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Who Cares About Psychomotor Learning?

Part of a Series: Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too

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(Show How)—Practice, Practice, Practice—(Add Feedback)

Psychomotor Skills. This is the physical stuff. Coordinated muscle movements. There are “fine” motor skills, like typing, suturing a wound, or filling a cavity and “gross” motor skills, like swinging a golf club, making gestures during a presentation, or throwing a discus.

Of Course Psychomotor Learning Is Important

So many of the skills we teach are intellectual skills: concepts, procedures, principles, and problem solving. But there are many times throughout our lives when we learn and use physical skills.

Kids, blue collar, white collar, military folks, healthcare professionals… everyone learns and uses physical skills at some point. For example, dentists learn many cognitive things about cavities: how to recognize a cavity, what kinds there are, when to fill them, the steps for filling them, ad what materials to use.

But there’s a physical dexterity part, too: administering pain killers, using tools, drilling just the right amount, mixing the filling, filling the tooth.

People confuse cognitive and psychomotor skills sometimes. Here are some examples:

Cognitive Skills Psychomotor Skills
Kids This is a shoe; this is a shoelace Tying the shoes
Tailors How to position a pattern on fabric Cutting out the fabric
Carpenters Estimating the lumber required for a project Sawing wood
Drivers Obeying road signs Steering a car
Assembly Workers Which pieces to use Putting pieces together
Soldiers What kind of ammunition to use Hitting a target
Internet Installers Which wires to connect Climbing the telephone pole
Doctors When to operate Making an incision
Authors Grammar and usage rules Touch typing

How to Teach Psychomotor Skills

Teaching physical skills usually has two essential parts: showing how and having the learners practice (with feedback).

Here are some design considerations.

  • How much and in what sequence to teach related intellectual skills with the physical skills
  • The complexity of the skill
  • Safety considerations
  • Whether the skill be broken into discrete parts to learn a little at a time
  • How long and how often to schedule practice time
  • What kind of movement is happening while performing the skill, for example: hold still and shoot at a stationery target, shoot at a target while moving, hit a moving target while standing still, hit a moving target while moving
  • How well the learners must learn the skill before doing it on the job
  • How important memory is for the environment, for example, can they follow a job aid, should they be able to do the skill by memory, or must they learn to do it automatically, without even thinking about it
  • How fast must the learners be with their new skills, for example, a tailor making stitches can afford to be slower than a soldier loading a weapon
  • Whether a simulation can provide a safe environment for learning a skill that would otherwise be too dangerous or expensive to practice
  • Whether adding some game elements to the practice would be motivating enough to encourage more practice by your learners

Teaching psychomotor skills is seldom done in a vacuum. We usually are teaching concepts, procedures, principles, and/or problem solving (processes) right along with them. One of the most important keys to success with psychomotor skills is making sure that there is sufficient time to practice so that the learner will be able to perform the skill correctly and at the right level: fast enough, fluently enough, and safely enough.

Design in time for practice, assign practice for homework, organize time back on the job for practice (if that’s safe enough), enlist coaches in the learners’ teams to help them continue to practice, and otherwise do what you can to make sure that there’s an abundance of time for practice, practice, and more practice. (And don’t forget the feedback.)

Other Posts in This Series

Post | Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too
Post | Learning to Spout Stuff—Necessary, But Seldom Sufficient
Post | It’s a Concept—Got It?
Post | Easy Does It—Step-By-Step
Post | It’s the Principle of the Thing: Predicting, Explaining, and Applying the Rules
Post | Got Problems? Teaching Your Learners to Fix Them
Post | Learning How to Learn
Post | Bless Your ‘Tude

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  • John Morley

    I have been documenting software and training users for decades, and only recently realized using software is a psychomotor skill. For example, in Captivate, I couldn’t tell you which menu to use for changing a color. But put me front of the program and my muscle memory, pattern recognition, or what ever it is clicks in and I can do it.
    In short, assessing skill with software by testing cognitive knowledge is pretty pointless.

    • jeannefarrington

      Hi John… Thanks for your comment. I think you’re talking about the difference between declarative knowledge (stuff we can talk about, like to say which menu and what sequence to use in software) and procedural knowledge (which is stuff we can do, like using software menus to complete tasks, often without remembering the steps). Practicing until we can do the steps without thinking: that’s what gives us that automaticity you’re talking about. “Muscle memory” usually refers to skills like touch typing, riding a bike, or playing a musical instrument. But I’m sympathetic to the idea that there’s a physical component to driving a mouse, too. Your fingers and arm retrace a familiar pattern. Like remembering a phone number by the pattern of the keys vs. by the actual numbers, which can happen sometimes.

      Testing software skills by asking declarative knowledge questions (which menu do you use for X) wouldn’t tell us much. But having someone use the software to create something, now we’re talking procedural or problem-solving skills (depending), which are also cognitive skills… and we’d have a much better idea of what they know and can do.