Learning-Physical Skills

Even though the process of learning is profound, the main objective or purpose of most instruction typically is teaching a concept, a generalization, an attitude, or a skill. The process of learning a psychomotor or physical skill is much the same, in many ways, as cognitive learning. To provide a real illustration of physical skill learning, try the following exercise:

On a separate sheet of paper, write the word "learning" 15 times with your left hand or with your right hand, if you are left handed. Try to improve the speed and quality of your writing as you go along.

Physical Skills Involve More Than Muscles

The above exercise contains a practical example of the multifaceted character of learning. It should be obvious that, while a muscular sequence was being learned, other things were happening as well. The perception changed as the sequence became easier. Concepts of how to perform the skill were developed and attitudes were changed.

A listing such as the one shown here is useful for development of almost any training program.

Fig. 14.8: A listing such as the one shown here is useful for development of almost any training program.

Desire to Learn

Thinking back over their past experiences in learning to perform certain skills, students might be surprised at how much more readily they learned those skills that appealed to their own needs (principle of readiness). Shorter initial learning time and more rapid progress in improving the skill normally occurred. Conversely, where the desire to learn or improve was missing, little progress was made. A person may read dozens of books a year, but the reading rate will not increase unless there is a deliberate intent to increase it. In the preceding learning exercise, it is unlikely that any improvement occurred unless there was a clear intention to improve. To improve, one must not only recognize mistakes, but also make an effort to correct them. The person who lacks the desire to improve is not likely to make the effort and consequently will continue to practice errors. The skillful instructor relates the lesson objective to the student's intentions and needs and, in so doing, builds on the student's natural enthusiasm.

Patterns to Follow

Logically, the point has been emphasized that the best way to prepare the student to perform a task is to provide a clear, step-by-step example. Having a model to follow permits students to get a clear picture of each step in the sequence so they understand what is required and how to do it. In flight or maintenance training, the instructor provides the demonstration, emphasizing the steps and techniques. During classroom instruction, an outside expert may be used, either in person or in a video presentation. In any case, students need to have a clear impression of what they are to do.

Perform the Skill

After experiencing writing a word with the wrong hand, consider how difficult it would be to tell someone else how to do it. Even demonstrating how to do it would not result in that person learning the skill. Obviously, practice is necessary. The student needs coordination between muscles and visual and tactile senses. Learning to perform various aircraft maintenance skills or flight maneuvers requires this sort of practice. There is another benefit of practice. As the student gains proficiency in a skill, verbal instructions mean more. Whereas a long, detailed explanation is confusing before the student begins performing, specific comments are more meaningful and useful after the skill has been partially mastered.

Knowledge of Results

In learning some simple skills, students can discover their own errors quite easily. In other cases, such as learning complex aircraft maintenance skills, flight maneuvers, or flight crew duties, mistakes are not always apparent. A student may know that something is wrong, but not know how to correct it. In any case, the instructor provides a helpful and often critical function in making certain that the students are aware of their progress. It is perhaps as important for students to know when they are right as when they are wrong. They should be told as soon after the performance as possible and should not be allowed to practice mistakes. It is more difficult to unlearn a mistake and then learn it correctly, than to learn correctly in the first place. One way to make students aware of their progress is to repeat a demonstration or example and to show them the standards their performance must ultimately meet.

Progress Follows a Pattern

The experience of learning to write a word with the wrong hand probably confirmed what has been consistently demonstrated in laboratory experiments on skill learning.

Students will more than likely experience a learning plateau at some point in their training.

Fig. 14.9: Students will more than likely experience a learning plateau at some point in their training.

The first trials are slow and coordination is lacking. Mistakes are frequent, but each trial provides clues for improvement in subsequent trials. The student modifies different aspects of the skill such as how to hold the pencil, or how to execute finger and hand movement.

Graphs of the progress of skill learning, such as the one shown below, usually follow the same pattern. There is rapid improvement in the early stages, then the curve levels off and may stay level for a significant period of time. Further improvement may seem unlikely. This is a typical learning plateau.

A learning plateau may signify any number of conditions. For example, the student may have reached capability limits, may be consolidating levels of skill, interest may have waned, or the student may need a more efficient method for increasing progress. Keep in mind that the apparent lack of increasing proficiency does not necessarily mean that learning has ceased. The point is that, in learning motor skills, a leveling off process, or a plateau, is normal and should be expected after an initial period of rapid improvement. The instructor should prepare the student for this situation to avert discouragement. If the student is aware of this learning plateau, frustration may be minimized.

Duration and Organization of a Lesson

In planning for student performance, a primary consideration is the length of time devoted to practice. A beginning student reaches a point where additional practice is not only unproductive, but may even be harmful. When this point is reached, errors increase and motivation declines. As a student gains experience, longer periods of practice are profitable.

Another consideration is the problem of whether to divide the practice period. Perhaps even the related instruction should be broken down into segments, or it may be advantageous to plan one continuous, integrated sequence. The answer depends on the nature of the skill. Some skills are composed of closely related steps, each dependent on the preceding one. Learning to pack a parachute is a good example. Other skills are composed of related subgroups of skills. Learning to overhaul an aircraft engine is a good example.

Evaluation vs. Critique

If an instructor were to evaluate the fifteenth writing of the word "learning," only limited help could be given toward further improvement. The instructor could judge whether the written word was legible and evaluate it against some criterion or standard, or perhaps even assign it a grade of some sort. None of these actions would be particularly useful to the beginning student. However, the student could profit by having someone watch the performance and critique constructively to help eliminate errors.

In the initial stages, practical suggestions are more valuable to the student than a grade. Early evaluation is usually teacher oriented. It provides a check on teaching effectiveness, can be used to predict eventual student learning proficiency and can help the teacher locate special problem areas. The observations on which the evaluations are based also can identify the student's strengths and weaknesses, a prerequisite for making constructive criticism.

Application of Skill

The final and critical question is, Can the student use what has been learned? It is not uncommon to find that students devote weeks and months in school learning new abilities and then fail to apply these abilities on the job. To solve this problem, two conditions must be present. First, the student must learn the skill so well that it becomes easy, even habitual; and second, the student must recognize the types of situations where it is appropriate to use the skill. This second condition involves the question of transfer of learning.


The applications of social learning theory have been important in the history of education policies in the United States. The zone of proximal development is used as a basis for early intervention programs such as Head Start. Social learning theory can also be seen in the TV and movie rating system that is used in the United States. The rating system is designed to all parents to know what the programs that their children are watching contain. The ratings are based on age appropriate material to help parents decide if certain content is appropriate for their child to watch. Some content may be harmful to children who do not have the cognitive ability to process certain content, however the child may model the behaviors seen on TV.

Guided participation is seen in schools across the United States and all around the world in language classes when the teacher says a phrase and asks the class to repeat the phrase. The other part to guided participation is when the student goes home and practices on their own. Guided participation is also seen with parents who are trying to teach their own children how to speak.

Portraitising is another technique that is used widely across the United States. Most academic subjects take advantage of portraitising , however mathematics is one of the best examples. As students move through their education they learn skills in mathematics that they will build on throughout their scholastic careers. A student who has never taken a basic math class and does not understand the principles of addition and subtraction will not be able to understand algebra. The process of learning math is a portraitising technique because the knowledge builds on itself over time.

"Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action."


Memory is an integral part of the learning process. Although there are several theories on how the memory works, a widely accepted view is the multi-stage concept which states that memory includes three parts: sensory, working or short-term and long-term systems. The total system operates somewhat like an advanced computer that accepts input (stimuli) from an external source, contains a processing apparatus, a storage capability and an output function.

Sensory Register

The sensory register receives input from the environment and quickly processes it according to the individual's preconceived concept of what is important. However, other factors can influence the reception of information by the sensory system. For example, if the input is dramatic and impacts more than one of the five senses, that information is more likely to make an impression. The sensory register processes inputs or stimuli from the environment within seconds, discards what is considered extraneous and processes what is determined by the individual to be relevant. This is a selective process where the sensory register is set to recognize certain stimuli and immediately transmit them to the working memory for action. The process is called preceding. An example is sensory preceding to recognize a fire alarm. No matter what is happening at the time, when the sensory register detects a fire alarm, the working memory is immediately made aware of the alarm and preset responses begin to take place.

Working or Short-Term Memory

Within seconds the relevant information is passed to the working or short-term memory where it may temporarily remain or rapidly fade, depending on the individual's priorities. Several common steps help retention in the short-term memory. These include rehearsal or repetition of the information and sorting or categorization into systematic chunks. The sorting process is usually called coding or chunking. A key limitation of the working memory is that it takes 5-10 seconds to properly code information. If the coding process is interrupted, that information is lost after about 20 seconds.

Information processing within the sensory register, working or short-term memory and long-term memory includes complex

Fig. 14.10: Information processing within the sensory register, working or short-term memory and long-term memory includes complex

coding, sorting, storing and recall functions.

The working or short-term memory is not only time limited, it also has limited capacity, usually about seven bits or chunks of information. A seven-digit telephone number is an example. As indicated, the time limitation may be overcome by rehearsal. This means learning the information by a rote memorization process. Of course, rote memorization is subject to imperfections in both the duration of recall and in its accuracy. The coding process is more useful in a learning situation. In addition, the coding process may involve recoding to adjust the information to individual experiences. This is when actual learning begins to take place. Therefore, recoding may be described as a process of relating incoming information to concepts or knowledge already in memory.

Methods of coding vary with subject matter, but typically they include some type of association. Use of rhymes or mnemonics is common. An example of a useful mnemonic is the memory aid for one of the magnetic compass errors. The letters "ANDS" indicate:

• Accelerate

• North

• Decelerate

• South

Variations of the coding process are practically endless. They may consist of the use of acronyms, the chronology of events, images, semantics, or an individually developed structure based on past experiences. Developing a logical strategy for coding information is a significant step in the learning process. In this brief discussion of memory, it may appear that sensory memory is distinct and separate from working or short-term memory. This is not the case. In fact, all of the memory systems are intimately related. Many of the functions of working or short-term memory are nearly identical to long-term memory functions.

Long-Term Memory

What then is distinctive about the long-term memory? This is where information is stored for future use. For the stored information to be useful, some special effort must have been expended during the coding process in working or short-term memory. The coding should have provided meaning and connections between old and new information. If initial coding is not properly accomplished, recall will be distorted and it may be impossible. The more effective the coding process, the easier the recall. However, it should be noted that the long-term memory is a reconstruction, not a pure recall of information or events. It also is subject to limitations, such as time, biases and, in many cases, personal inaccuracies. This is why two people who view the same event will often have totally different recollections.

Memory also applies to psychomotor skills. For example, with practice, a tennis player may be able to serve a tennis ball at a high rate of speed and with accuracy. This may be accomplished with very little thought. For a pilot, the ability to instinctively perform certain maneuvers or other tasks which require manual dexterity and precision provides obvious benefits. For example, it allows the pilot more time to concentrate on other essential duties such as navigation, communications with air traffic control facilities and visual scanning for other aircraft.

As implied, one of the major responsibilities of the instructor is to help students use their memories effectively. At the same time, an associated phenomenon, forgetting, cannot be ignored.

Theory of Forgetting

A consideration of why people forget may point the way to help them remember. Several theories account for forgetting, including disuse, interference and repression.

Disuse: The theory of disuse suggests that a person forgets those things which are not used. The high school or college graduate is saddened by the lack of factual data retained several years after graduation. Since the things which are remembered are those used on the job, a person concludes that forgetting is the result of disuse. But the explanation is not quite so simple. Experimental studies show, for example, that a hypnotized person can describe specific details of an event which normally is beyond recall. Apparently the memory is there, locked in the recesses of the mind. The difficulty is summoning it up to consciousness.


The basis of the interference theory is that people forget something because a certain experience has overshadowed it, or that the learning of similar things has intervened. This theory might explain how the range of experiences after graduation from school causes a person to forget or to lose knowledge. In other words, new events displace many things that had been learned. From experiments, at least two conclusions about interference may be drawn. First, similar material seems to interfere with memory more than dissimilar material; and second, material not well learned suffers most from interference.


Freudian psychology advances the view that some forgetting is repression due to the submersion of ideas into the subconscious mind. Material that is unpleasant or produces anxiety may be treated this way by the individual, but not intentionally. It is subconscious and protective. The repression theory does not appear to account for much forgetfulness of the kind discussed in this chapter, but it does tend to explain some cases.

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