Watching to Learn Physical SkillsHow do people learn physical skills? While there are multiple ways to learn, a new study demonstrates that watching results in better learning outcomes than listening. Researchers at Bielefeld University and the Palucca University of Dance in Dresden, Germany investigated whether dancers learned a new dance better by watching a demonstration or by listening to instructions. Their performances revealed that visual learning was a better method for mastering the dance sequences. The findings could benefit those who have sensorimotor deficits.

For the study, 18 dance students participated in two experiments. For each experiment, the students learned a new dance sequence. In the first experiment, the students watched a video of a dance sequence four times and then performed the dance. Then, they received verbal instruction for the dance sequence and performed again. In the second experiment, the students received verbal instructions for a dance sequence five times and then performed the dance. Then, they watched a video of the dance sequence and performed again. Ten days after the experiments, the students were asked, with no prior warning, to perform the dances again. The researchers recorded all of the performances.

The results demonstrated that the dancers learned their routines better when they watched a demonstration of the dance sequence than when they listened to instructions. Dance instructors rated the students’ performances, finding the performances based on the visual demonstration to be “cleaner” than the performances based on the spoken instructions. Furthermore, students reported, via a questionnaire, that they preferred the visual learning method. The students said they felt more sure of themselves when they learned from visual demonstrations.

These findings could have applications for individuals who struggle to master sensorimotor skills. For example, children who struggle with throwing and catching might benefit from watching others practice the same skills. The results might also have implications for classroom learning.

This research is published in the journal Cognitive Processing. The researchers also presented their paper at the October 2014 Conference of the German Society for Cognitive Science.

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