3.1. The Learning Process

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In the course of learning a new motor skill, the learner progresses through stages. Early in the process, success may be partial, inconsistent or only possible in a familiar setting. As learning progresses, preliminary success is eventually achieved (skill acquisition), consistency within training sessions improves, success carries over into subsequent sessions (skill retention) and the learner is able to use the skill in more diverse settings (skill transfer). Ultimately, the skill may become autonomous, requiring little or no conscious effort. The time course of motor learning includes an initial period of rapid improvement, sometimes followed by a plateau that may be followed by additional gains. The shape of the motor-learning curve is not a straight line and may be punctuated by abrupt transitions from novice to skilled coordination patterns.

There is a distinction between aspects of the learning process that are in the form of facts and ideas (sometimes called the “declarative”, “cognitive” or “explicit” system) versus those that relate to the actual performance of the skill (sometimes called the “procedural”, “motor skill” or “implicit” system). Each can be acquired without the other. If both are acquired, this need not be in a fixed order. The two can assist or interfere with each other. Attempting to consciously control motor actions can disrupt optimal performance. Skills learned implicitly through a discovery approach appear to be more robust under pressure. Healthy learners can sometimes engage explicit (conscious) and implicit (automatic) motor control simultaneously without deterioration of control compared to either alone.

People who have acquired expertise in performing a motor skill have some characteristics in common. For instance, they have greater awareness of their situations and better ability to anticipate changes in the environment. They are better able to exclude intrusions on their attention and to remain focused on the task. Their motor performances are less affected by stress and fatigue.