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Last Updated on November 6, 2020

How Motor Learning Can Help You Learn Effectively

How Motor Learning Can Help You Learn Effectively

Practice makes perfect. It’s a cliché saying that gets pulled out time and time again. For many, they loath to hear it, but that saying has some truth to it. After all, this saying pops up the most when we are in the midst of motor learning.

While this saying is off, as perfection is impossible, the practice side of it is the only way for us to get closer to that level. And the only way a motor skill can get to that level is through motor learning. It’s through this concept where we can grow the various skills in our lives, but also to learn effectively by learning the right way.

What Is Motor Learning?

To present an example, it’s best to explain what the theory of motor learning is. For starters, it’s been described as such:[1]

“A set of internal processes associated with practice or experience leading to relatively permanent changes in the capability for skilled behavior.”

Our brain responds to sensory information to either practice or experience a certain skill that allows for growth of a motor task or the ability to produce a new motor skill. This happens because our central nervous system changes to allow this to happen in the first place.To see this at work, consider one of the first skills we learned as a human being: walking. While some think toddlers get up and start trying to walk, there are many complex processes at work.

The reason people started to learn to walk was because of motor learning.

At the base stage, we started to walk because months before even trying to take our first steps, we saw how important it was. We witnessed several people walking and understood how helpful it is to walk on two feet.

The 3 Stages of Motor Learning

There is more to motor learning than you might think. Over the years, the learning community has uncovered that there are three stages of motor learning:

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  • Cognitive
  • Associative
  • Autonomous

Each stage has its own requirements for further development and what each stage brings to the learning experience[2].

Motor learning for performance

    Cognitive Stage

    This base stage is where a lot of learning and context happens. At this stage, we’re not overly concerned about how to actually do the skill properly. Instead, we’re more concerned about why we should bother learning the skill.

    Once we’ve got a grasp of that, this stage also starts the trial and error process. You can call it practice, but at this stage, the idea is to at least try it out rather than nail it.

    This is also the stage where we are heavily reliant on guidance. We can have a coach or a teacher there, and their role is to provide a good learning environment. This means removing distractions and using visuals, as well as encouraging those trials and errors to guide the learning process.

    One example of this goes back to the walking example, but other instances are things like driving a car or riding a bike. Even when we are older, you can see this form of learning working.

    Associative Stage

    The second stage is where we’ve got some practice under our belt, and we have a good grasp of general concepts. We know what to do in order to perform this particular skill. The only problem is that we might not be able to do that skill all that well when compared to others.

    Indeed, we know what to do, but not “how to do it well.” It’s at this stage where the saying “Practice makes perfect” rings true. The more that we practice, the more we can refine and tighten the loose ends of that skill.

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    An example of this motor learning at work is seen in sports. Generally speaking, people can perform better the more that they practice. That’s because the more we practice something, the more we understand what input does to our bodies as well as where our current limits lie.

    Autonomous Stage

    At this stage, everything is more or less automatic and will stick in the long term. We can still improve, but you don’t need to tell yourself to go and do a certain task or assignment constantly. Your body has become adjusted to the idea of doing this.

    .

    An example of this learning is the skills that you use at work. When you get to work, you need very little persuasion to actually do your work. Whether that’s writing, lifting, operating a machine, or performing, there are a set of skills that we don’t think about and merely do.

    The Principles of Motor Learning

    The principles of motor learning are few and far between. Generally speaking, there is a consensus that the key to production of a new motor skill isn’t so much on the amount of time spent practicing, but the way that we practice.

    This idea was brought up in a 2016 study published on Science Alert, where scientists uncovered that making changes in your training can enhance your learning experience.[3]

    With this in mind, the core principles focus on the methodology of learning. Not only that, but ensuring they follow through the stages that I mentioned above, which are simple in concept.

    The core principle of this learning is to reinforce a skill so much that our execution of that skill is nothing but mindless consistency.

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    The study that I brought up is a new addition to that principle, as we now know that making alterations during our practice can cause new aspects of learning to grow and enrich our learning and mastery of a skill.

    How to Use Motor Learning Theory For Effective Learning

    The theory as we know it is to practice movement patterns until they become second nature and to experiment and make small changes in order to improve performance of a skill.

    How does all of that help with us being better at something? That study found something called memory reconsolidation.[4] One of the senior study author’s, Pablo A. Celnik, M.D. stated that:

    “What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row.”

    Motor learning through memory reconsolidation

      Celnik also stressed why this is such a big deal:

      “Our results are important because little was known before about how reconsolidation works in relation to motor skill development. This shows how simple manipulations during training can lead to more rapid and larger motor skill gains because of reconsolidation.”

      In other words, by using memory reconsolidation, we can learn faster and ultimately gain the ability to perform a skill faster than by practicing something for several hours without making changes[5].

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      Why does this variation enhance practice? Because the act of recalling our memories isn’t a passive process.[6]

      Whether you are learning a new skill or recalling an event, the sheer act of recalling changes the memory itself. In essence, our memories become highly unreliable as we focus and subtly alter those memories in light of recent events.

      This is because our brain is more interested in the most useful version of the world and disregards useless details.

      Bottom Line

      In order to incorporate motor learning into your life, it’s a matter of mixing up your practice session slightly. Whatever skill it is you are trying to do, urge yourself to make subtle changes to how you perform.

      If you’re writing, try applying a new word you never used previously that you picked up.

      Are you practicing an instrument or playing a sport? Try to use a different muscle or a new movement to achieve the same sound. This can be something as simple as posture or body position.

      The idea with motor learning is to keep practicing, even if you are at the stage where your movements are automatic. This variation can very well bring you to the next level of that skill.

      More About Learning Faster

      Featured photo credit: Jordan Whitfield via unsplash.com

      Reference

      More by this author

      Leon Ho

      Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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      Last Updated on February 11, 2021

      7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

      7 Reasons You Won’t Start Studying Until It’s Too Late, And What To Do About It

      For most of us, the experience of studying for an exam can be captured in one word: panic. You’ve got 18 hours, exhausted, and sitting there staring at an equations sheet full of gibberish. Why? Why didn’t I start earlier?

      Believe it or not, there are forces acting against you, pulling you away from starting early enough so that you can comfortably learn new material. Here are 7 of the most insidious reasons why you don’t start early, and what you can do about it.

      1. You’re anticipating hard work

      Procrastination is generally viewed as this guilt-ridden character defect shared almost universally by all students. The problem is, this is exactly what we should expect to happen from an evolutionary perspective.

      Humans are known to be cognitive misers:[1] we conserve mental resources whenever possible, especially when facing tasks not viewed as “essential to our survival.”

      In other words, we put off studying until the last minute because (1) we know the work is hard and will require a lot of mental energy, and (2) until there’s the threat of actually failing the exam (and therefore potentially being humiliated publicly) we’re not in enough emotional pain to motivate us to start studying.

      Additionally, when your brain anticipates multiple outcomes that are all viewed as “painful” (the pain of studying vs. the pain of failing out of college) you become immobilized, unable to choose the lesser of two evils, and push off the work even further.

      Schedule in time for yourself first and then fill in the gaps with study time.

      As Niel Fiore discusses in bestselling classic, The Now Habit, part of the reason you procrastinate is because you see no end in site.

      Think of the difference between a 100 yard dash and a marathon. In the first case you’re able to give maximum effort because you can see the finish line and know it will be over soon. The marathon runner is not so lucky. They know there’s a long road ahead filled with pain and exhaustion, and subconsciously conserve their effort to ensure they can make it through all 26.2 miles.

      This is all to say, if you know you get to go hang out in your buddy’s dorm room and goof off for an hour after you study, you’re much more likely to want to invest that energy.

      As a side benefit, you end up taking advantage of Parkinson’s Law. Because your work expands to fill the time allotted, by scheduling less time for studying, you actually become more productive and focused.

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      2. You’re sleep deprived

      Who in college isn’t pounding the caffeine?

      Students who force themselves through weeks upon weeks of 4-6 hour sleep nights, are significantly deteriorating two aspects of their mental performance critical to studying for exams: motivation and vigilance.

      Studies show that poor sleep negatively impacts motivation.[2] But really, no one needs a study to tell them how much worse your outlook on life is when you’re low on sleep.

      And vigilance,[3]the ability to maintain concentrated attention over prolonged periods of time, is also significantly reduced during a period of either acute (staying up all night studying), or chronic (cutting sleep short for multiple days) sleep deprivation.[4]

      Set yourself an end-of-the-day alarm.

      Yes, studying more consistently for shorter chunks will allow you to spread it over a longer period of time; therefore, preventing the need to deprive yourself of sleep just to get your coursework done. But really, it’s a psychological issue.

      There are a million things we’d rather stay up and do, than go right to bed after a full day of classes, only to have to get up and do the same thing over again. This is a chicken/egg problem: if I don’t get sleep I procrastinate studying, but if I go to bed I’ll just have to get up and study. Again, lose-lose. We need to break the cycle.

      Set yourself an alarm. But not in the morning. Set your alarm for 45 minutes before when you should get to sleep and allow yourself to sleep for a full 8 hours. If you adhere to that you’ll be surprised how many hours of free time seem to materialize.

      Study time + free time + sleep = happy and successful students.

      3. You have a false sense of security

      You may think you’re being a diligent student, sitting there in the lecture, listening intently, copying down page after page of notes from the professor. You might even be following along and raise your hand here and there. But there’s a big difference between feeling like you understand something, and actually being able to reproduce it on a test.

      This is what we call passive learning, and it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll spend a lot of time and effort trying to learn new material, without actually being able to retain any of it.

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      Quiz yourself.

      Don’t be fooled by your professor’s overly logical explanations. This dude already knows the material, so it’s easy for him to explain it in a way that others find understandable. The real challenge is whether or not you can do the same.

      If you’re wondering if you actually understand something, quiz yourself. Or better yet, explain it to someone (or yourself, but be warned: people tend to stare).

      As Einstein liked to say, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

      By routinely quizzing yourself, you’ll get a dose of reality of whether you actually know the material or not, instead of what most students do: assume they know it until the night before the test, when they proceed to freak out because they can’t do any of the practice problems.

      4. Not all study time is created equal

      Fact: seven hours of studying over 7 days is much more effective (more learning per time spent) for understanding new material than 7 hours of studying in one chunk. This is especially true for technical courses with new jargon you have to internalize.

      Chunk your study time.

      The brain uses a ton of energy (20% of our resting metabolic rate), and there’s only so much you can expend per day. To maximize your retention of new material, you want to take advantage of both active learning and recovery.

      Because the brain consolidates new neural pathways during sleep, particularly during REM sleep, the more sleep cycles you intersperse between your study hours, the more likely it is that you will retain the material and be able to whip it out on test day.

      This also allows you to take advantage of spaced repetition. Instead of having to constantly review your material to keep it in the forefront of your memory, you can follow a cycle of ever-increasing time intervals between review sessions (the “forgetting curve”), decreasing the overall amount of time needed to re-learn material you might have forgotten from the beginning of the semester when the final rolls around.

      5. The planning fallacy

      Humans systematically overestimate what can be accomplished in the short-term, and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long-term.

      Ironically (and sadly), we only have this problem evaluating our own tasks – providing a pretty accurate picture of how long things will take when evaluating someone else’s situation objectively.

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      Use the 50% rule.

      Estimate as conservatively as you can, how much time it’s going to take to study for your exam, assuming you start early and work consistently.

      Done?

      Okay. Now add 50% to that estimate.

      This will give you a more accurate picture of how much time you really need to allocate to starting studying.

      6. You think you have more study time than you do

      141025-study-definition

        Pull up your Sunday schedule. What do you see?

        Oh looks like I’ve got a big chunk of free time from 4pm to 10pm. Perfect, I’ll just squeeze in 5 or 6 hours of studying and then call it a night.

        Try again. It’s more like 2-3 hours.

        This is another type of planning mistake: overestimating how much productive time we can extract from any given period.

        Things we tend to forget: we need to eat; we need to sleep; there will be interruptions (yea right like you’re actually going to shut off your phone).

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        But another thing we fail to account for: the body goes through 90-120 minute activity cycles (called the Ultradian Rhythm). So even though you may be sitting there, highlighting your textbook for 3 hours straight, you really only have the ability to absorb material for 1.5 to 2 hours before you need a period of rest.

        Cut your estimated hours in half.

        If you think you have 8 hours on Sunday after the game to study, forget it. You actually have 4 or less when you take out time for eating, breaks, and normal daily activities.

        7. You can’t get motivated or focused

        A lot of us tend to sit around and wait…

        Waiting for the wave of motivation to strike us to finally get started on the homework assignment due in 24 hours, or studying for the midterm.

        Here’s the problem: motivation comes and goes, but the demands of school and learning and everyday life don’t. And if you’re relying on your motivation to keep you focused, everything you’re doing is going to be in a perpetual state of lateness and last-minute-ness, because there’s never enough motivation to go around.

        Focus on the process, with the end in mind.

        Why are you in school? Why do you want a degree? Get clear on exactly what your motivations are.

        But thinking about the future is not enough. That vision of the future that drives your emotional intensity needs to be linked to your daily activities. (e.g. “Each day I study for Calculus brings me one step closer to being a doctor and making a difference in people’s lives.”)

        What is the one set of activities each day that will virtually guarantee success in your coursework?

        And what can you do to organize your day, set up incentives, quit things that don’t matter, etc. to virtually guarantee you will do that one set of activities day in and day out, despite motivation?

        Featured photo credit: Melanie Deziel via unsplash.com

        Reference

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