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Motor Learning - Motor Learning Research Informs Professional Practice, Practice variability (contextual interference).

skills physical education skill

Human beings use movement to learn about their world, to function in the world as they grow and mature, and to maintain healthy bodies. Individuals must learn to move and at the same time move to learn. Children explore their worlds through movement and make fundamental links between action and reality through movement.

The scientific study and principles that under-gird motor learning provide the guidance and an underlying


framework for (1) curricula of physical education programs within schools; (2) the cocurricular sport programs; (3) the pedagogical principles applied by physical education teachers and coaches; and (4) the clinical interventions of occupational and physical therapists for individuals of all ages. Professionals who understand how children and youth acquire motor skills, whether building with blocks, learning to write or draw, effectively moving through space, or developing skills for sport or leisure activities, enhance their capacity to provide optimal learning experiences.

Understanding how individuals learn motor skills (motor learning) requires an appreciation for the following factors.

  • Motor Development: how the capacity of children to produce motor skills naturally matures
  • Motor Control: how the human neurological system controls movement
  • Sport Psychology: how to motivate individuals to want to learn motor skills and participate in sport and exercise
  • Pedagogy for Physical Education: how the learning environment can be organized to optimize the acquisition of motor skills

Motor learning focuses on the most effective ways to facilitate the acquisition of skills by understanding or manipulating three aspects of the learning process for motor skills, as illustrated in Figure 1.

Motor learning research has held a predominant place in both physical education and psychology for more than 100 years. The early work of Robert Woodworth (1899) examined the conditions that affect movement accuracy and began a long history of research in this area. In the early twenty-first century, two fundamental approaches (models) describe the acquisition of motor skills and the challenges that face the learner. The information-processing focus is grounded by the work of such researchers as James Adams (1971), Steven Keele (1968) and Richard Schmidt (1975). An alternative explanation of motor skill acquisition comes from a dynamical systems approach followed by Karl Newell (1991) and Walter, Lee, and Sternad (1998). This approach emphasizes self-organization as a function of specific control parameters and environmental conditions as a way to understanding motor behavior.

Motor Learning Research Informs Professional Practice

Research from motor learning focuses on understanding how individuals acquire and perform motor skills, and serves as the basis for informed practice in such professional fields as physical education, occupation therapy, sports medicine, and physical therapy. In order to illustrate the contributions of motor learning to professional practice, three examples have been selected.

Providing effective models/demonstrations. Historically it was believed that providing ideal models was the best way to transmit information to learners. This assumption suggested that teachers or professional models should provide demonstrations to facilitate the acquisition of motor skills. By the early twenty-first century, research had shown that providing "learning models" who are similar to the peer learners, and who are shown modifying their skills, are more effective than the traditional perfect model. In practice, this suggests that models who are individuals, similar to the learner, should be shown trying to learn a motor skill, receiving feedback, and improving as a result of this feedback. Teachers should therefore focus on selecting classmate children to model, and to provide feedback that allows the models to improve during the process of providing the demonstration.

Practice variability (contextual interference).

Learning environments that provide reinforcement for the immediate performance of desired skills has often been the focus of physical education programs. The short-term benefits of practice that result do not take into account the need to consider the long-term benefits of various practice strategies.

For example, if students are to learn three tennis skills (forehand, backhand, and serve), they typically practice in a blocked fashion, focusing exclusively on each skill until it is learned (often to the 80 percent proficiency level). In contrast, early-twenty-first-century motor learning research has shown that practicing such skills in an interleaved or random fashion produces better long-term retention. This principle is referred to as contextual interference since practicing each of the three skills together produces some short-term interference (degradation of performance) compared to blocked practice, though eventually learners will be able to retain each skill at a level higher than those individuals who practice in a blocked schedule.

Brain gym. The provision of physical education in K-12 schools, and work in allied health professions (physical therapy, sports medicine, etc.) has relied on the scientific bases from a variety of disciplines (e.g., kinesiology, neurology, physical education, physical therapy, and psychology). By the twenty-first century, a resurgence of interest occurred in the neurological foundations of motor performance and in how the neurological system integrates cognitive and motor skills. One predominant influence has been the neuro-physiological bases of motor skill acquisition, and a curricular interpretation referred to as brain gym. The work of Paul Dennison and Gail Dennison (1994) has focused on the importance of inter-hemispheric activation, systematic challenges, and the use of cognitive resources in the production of motor skills.

In summary, the field of motor learning provides the understanding of the psychological and physiological features that enhance motor skill acquisition. It informs professional practice for both classroom and physical education teachers, and for allied health professionals, and impacts the quality of life for all individuals (birth through death).


ADAMS, JAMES A. 1971. "A Closed-Loop Theory of Motor Learning." Journal of Motor Behavior 3:111–150.

BUNKER, LINDA K.; NAIR, MURAH; and MARCOS, N. 2000. The Contextual Interference Effect in Elementary Children Learning a Field Hockey Skill.

Paper presented at American Alliance for Health, Physical Education Recreation, and Dance (AAHPERD) National Convention, Orlando, FL.

DENNISON, PAUL E., and DENNISON, GAIL E. 1994. Brain Gym. New York: New York Educational Kinesthetics.

GREEN, D. PENELOPE; WHITEHEAD, JEAN; and SUGDEN, DAVID A. 1995. "Practice Variability and Transfer of a Racket Skill." Perceptual and Motor Skills 81:1275–1281.

LAGUNA, PATRICIA L. 2000. "The Effect of Model Observation versus Physical Practice during Motor Skill Acquisition and Performance." Journal of Human Movement Studies 39:171–191.

KEELE, STEVEN W. 1968. "Movement Control in Skilled Motor Performance." Psychological Bulletin 70:387–403.

MCCULLAGH, PENNY, and MEYERS, KORINNE N. 1997. "Learning versus Correct Models: Influence of Model Type on the Learning of a Free-Weight Squat Lift." Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 68:56–61.

MCCULLAGH, PENNY; WEISS, MAUREEN R.; and ROSS, DIANE. 1989. "Modeling Considerations in Motor Skill Acquisition and Performance: An Integrated Approach." Exercise and Sport Science Reviews 17:475–513.

NEWELL, KARL M. 1991. "Motor Skill Acquisition." Annual Review of Psychology 42:213–237.

SCHMIDT, RICHARD A. 1975. "A Schema Theory of Discrete Motor Skill Learning." Psychological Review 82:225–260.

WALTER, C.; LEE, T. D.; and STERNAD, D. 1998. "Hot Topics in Motor Control and Learning: Promises, Potential Limitations, and Future Directions." Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 69:316–319.

WOODWORTH, ROBERT S. 1899. "The Accuracy of Voluntary Movement." Psychological Review 3:1–114.


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