Error-reduced practice (often referred to as “errorless learning”) manifests when the practice conditions are manipulated to increase the likelihood of success. For example, if practicing golf putting, practicing from very close to the hole would result in error-reduced practice. Practice difficultly is then increased gradually so that errors eventually accumulate.
The major benefit from reducing errors during early practice is that subsequent performance improvements occurs implicitly. This means that the performer improves their skill without being consciously aware of the movement adaptations that take place. As such, performance of the skill is not affected when demanding cognitive tasks need to performed simultaneously (i.e., the performer can attend to a secondary task since the motor skill can be performed automatically). The opposite is true when errors are heightened during early practice.
Catherine Capio and colleagues investigated the effect of error-reduced practice and errorful practice on children with high and low motor ability.
The study involved 2 phases. First, 261 children aged 9 to 11 years were tested on fundamental movement skills. Children in the highest 25% of scores were allocated to the high motor ability group, and children in the lowest 25% of scores were allocated to the low motor ability group. These children were then randomly assigned to either an errorless practice group or an errorful practice group.
Hence, there were 4 groups:
- High motor ability – errorless practice (n = 13)
- High motor ability – errorful practice (n = 10)
- Low motor ability – errorless practice (n = 11)
- Low motor ability – errorful practice (n = 11)
The second phase of the study involved practicing golf putting. The errorless groups began practicing very close to the hole (closest distance = 25 cm) and then gradually moved further away (furthest distance = 150 cm). The errorful practice groups followed the opposite progression, beginning furthest away from the hole before moving closer. All groups completed 6 blocks of 50 trials (hence 300 practice putts).
Retention and transfer tests were completed after the practice period as an assessment of skill. The transfer test required participants to putt whilst simultaneously performing a cognitively demanding secondary task. This provided an indication of whether the learning was implicit.
- When early practice featured minimal errors (i.e., errorless practice), performance during retention tests were similar for children with low and high motor ability.
- Both errorless practice groups displayed stable performance under secondary task conditions (i.e., the transfer task).
- When early practice featured a high number of errors (i.e., errorful practice) children with low motor ability performed significantly worse than children with high motor ability during the retention test.
- High errors during early practice also resulted in a decline in performance under secondary task conditions for children with low motor ability.
As the authors stated: “errorless learning will tend to ‘level the playing field’, despite differences in motor ability; whereas errorful learning will not.” In other words, if practice features a high number of errors during early practice, children with low motor ability will be disadvantaged. Hence, reducing errors in practice is most beneficial for children with low motor ability.
An interesting avenue for future research is to discover if errorful practice is more advantageous for children with high motor ability.