Should skills be repeatedly practiced in isolation or intermixed among other skills? This is what the contextual interference effect refers to.
When the same skill is repeatedly practiced, this is considered to feature low contextual interference (often termed blocked practice). When a different skill is practiced one after the other, high contextual interference emerges (often termed random practice). Whilst low contextual interference typically produces consistent and relatively successful performance during practice, the amount of learning that takes place (as measured by retention and transfer tests) is often small. Conversely, the opposite trend is a characteristic of high contextual interference practice, whereby performance during practice is less successful, but learning is greater.
Whilst the contextual interference effect is fairly robust for simple skills, such as finger tapping tasks, the results are ambiguous at best for complex sport skills.
Jadeera Cheong and colleagues examined the acquisition of 3 hockey skills – the trap, dribble and push pass. Participants were divided into three groups to practice these skills.
- Blocked Practice Group: The trap, dribble and push pass were practiced in the same order (low contextual interference).
- Random Practice Group: The trap, dribble and push pass were practiced in a random order (high contextual interference).
- Game-based Practice Group: A small-sided game was played that emphasised the three skills (and therefore featured high contextual interference).
Six practice sessions took place over 3 weeks. Skill level was assessed before and after the practice period. Significantly, skill was assessed in both a closed environment and an open (game-play) environment.
All groups displayed improved performance from pre- to post-test in both the closed and open environments. However, in the closed environment, no differences in skill performance were evident between groups. Hence, the contextual interference effect did not emerge.
Conversely, in the open environment, the game-based practiced group displayed significantly greater improvements to dribbling ability. This suggests that higher contextual interference facilitates greater performance improvements when skills are assessed in match-like conditions.
What do the results mean?
Given that the game-based practice group featured high contextual interference, the results offer some support for high contextual interference practice as a means to enhance learning in sport. Having said that, it must also be acknowledged that this group might have experienced greater improvements because their practice environment (game-play) was the same as the assessment of skill.
Regardless, the study provides support for game-play activities to be used in sports practice when the aim is to maximise performance improvements.