effect was not observed for those individuals who learned the four-segment pattern. The additional cognitive effort used by the blocked group in the acquisition of the most difficult task resulted in beneficial gains in long-term transfer, comparable to the random group. …

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