The Nature of Skill Learning

Dr. V.K.Maheshwari, M.A(Socio, Phil) B.Se. M. Ed, Ph.D

Former Principal, K.L.D.A.V.(P.G) College, Roorkee, India

Ah, mastery… what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills… and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.

-Gail Sheehy

The concept of ‘skill’ is important in many areas of education. However, despite its widespread use, this concept remains ambiguous and hard to define. At the core of dictionary definitions of skill is the idea of competence or proficiency – the facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience the ability to do something well. While skill is synonymous with competence, it also evokes images of expertise, mastery and excellence (i.e. Superior, even extraordinary, ability).

Skill can be defined as the physically encoding of information, with movement and/or with activities where the gross and fine muscles are used for expressing or interpreting information or concepts. This area also refers to natural, autonomic responses or reflexes.

Characteristics of a Skill

A skill has three characteristics: It represents a chain of motor responses; it involves the coordination of hand and eye movements; and it requires the organization of chains into a complex response patterns.

Response Chains

First a skilled performance involves a chain of motor responses. Motor responses, as distinct from verbal responses, are muscular movements. The movements of fingers, arms, legs, and toes are examples. Each movement can be viewed as an individual stimulus-response (S-R ) association. A skill is a series or chains of such movements, with each link an individual S-R unit which acts as a stimulus for the next link an individual S-R unit which acts as a stimulus for the next link. Gagne uses this illustration, which involves the stating of a car engine by a student driver:

S (start the engine) –R (looking forward and to the rear).


S (sight of clear road) –R (testing for gear in neutral).


S (gear in neutral) –R (turning the key to activate starter).


S (sound of motor catching) –R (release of key).


S(key released) –R (depressing the accelerator).


The R’s in the above example refer to the muscular movements or the motor responses. These responses must be executed in a particular sequence. If you press the accelerator before releasing the ignition key, you create an impressive screeching noise to remind you of the proper S-R sequence The releasing of the key ( which is also a response acts as a stimulus for the next response- the pressing of the accelerator.

The stimulation for each S-R link in a chain is partly kinesthetic. Kinesthetic stimulation is internal muscular tension, which we offer refer to as the right “feel.” When we first learn to shift, most of us rely on visual or external) cues to tell us that the gear is in the proper position. After we become quite skilled at shifting, we rely almost entirely on kinesthetic stimulation and feedback to guide our shifting behavior.

The amount of body movement involved in skilled behavior can vary considerably. Fitts  describes three categories: Some skilled behavior involves gross body movements, such as walking, running, jumping, swimming, balancing, and dancing. Other forms of skilled behavior involve only segments of total anatomy, as in grasping, reaching, and manipulating objects with fingers. Finally, for most of us today, skilled behavior often requires the manipulation of tools or objects or the control of machines, as in writing, typewriting, playing a musical instrument, sewing, driving a car, piloting an aircraft, playing tennis, tossing a ball, and doing assembly work.

Movement coordination

Second, you can view skilled behavior as the coordination of hand and eye movements (Bilodeau and Bilodeau, 1961). Frequently motor skills are called perceptual-motor skills to emphasize the coordination of perception (the eye) and motor acts (the hand). Playing table tennis requires high degrees of hand and eye coordination. In verbal skills, which we will consider in another chapter, the emphasis is on the tongue rather than on the hand or eye. Although we can use this distinction to separate the fields of motor learning and verbal learning, you will see that the two areas have much in common with each other and even with more complex learning types—the learning of concepts and rules.

Response patterns

Third, you can view skilled behavior as the organization of S-R chains into large response patterns. When we discuss many complex human skills we almost have to describe response patterns since there are so many individuals S-R units and S-R chains. We sometimes describe the S-R chains which constitute the large response patterns as subtasks or subroutines. In swimming, for example, the arm strokes, the breathing, and the leg kicks are subtasks or subroutines.  Each of these subroutines represents one or more response chains. Considerable evidence shows that the chains which make up complex human skills are hierarchically organized into larger response pattern; we must learn particular S-R units and S-R chains before learning others, and we must learn all the subordinate chains before we can perform a particular skill. The skill is the total response pattern. The timing, the anticipation, and the smooth flow of response which we observe in the accomplished musician, swimmer, and race car driver indicate that the learning of the S-R units and S-R chains has welded them into a single response pattern.

Classification of skills

We can also classify skilled activity in terms of certain S-R chains characteristics- coherence, continuity, and complexity.

Coherence – Chains are coherent to the degree that successive responses are dependent.

Continuity- Chains are continuous to the degree that the responses are continuous with few pauses in between.

Complexity - Level of the complexity of the S-R chains depends on the number of different stimuli and responses possible in a given block of time and space.

Phases of Skill Learning

Fitts identified three phases- the cognitive, the fixation, and the autonomous- through which the student passes in learning a complex skill. The phases, of course overlap; they are not distinct units. Moving from one phase to another is a continuous process.

The Cognitive Phase-

In this phase the students attempt to intellectualize the skill they are to perform. The student develop plans which guide the execution of the skill. During this phase, the instructor and the student try to analyze the skills and to verbalize about what is being learned. The instructor describes what to expect and what to do. He describes  procedures and give information about errors, which occur with great frequency in this phase.

The fixation Phase-

In this phase the correct behavior patterns are practiced until the chance of making incorrect responses is reduced to zero; the behavior become fixed. This stage lasts for days and months. At the most basic level the student is learning to link together the basic units of the chains. At a more advanced level he is learning to organize the chains into an overall pattern.

The Autonomous Phase-

This phase is characterized by increasing speed of performance in skills in which it is important to improve accuracy to the point at which errors are very unlikely to occur.. In this phase the student also increases his resistance to stress and to the interference of outside activities which he is able to perform at the same time. This is the stage achieved by the expert, for whom the performance of the skill has become involuntary, inflexible, and even locked in.


Hierarchical levels of skill learning.


Every skill has a psychomotor component. In the learning situation there is again a progression from mere physical experience – seeing, touching, moving etc. – through the carrying out of complex skills under guidance, to the performance of skilled activities independently.

Skilled activities are sub divided into hierarchical levels. The six levels from simplest to most complex are:


(i) Reflex movements

(ii)  Basic fundamental movements

(iii) Perceptual abilities

(iv) Physical abilities

(v) Skilled movements and

(vi) Non-discursive communication

Reflex Movements:


At the lowest level of the psychomotor domain is the reflex movements which  every  normal  human  being  should  be  able  to  make.

Reflex movements are defined as involuntary motor responses to stimuli. They form the basis for all behavior involving movement of any kind.

Learning goals at this level include reflexes that involve one segmental or reflexes of the spine and movements that may involve more than one segmented portion of the spine as inter-segmental reflexes (e.g., involuntary muscle contraction). These movements are involuntary being either present at birth or emerging through maturation.

Basic Fundamental Movements:


Learning goals in this area refer to skills or movements or behaviors related to walking, running, jumping, pushing, pulling and manipulating. They are often components for more complex actions.

Basic fundamental movements are defined as those inherent body movement patterns, which build upon the foundation laid by reflex movements. They usually occur during the first year of life, and unfold rather than are taught or consciously acquired. These movements involve movement patterns which change a child from a stationary to an ambulatory learner.

There are three sub-categories at this stage. These are:


i. Locomotors movement: Which involves movements of the body  from place to place such as crawling, walking, leaping, jumping etc.

ii. Non-locomotors movements: which involves body movements that do not involve moving from one place  to another. These include muscular movements, wriggling of the trunk, head and any other part of the body. They also include turning, twisting etc of the body.

iii.     Manipulative movements:  Which involves the  use of the hands or limbs to move things to control things etc.


Perceptual Abilities:

Learning goals in this area should address skills related to kinesthetic (bodily movements), visual, auditory, tactile (touch), or coordination abilities as they are related to the ability of acquiring information from the environment and react.

Perceptual abilities are really inseparable from motor movements. They help learners to interpret stimuli so that they can adjust to their environment. Superior motor activities depend upon the development of perception. They involve kinesthetic discrimination, visual discrimination, auditory discrimination and coordinated abilities of eye and hand, eye and foot.

Perceptual abilities are concerned with the ability of the individuals to perceive and distinguish  things  using  the  senses.  Such  individuals  recognize  and compare  things  by  physically  tasting,  smelling,  seeing,  hearing  and touching.

Physical abilities:

Learning goals in this area should be related to endurance, flexibility, agility, strength, reaction-response time or dexterity. Physical abilities are essential to efficient motor activity. They are concerned with the vigor of the person, and allow the individual to meet the demands placed upon him or her in and by the environment. These abilities fall in the area of health and physical education.

Skilled Movements:

Learning goals in this area refer to skills and movements that must be learned for games, sports, dances, performances, or for the arts.

Skilled movements are defined as any efficiently performed complex movement. They require learning and should be based upon some adaptation of the inherent patterns of movement described in level number two above. This  is  a  higher  ability  than  the  physical  abilities.

There are three sub-levels of the skilled movements. These are:

  1. Simple adaptive skills,
  2. Compound adaptive skills and
  3. Complex adaptive skills.

Non-Discursive Communication:

Learning goals in this area refer to expressive movements through posture, gestures, facial expressions, and/or creative movements like those in mime or ballet.  These movements refer to interpretative movements that communicate meaning without the aid of verbal commands or help. Non-discursive communication can be defined as comprising those behaviors which are involved in movement communication. Every body that is normal can move his limbs and legs. But  must have some level of training, practice and the ability to combine a variety of  movements  and  some  perceptive  abilities  in  order  to  do  diving, swimming, typing, driving, cycling etc.

Basic learning conditions

The most important conditions in skill learning are contiguity, practice and feedback.


We defined contiguity as the almost simultaneous occurrence of the stimulus and the response. At the basic level of skill learning contiguity is the simultaneous occurrence of the S-R units in chains. At the higher levels of skill learning contiguity is the simultaneous occurrence of the chains which constitute the overall skill pattern.  In lay terms, we often refer to contiguity as timing, coordination, or proper order.

Two aspects of contiguity are important in skill learning. One is the proper sequence of the S-R  units and chains. Unless these units and chains occur in the proper order we cannot perform the skill. The second aspect of contiguity important in skill learning is the need to execute the S-R links in the chains or the chains in the overall response pattern in close time succession. If you recall that each link in the chain and each chain in the pattern acts as a stimulus for the subsequent responses, you see how delay can disrupt the performance of the skill. Delay is failure to present the stimulus needed for the next response in a series of response in a series of responses. Because of the interdependence of the S-R units and chains in learning, the absence of contiguity can be seriously disruptive.


A second condition of major importance in the learning of skills is practice, an external learning condition. Practice is the repetition of a response in the presence of a stimulus. It sets the stage for corrective feedback and confirming reinforcement. In the learning of skills practice is a way of

1-rehearsing those particular subtasks which are only partially learned;

2- Coordinating the subtasks so that they are performed in the proper sequence and with appropriate timing;

3-Preventing extinction and forgetting of the subtasks; and

4- Developing the skill to the autonomous stage of learning.

Considerable evidence in skill learning proves that practice leads to perfect performance.


Feedback is the information available to the student which makes possible the comparison of his actual performance with some standard performance of a skill.

John Annet distinguishes two types of feedback, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic feedback is the information the student obtains through his own actions. Extrinsic feedback is the information the teacher gives to the student about the effectiveness of his actions.

Margaret Robb distinguishes between two modes of feedback- external and internal. Information received through the external sensory organs- that is, through vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste belongs to the external mode. Information obtained from the internal receptor organs, as in the case of kinesthetic feedback, is internal feedback.

Feedback also acts as a form of prompting- giving information to the student before or at the same time he makes his response. It is observed that information comes before the next response in a series may be as important as the fact that information comes after the preceding response. The advance information given to the students was more effective than feedback given after responses were made.

Teaching of skill

John P.De Cecco and William Crowford , suggested the following procedural steps foe skill teaching:

Step One- Analyze the Skill

Step Two- Assess the Entering Behavior of the Student

Step Three- Arrange for Training in the Component Units, Skill, or Abilities

Step Four- Describe and Demonstrate the Skill for the Student

Step Five- Provide for the THREE Basic Learning Conditions.

The first three are preparatory to the actual teaching of the overall skill. The first step requires you to analyze the skill in terms of S-R units and chains or in terms of a hierarchy of patterns of chains. These chains we have called subtasks or component skills. We may also analyze the skill in terms of constancies, coherence, continuity, and complexity. The second step requires you to assess the entering behavior of the student. Here again you are presented with a choice of analytical methods. You can assess entering behavior in terms of S-R units, of component skills ( or subtasks), or of psychomotor abilities. In using the knowledge gained in the assessment of the student’s psychomotor abilities, the teacher must also make an analyses of the abilities required by the skill the student is about to learn. The third step requires you to arrange for student practice of the components of the skill you are about to teach.

The actual teaching of the overall skill gets under way with the fourth step, which requires you to describe and demonstrate the skill and to help the student develop a plan for the execution of it. Both description and demonstration require that the teacher emphasize only the essential characteristics of the performance. Motion pictures are especially useful in demonstrating movement and timing. Whatever the form of the demonstration, it should eventually provide for student verbalization and later for student practice of the skill. The fifth step requires you to provide for three basic learning conditions. You can provide contiguity by a whole or a part method and even by a reverse-part method. Practice should ordinarily be distributed if it is feasible to arrange spaced practice sessions. Mental practice has distinct advantages over no practice and is a useful supplement to physical practice. Finally, the teacher has the responsibility of providing feedback. The need for extrinsic and external feedback in the early phase of skill learning imposes this immediate responsibility.

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