Should we spend all of our practice time physically attempting skills, or is it good to intersperse our practice attempts watching someone else?
In this study we required learners to practice aiming movements in a novel environment where they had to learn new relations between actions and visual outcomes. We showed that MIXED practice (in this case 25% physical practice, 75% observing) facilitated both strategy learning as well as a more robust measure of implicit (automatic) motor-learning, in comparison to either method alone.
In a previous study we had shown that demonstrations aid learning through strategic-thinking, resulting in a different type of learning than that seen from just physical practice. The downside of only observing, however, is that this does not result in a change in automatic processes and the planning of movements (referred to as after-effects). Therefore, our finding of larger after-effects in our MIXED practice group in comparison to the PHYSICAL practice group in this study was quite unexpected, given that the MIXED practice schedule was predominantly observational.
It seems that to promote more automatic processes in sensori-motor skill learning, physical involvement is necessary. However, practitioners can tap the benefits of observation in a mixed practice schedule to achieve equally (or more) desirable learning and performance outcomes, especially in practice conditions where risk of injury or cost of physical training is particularly elevated.
Ong, N. T., Larssen, B. C., & Hodges, N. J. (2012). In the absence of physical practice, observation and imagery do not result in updating of internal models for aiming. Experimental brain research, 218(1), 9-19.