learning, practice and skill
May 4, 1994

Learning can be defined as the process by which relatively permanent changes to an individual's behaviour are made, where such changes are attributable to experience or practise (Drowatzky, 1981). These changes can be very useful when the individual is attempting to acquire or improve a motor skill. A motor skill is a series of actions moulded into a smooth and efficient performance (Coon, 1992), the changes occurring during the learning process producing this smoothness and efficiency.

Motor skills, however, are not inherent; they are developed, founded on a base of motor patterns, which are in turn founded on movement skills found in new-borns (Drowatzky, 1981). Movement skills are evolved by the learning process into these motor patterns, which are typified by their variability and applicability to many different situations (Drowatzky, 1981). To develop a motor skill, the individual starts with a motor pattern and specialises it, such as using writing ability to develop a signature (Drowatzky, 1981). Motor skills are used to perform precise movements that are limited in variability and applicability (Drowatzky, 1981).

Fitts (1964: cited in Drowatzky, 1981) states there are three stages to the in the process of learning a skill. The first is a cognitive stage where the individual forms an understanding of what is required. From this understanding the individual develops a motor program, which is a "mental map" of what the sequence of actions should be like (Blumenthal, 1976: cited in Coon, 1992). The second stage involves feedback, which is the processing of responses from the body, senses, and the outside world (Coon, 1992). Feedback can consist of test results, a videotape, an opponent's moves; anything that can provide information about how successful the individual's performance has been. This information is taken into account by the individual and used to improve the performance of the next attempt (Drowatzky, 1981). In the case of learning to skate, a simple example of feedback is whether the student falls over, or not. Staying vertical indicates to the student that their learning is, so far at least, successful. The third stage is termed by Fitts (1964: cited in Drowatzky, 1981) as autonomous; in this stage, the individual has mastered the basics of the skill and is working on finesse. The student skater can now confidently circle the rink and is attempting to make the circuits graceful; the driver of a car can afford to notice the scenery. Performance continues to improve, but at a lesser rate, and by the third stage the acquisition of the skill is close to completion (Drowatzky, 1981). Often this stage is defined by the student relegating some parts of the performance to lower cognitive processes, where there is less interference and distraction, and the student can then use the higher processes for adding new tasks or improvements to the skill they have acquired (Drowatzky, 1981).

It would be a mistake, however, to look for the three distinct phases when observing the progress of a student. The learning process is continuous, and there is no specific point where stage two becomes stage three. The thread that links both, and is responsible for progression from one to another, is practise; with practise the motor program is developed into a skill; it is with practise that learning is achieved (Drowatzky, 1981).

There are two methods of practise, massed practise and spaced, or distributed, practise (Coon, 1992). The essential difference between the two is intensity; massed practise occurs in a single lengthy session whilst spaced practise places rest periods in between sessions (Coon, 1992). There are many ways to intersperse work and rest periods, but Jones & Ellis (1962: cited in Drowatzky, 1981) have shown that subjects in a distributed practise environment show increasingly superior performance over those in a massed practise environment. It is thought that this is due to inhibitory factors such as fatigue, boredom, and decreased motivation, or a combination of these (Drowatzky, 1981).

One further aspect of motor skills is the aspect of transfer. This term is used to denote a subject's "bleeding" of skills acquired in one task into another, that is, when two tasks share common skills, and the subject uses, or attempts to use, skills already learned in one task when attempting another (Coon, 1992). There are three types of transfer; a positive transfer, where the transferred skills aid the subject in learning the new task; a negative transfer, where the transferred skills hinder the subject in learning the new task; and a neutral transfer, where transferred skills neither aid nor hinder the subject in learning the new task (Coon, 1992). Transfer can also be classed as proactive and retroactive, describing an transfer from an initial task to a new task, and a transfer from an newly acquired task back to an older task, respectively (Drowatzky, 1981).

Transfer is affected by the subjects' prior experience, in that while general experience may be a little helpful, some specific experience with the task at hand or similar tasks is required before transfer occurs (Nissen, Chow and Semmes (1951); Hebb (1937); Towne (1954); Harlow (1949): cited in Drowatzky, 1981). Additionally, the degree of transfer is dependent on the degree of similarity between the stimulus and response of each task. Morgan & King (1966, p.130: cited in Drowatzky, 1981) summarise it thus:

  1. Learning to make identical responses to new stimuli results in positive transfer.
  2. Learning to make new responses to similar or identical stimuli results in negative transfer.
  3. The amount of transfer, positive or negative, is a function of stimulus similarity. The greater the similarity between any two tasks, the greater the degree of transfer of skills between those tasks.
  4. Whether the transfer is positive or negative is largely dependent upon response similarity.

Other factors can also affect transfer; the amount of learning done on the initial task (Reid, 1953: cited in Drowatzky, 1981) and the emotional state of the subjects (Denny and Reisman (1956): cited in Drowatzky, 1981).

Psychological factors such as expectancies, ideals and motives are also subject to transfer, in fact, anything that has ever been learned is subject to transfer (Drowatzky, 1981).

Bilateral transfer is concerned with learning skills for one side of the body and then using those skills on the other side; such transfers are useful in physical training and in rehabilitation (Drowatzky, 1981). Practise limited to one muscle group improves the performance of muscle groups on the opposite side of the body (Hellebrandt and Waterland (1962): cited in Drowatzky, 1981), however, Walker, DeSoto and Shelly (1959: cited in Drowatzky, 1981) showed that short warm-up periods with the right hand did not serve as warm-up periods for the left hand. Walter (1959: cited in Drowatzky, 1981) concluded that bilateral transfer was maximised through practise with overload.


Coon, D. (1992) Introduction to Psychology, 6th Edition. St Paul; West Publishing Company.

Drowatzky, J. (1981) Motor Learning, Principles and Practices, 2nd Edition. Minneapolis; Burgess Publishing Company.