This recent paper by Gabriele Wulf and colleagues investigated the potential factors involved in motor skill learning. Particularly focusing on the influence several variables may have on the learning and performance of specific motor skills as they pertain to the medical field, a review of the literature was performed. Fortunately, the following factors may be applied to a wide range of settings and be of use by those in education, rehabilitation, and sports performance…to name a few. It was suggested that learning can be particularly enhanced when the learner’s motivation is optimized.

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Learning: "a relatively permanent change in a person's ability to perform a skill"

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OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING

  • In combination with physical practice, observational practice has been demonstrated to contribute highly to the acquisition of motor skills via mutual activation of the cerebellum, cingulate gyrus, inferior parietal lobe, premotor cortex, and supplementary motor area. The combination of such observational and physical practice is said to provide the opportunity to both extract important information pertaining to coordinated motor patterns as well as evaluate effective strategies that otherwise would be difficult if one were to both prepare and execute simultaneously. Therefore, observation provides the opportunity to “process”. Additionally, alternating between observation and physical practice (performing a dyad) allows the learner to observe and apply. This facilitates enhanced motivation.

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ATTENTION FOCUS

  • This variable pertains specifically to movement in relation to space and time. Ideally, attention should be directed to the induction of an external focus in contrast to one that is internal. Through simple changes in cues utilized, performance and learning can greatly be enhanced. For example, instructing a patient to “thrust his/her pelvis to the ceiling” will performing a glute bridge would be a more effective cue than suggesting he/she “activate the glutes and extend the hips”. Similarly, greater gains will likely be witness in a training environment when asking a squatting athlete to “sit back onto a chair” as opposed to “flex your hips keep your tibia vertical”. This external focus has been shown to facilitate automaticity of movement  and the use of unconscious processes, therefore reducing unwanted attentional demands.

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FEEDBACK

  • Commonly pertaining to “knowledge of results” and “knowledge of performance”, feedback has been demonstrated to highly influence motivation. Specifically when provided following “good” trials, feedback is said to facilitate more effective learning through positivity. Further, normative feedback, that is, feedback in relation to the performance of others (or the norm), enhances self-efficacy and motivation. This is true even in such instances when feedback was false (i.e. saying “great job” – even though performance was relatively poor). Therefore, rather than providing neutral information, positive feedback in specific situations will enhance self-fulfillment and motivation, thereby affecting learning.

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PRACTICE THAT IS SELF-CONTROLLED

  • Providing the learner with the opportunity to control their practice conditions has been demonstrated to be an effective method for the learning of motor skills. Allowing the learner to dictate when or when they do not want to receive feedback seems to be of greater importance than frequency of feedback. Additionally, occasionally permitting the individual to decide when they choose to practice facilitates greater active involvement and subsequently, enhanced motivation, self-control and effort. Such practice and learning conditions may also pertain to free play (allowing the athlete to spend extra time in the weightroom, court, or ice) and recreational exercise (performing rehabilitation exercises at home or in the gym).

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As you can see, there are no shortage of methods for us as rehabilitation and exercise professionals to become more effective “teachers”. In utilizing some of the above principles in the strategies we employ, we may become more effective practitioners and facilitate better means of motor skill acquisition.

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Reference: Wulf G, Shea C & Lewthwaite R. (2010). Motor skill learning and performance: a review of influential factors. Medical Education, 44; 75-84

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