Motor Learning/Classroom Learning - Steve Barkley

Motor Learning/Classroom Learning

Through the Trainugly website I listened to an interview with John Kessel—Director of Sport Development for USA Volleyball.  Kessel focused on what we know about motor skill learning and how athletic coaches should use that knowledge in practice. As I listened I was struck with connections to student learning in classrooms and to professional development for teachers.

Kessel stated that practice for motor learning should be specific, random, chaotic, and distributive. 

Specific refers to how closely practice matches the game. In motor learning little transfer is gained from practice that isn’t specific to game conditions. In a basketball game one shoots a foul shot after driving to the board and being fouled. You get one or two shots. If at basketball practice a player stands on the foul line and takes 50 practice shots, that practice isn’t very specific to the game conditions.

Practice matching game made me think about the math and science “practice” students are frequently doing in a classroom that doesn’t come very close to what application of science and math are in real world settings. I love to find the examples of teachers creating Live Event  learning opportunities where students are working in real or closer to real world settings….game like. To quote Kessel, ”You got to do it, not watch it.”

Random training is superior to block. In Schmidt and Wrisberg’s Motor Learning and Performance, blocked practice is defined as a practice sequence in which individuals rehearse the same skill repeatedly. Random practice is defined as a practice sequence in which individuals perform a number of skills in a (quasi-) random order, thus avoiding or minimizing consecutive repetitions of any single skill.

Distributive practice of skills versus mass practice is shown to have better retention. That is also true for students’ studying time. While mass study the night before an exam might work for the test the next day, the material needs to be restudied later as it wasn’t retained long term.

Kessel suggest that many block practiced drills lead to players practicing to look good in practice more than improving real game performance. Drills can look good in practice, but the game is random. This causes me to think about all the assessments that teachers do within each unit of study that show “supposed” mastery only to be disappointed with students’ “forgetting “ later in the year or hearing next year’s teacher ask, ”Didn’t you cover this?”

Practice that is random and specific to game conditions often looks chaotic. Kessel jokes that some athletic directors feel better observing good looking drills causing coaches to be lees effective. He suggests having some drills ready to run when the athletic director visits practice. Sounds like a story I have heard often from teachers. When being observed, stop the chaotic student driven learning and switch to teacher directed.

There were two additional points Kessler made that I felt had strong classroom applications.

Guided discovery learning (intrinsic learning) has much greater retention in skills than players being told what to do. The player discovering from a coach’s questions why to extend the arm on a serve is much more like to internalize the learning than when being told by the coach to do it. This supports teachers’ use of inquiry, problem-based, discovery tasks for their students.

Coaches providing feedforward that guides a player to what to do next time is more productive than feedback about what is wrong or what not to do.( See my earlier blog on feedback/feedforward.)

Now a quick look at applying to teacher professional development:

                                specific, random, chaotic, and distributive

 Sounds like job-embedded professional development and classroom coaching to me. The professional development literature has reported for at least 30 years on the lack of impact staff development in isolated workshops has on student achievement. PLC’s and coaching should help implement specific, random, chaotic distributive practice for teachers to build the complex moves and critical thinking that promote quality learning.

The following chart by Schmidt and Wrisburg, illustrating stages of motor learning and performance, closely aligns with teachers’ implementation of new instructional strategies.


The game teaches the game…..  John Kessel

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