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The illusion of learning

The learning illusion is that in certain learning situations, especially constant ones, performance improves during training but declines sharply during transfer. On the other hand, many experiments have shown that under more difficult learning conditions, for example with variable tasks, performance improves less during training but leads to much better transfer performance.


Contextual interference → The influence of the specific exercise context on learning success. Variation of this context leads to higher learning success.

Blocked practice → Repeating the same practice task over and over again.

Variable practice → The variation of a practice task during learning.

Context conditions → The specific context in which the exercise is carried out (repetitive, variable, series of exercises, etc.).


Shea & Morgan conducted a famous movement coordination experiment in 1979 that significantly changed existing paradigms regarding the learning process: "Effects of contextual interference on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill." Contextual interference means that there are other things to attend to besides the actual task of the exercise, such as here the reaction to a colored light signal. Simultaneously executing a movement while respecting other criteria is a particular challenge for the brain, as the movement must be constantly adapted to the perceived stimuli.

The experiment consisted of reacting to a colored light, picking up a tennis ball, knocking down six wooden barriers in different order, and dropping the tennis ball in a different position. Depending on the color of the light, there were three specific sequences in which the barriers had to be knocked down during the move.


Overlap of different exercise conditions

The study builds on Battig's 1966 concept that increased contextual interference (overlap of different practice conditions) during skill acquisition leads to enhanced retention or transfer, especially under later changed contextual conditions. One group learned three motor tasks in a fixed order (always the same task), and the other group learned the tasks in a random order. What's interesting here is that both groups did the same exercises overall, but in a different order. The transfer effect was tested again after 10 min and 10 days, respectively, in the order of fixed and random presentation.

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The results on the left side of the figure show that during the practice phase, the fixed practice group (squares) performed significantly better than the random practice group (circles).

Initially, this appears to be a superiority of locked practice, as the student himself feels in many learning situations with fixed practice: He improves during practice and is thus also convinced of the success of learning. However, this effect is completely reversed during transfer. If after 10 minutes or after 10 days the fixed sequence, i.e. the simple sequence, was tested, suddenly the group with the random exercise sequence was better. However, this effect was dramatic when random order of exercises was tested within transfer. The performance of the fixed-practice group lagged far behind, while the random-practice group was able to maintain the level of learning achieved. This effect was still measurable after 10 days.

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 Variable practice in sports

This experiment has been repeated and confirmed several times in numerous variations. The learning benefits of variable training have often been demonstrated in different settings with novices. The purpose of a study by Hall and his colleagues ("Contextual interference effects with skilled baseball players", 1997) was to test such effects in experienced athletes as well. This involved examining biweekly supplemental batting practice performance for a college baseball team (ages 17–21). One group received 45 throwing exercises in random order, while the other group received the throwing exercises in a fixed order: all 15 exercises of one type, then 15 of the next type, and finally 15 of the last type. The evolution of the performances of the two groups was checked during the training and later in a transfer test.


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The figure shows slightly better performance for the fixed practice group (red) during training. In the transfer test, the differences were again reversed. When comparing the pre-test with a transfer test with random throwing order, the random order group improved 56.7% and the fixed order group only 26.3%. Compared to the last training measurement, the performance of the fixed training group deteriorated significantly.

The illusion of learning by repetition

The results of these studies naturally had profound consequences for the general understanding of learning processes. Blocked practice has an immediate learning success during the learning phase, but this learning success is apparently an illusion. Therefore, this effect is also called the "illusion of learning". On the other hand, the subsequent transfer of fixed practice to everyday life is low or non-existent. This can be explained by the fact that not enough information is processed during fixed practice, as the student begins to simply repeat the movements. As we learned in the section on the amygdala and hippocampus , the learning system is under-activated during simple repetition.

In contrast, random or variable learning requires repeated problem solving, the system must adapt to the new task again and again. Although this involves more errors in the practice phase, meaning that immediate learning success is lower, it leads to a significantly better learning outcome in the transfer phase. If, for example, children repeat the same letter endlessly, page after page, it can be assumed that learning success will be significantly less than expected. The idea of ingraining a movement by repeating it multiple times is one of the biggest misconceptions about the nature of learning. In fact, in the case of frequent repetition, a slightly varied task must be given again and again, or the difficulty of the task must be such that the system tends to vary again and again. But repeating the perfect form over and over, even in slow motion, is not the right way to learn and automate the movements.

What does this mean for my teaching practice?

Of course, every coach or teacher is satisfied if there is an immediate improvement in performance after practice. However, it should be borne in mind that the real success of the practice can only be verified after a certain period of time. Especially with more demanding exercises, it is completely normal that learning success does not appear immediately.


Reflection question

Why does the effect of purely repetitive practice fizzle out again after a short time?


1) Variable practice leads to

A) easier learning
B) faster learning
C) more sustainable learning

2) The illusion of learning describes

A) a drop in performance in transfer
B) overconfidence of the learner
C) lack of understanding of the task


1️⃣ → C) more sustainable learning
2️⃣ → A) a drop in performance in transfer

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