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Patterns and phases of learning

The three-phase model of motor learning uses the example of movement learning to describe the path from the setting of a learning task to the acquisition of efficient movement programmes that can be recalled automatically. In this learning process, trial and error plays a major role.


learning phases → The Latin term for the brain.

cognitive learning phase → The conscious, verbal representation of the learning goal. Instruction and teaching are very efficient.

associative learning phase → Certain partial achievements are associated with success or failure and are stored or further modified accordingly. Feedback is very important.


As early as 1964, Fitts presented the three-phase model of motor learning, which can be seen as an approximation of the learning process. It describes the path from setting a learning task to acquiring efficient movement programs that can be automatically recalled. Even though the phases of learning are divided somewhat differently in more recent models, Fitts' basic structure is still very clearly formulated.

1. Cognitive phase

Conscious, verbal representation of movement. The training and teaching are very effective.

First, the learning objective should be understood. This is important because, during learning, it must be clear what should be evaluated as a favorable outcome and what should be evaluated as a rather unfavorable outcome of the movement. In this phase, the teacher can be important as they can provide guidance and appropriate starting points.

2. The associative phase

Certain movement components are associated with success or failure and are stored or modified accordingly. Feedback is very important.

This is the actual learning phase. The terms "success and failure" are important here. Often people try to avoid mistakes even during the learning process. However, it is not for nothing that one learns from mistakes. If mistakes are actually punished (for example in the case of bad writing), the intrinsic learning process is disrupted or even prevented. Rather, the teacher is responsible for designing the learning environment to provide the child with rich opportunities to experience success and failure. It is also important that the learning system is clear about what constitutes success and failure. Therefore, the system also needs objective feedback on the success of the movement execution. There are rules for this associative phase as well, but they do not distinguish between right and wrong, but rather between favorable and unfavorable, and external feedback can also be helpful in this regard.

3. Automatic phase

Conscious control is no longer needed. There is no longer any verbal or conscious representation of the movement. Movement programs are automatically guided from the motor cortex.

The final learning phase is the automation phase, where the movements are already successful in principle, but are further optimized and automated. Automated means that movements are called from movement memory and are no longer consciously controlled during execution. This would no longer be possible because the movements are now so precise, complicated and fast that they can no longer be consciously controlled during the execution of the movement.

School teaching often focuses heavily on the first cognitive phase. The belief prevails that, above all, a large amount of learning will lead to successful learning. The associative and automatic phases, on the other hand, are largely left up to the learner himself. In a way, this is not necessarily wrong, because with a very large amount of learning, the learner will always, sooner or later, have their own learning experiences. These learning experiences then lead increasingly to individualization and automation. However, the effort is very high and students with a lack of self-organization are not supported by this approach and fall behind.

What does this mean for my teaching practice?

During learning, especially in the actual "associative" learning phase, the process of trial and error is essential. Intrinsic learning occurs within the learner and is largely self-organized. The teacher's role in such a learning process is primarily to create a rich and appropriate learning environment.


Reflection question

Why is it not helpful to immediately present an external solution for a learning task?


1) The actual learning takes place during which phase?

A) the cognitive learning phase
B) the automation phase
C) the associative learning phase

2) Feedback is important in learning to

A) distinguish favourable from unfavourable solutions
B) avoid mistakes
C) provide the correct solution


1️⃣ → C) the associative learning phase
2️⃣ → A) distinguish favourable from unfavourable solutions

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