Differential learning is a method of training that emphasises the exploration of movement patterns.
First proposed by Wolfgang Schollhorn and colleagues in 2006, differential learning suggests that practicing a variety of movement solutions in a random manner facilitates the development of movement patterns that can be adapted to novel situations.
Indeed, it considers movement variations as the basis of learning rather than movement repetitions.
By constantly (and randomly) changing the technique used to execute a skill, the performer will:
- Discover what works best for themselves, and
- Learn to perform the skill in a multitude of ways.
This is important in dynamic sports that require performers to constantly adapt their skills.
What does differential learning look like in practice?
In practice, differential learning is characterised by:
- Increasing the number of movement fluctuations (i.e., exploring a range of movement solutions) in a random manner.
- No coaching instructions to correct technique. In fact, errors are encouraged.
How does differential learning differ from other nonlinear approaches to skill acquisition?
As stated by Schollhorn and colleagues: “In contrast to a nonlinear pedagogical approach, originally suggested by Davids, Shuttleworth and Chow (2005) and Chow et al. (2007), where key tasks constraints are manipulated in order ‘to facilitate the emergence of functional movement patterns and decision making behaviors‘, the differential learning approach does not identify key task constraints.”
In other words, differential learning emphasises random changes to the conditions of practice rather than specific and focused changes.
Schollhorn, W. I., Hegen, P., & Davids, K. (2012). The nonlinear nature of learning-A differential learning approach. The Open Sports Sciences Journal, 5(1).
Schollhorn, W. I., Beckmann, H., Michelbrink, M., Sechelmann, M., Trockel, M., & Davids, K. (2006). Does noise provide a basis for the unification of motor learning theories?. International journal of sport psychology, 37(2/3), 186.