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Effects of Observation on Motor Learning: Transfer Learning and Retention Tests

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2124 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Motor learning can be defined as internal permanent changes as a consequence of practice that enhance an individual’s ability for a specific process (Schmidt, 1988).  This paper aims to explore whether observation and practice is more effective for the transfer of learning and retention than practice alone. The participants of this study were randomly allocated into these two conditions, and were assessed on drawing lines blindfolded. It was found that practice and observation participants were more accurate in the transfer of learning tests than the practice only participants, however no significant results were yielded for retention testing. The underlying causes of these results are discussed in the paper, and directions for future research on retention have been suggested.




The purpose of this paper is to investigate the effects of observation on motor learning using transfer of learning and retention tests. This study was adapted from Thorndike’s (1927) experiment, wherein participants drew lines of 3-6 inches. These participants were then told whether they were correct, or incorrect. Overall, Thorndike’s study concluded that although every participant who received feedback improved, there was no evidence to suggest whether the participants were using the cues meaningfully, or drawing lines as they please.

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Other studies have attempted to overcome this by having the participants verbally explain what methods they employed to improve their accuracy (Trowbridge & Cason, 1932). This was inclusive of methods such as counting, visual imagery, etc. The study inferred that there was more than one psychological endeavour occurring during this task, which could interfere with the motor learning process. However, they did conclude that the most successful results were as a consequence of participants being told the length of the line which they had drawn, as opposed to Thorndike’s study wherein participants were merely told right or wrong. Trowbridge and Cason’s study was also integral in the formation of the study for this paper, wherein absolute error was measured as it has proven to be more effective in terms of the participant’s accuracy.

Research on mirror neurons have also been key in determining the formation of motor learning and memory. It has been found that mirror neurons become activated in both observing movements and physical practice (Stefan et al., 2005). This paper elaborates on this research by examining participants in the practice and observation condition and, and the practice only condition. This brings forth the three hypotheses for this paper. (1) Participants in the practice and observation tests will perform with greater accuracy in the transfer and retention tests than the participants in the practice only condition. (2) Participants in the practice only condition will perform with greater accuracy in the transfer and retention tests than the participants in the practice and observation condition. (3) Participants in the practice and observation condition will not yield a significantly different result than participants in the practice only condition.





Macquarie University students enrolled in PSY236 were randomly sampled (N=26) in order to form a common cohort for this experiment (females = 15, males = 11). The students within this cohort were randomly allocated into pairs. Within the pairs, the participant s then completed a coin-toss to allocate them into two feedback conditions; practice only (1), or observation and practice (2).

Materials and Procedure

Participants were provided with a blindfold, an A4 piece of paper, a pen and a ruler. In the first condition, one participant is an experimenter (E1) and the other becomes the subject (S1). In the second condition, these roles reverse accordingly (S1 becomes E2, E1 becomes S2). Participants who won the coin toss were allocated into the practice condition (1), where they have not seen their partner complete the task. Participants who lost the coin toss were allocated into the observation and practice condition (2), where they were able to observe their partners completing the task in the first condition before undertaking the task themselves. All units were measured in centimetres.

The task was divided into three parts; practice, transfer test (DV1) and retention test (DV2). During the practice task, in both conditions, students drew a 12cm line 15 times, with the experimenter providing specific, quantitative feedback about the absolute error. For example, + 2cm

. In both conditions, participants had 100% knowledge of results. Next, the participants engaged in the transfer test wherein they drew 15cm line blindfolded, and the absolute error was measured and recorded by the experimenter however without the direction of the error. No feedback was provided in this test. After 15 minutes, the participants completed the retention test where they were to draw a 12cm line. Again, the absolute error was measured and recorded.



The focus of the analysis is the participants scores of absolute error on the transfer test and the retention test. In the transfer test, S2 participants performed better (M = 0.76, SD = 0.89) than the S1 participants (M = 1.39, SD = 0.83). An independent samples t-test was run comparing the two groups, and yielded a statistically significant result (p = 0.04). Thus, this data supports Hypothesis 2 in terms of the transfer test.

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In the retention test, S1 participants performed better (M = 0.99, SD = 0.90) than the S2 participants (M = 1.28, SD = 0.74). An independent samples t-test was run comparing the two groups, yielded a statistically non-significant result (p = 0.39). Thus, this data is in rejection of both Hypothesis 1 and 2, and only in accordance with Hypothesis 3 in terms of retention testing.



This paper assessed whether observation impacted transfer of learning and retention on motor skills. It is clear that the results do not fully support a single hypotheses, as hypotheses two and three could not be fully accepted or rejected due to the lack of statistical significance in the retention tests. Future research may engage the potential to explore transfer and retention in separate hypotheses.


A core strength of this study is the effectiveness of repetitive practice or “blocked practice” in the acquisition of a skill as opposed to random practice (Bertollo, Berchicci, Carraro, Comani & Robazza, 2010). In conjunction with this, instantaneous and repeated feedback has also been found to increase performance (Goodman, 1998), which is also another primary strength of this study.

However, many studies have also highlighted that random practice has shown to be more effective in transfer and retention testing (Shea & Morgan, 1979). It has been discovered that when the task at hand is simplistic such as the study concerning this paper, and there are lesser demands on memory, random practice is preferred (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004). Blocked practice has been shown to benefit participants who perform at beginner level for the required task, or when tasks are difficult and require a larger memory capacity (Guadagnoli & Lee, 2004). Due to the simplistic nature of the study, future research should assess whether random practice is more effective than blocked practice.

Retention may be unsuccessful due to the fact that test conditions are quite often different from practice conditions. Testing conditions amalgamate different levels of pressure, and stress in participants and thus may alter their abilities to perform with less accuracy than in the practice conditions (Druckman & Bjork, 1991). A weakness of this study is that stress levels were not observed in participants. Future research could potentially assess this same study, and compare stress levels during practice condition and testing phase through means such as measures of heart rate and breathing.

Retention has also found to be most effective when the practice phase is distributed over larger spans of time, rather than condensed periods (Bahrick & Phelps, 1987). This leads to another limitation of this study, wherein subjects were confined to only a small window of time, and only for a period of one day. Future research could assess participants over the course of one week or more given the simplistic nature of the task.

In conclusion, practice and observation has been found to increase performance in participants for transfer of learning as described in the results. However, the effects of practice for retention remain at bay, and remains an integral part of motor learning which should be diligently assessed by future researchers.



  • Bahrick, H. P., & Phelphs, E. (1987). Retention of Spanish vocabulary over 8 years. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition13(2), 344.
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