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Project title: Improving skill learning

Primary supervisor: Dr Tom Stafford

Project description: Learning theory has identified a number of fundamental trade-offs in motor skill learning: component vs “whole-skill” training; blocked vs interleaved practice; the exploration-exploitation trade-off. All learners and coaches will have an intuitive feel how to vary training so as to balance emphasis on the different ends of these spectra. There is evidence, however, that the self-guided practice of non-elite sportspeople is systematically biased so as to produce sub-optimal improvements in skill learning (Huang, Shadmehr & Diedrichsen, 2008). For example, a bias towards practicing what we already know (the ‘exploitation’ part of the exploitation vs exploration trade-off) is widely-known, and reflects, broadly, ‘confirmation bias’ in the psychological domain (Nickerson, 1998). This bias leads to the under-exploration of the complex parameter space of skilled motor actions, hindering us from learning optimal movements. We have developed a laboratory motor skill learning task and shown that participants show just such a reliance on what they already know, and that this hampers optimal skill learning (Stafford et al, 2012).
The aims of this project would be
1. To show that interventions to decrease reliance on what is already known (i.e. to increase exploration via perturbation and/or handicap training) improve skill learning in our laboratory task.
2. Develop metrics which allow us to diagnose when interventions in training will be most effective.
3. Test if laboratory interventions which can improve rate of skill learning can generalise to athletes learning a new athletic skill

Huang, V. S., Shadmehr, R., & Diedrichsen, J. (2008). Active Learning: Learning a Motor Skill Without a Coach. Journal of Neurophysiology, 100(2), 879 –887.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Stafford, T., Thirkettle, M., Walton, T., Vautrelle, N., Hetherington, L., Port, M., Gurney, K., et al. (2012). A Novel Task for the Investigation of Action Acquisition. PLoS ONE, 7(6), e37749. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037749

Formal enquiries should be addressed to: Dr Tom Stafford (t.stafford@sheffield.ac.uk)

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