Principals of Motor Learning

Are you aware of what you look like when you walk, dance, talk on the phone or prepare a meal? Perhaps you sometimes recognize in yourself mannerisms you’ve seen your parents do! I can’t think of many other situations in which we take notice of our own behaviors. Activities such as a sports clinic, dance class, or public speaking course certainly increase our self-awareness. In training situations such as these, we observe our own behavior, compare it with that of the instructor’s model, and attend to feedback . The feedback might be a coach’s comments, our reflection in a wall of mirrors, a video of ourselves, or just looking down at our feet.

I recently read a fascinating article that describes how we learn new motor skills AND how normal learning processes may or may not apply to speech therapy. The article is called “Principals of Motor Learning in Treatment of Motor Speech Disorders” by Edwin Maas et.al. (American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, Vol. 17, 277-298, August 2008). This article starts out by stating “the plasticity of the human brain, even in adults, is clear from animal research as well as human data…Critically for clinicians, behavioral treatments are known to promote brain reorganization and plasticity…”(p.277) Motor practice changes brain function.

However, “…it is unknown whether impaired motor systems are sensitive to the same principals of learning as intact motor systems…” So, while speech therapy uses well-known strategies adapted from normal motor learning processes, in fact, it would be more helpful if research told us how impaired motor systems learn best. Here are some concepts to think about:

Learning is a set of processes that result in a permanent change in the capability to perform. Learning is measured by how well a new skill is retained and transferred to a variety of situations. Performance is simply execution of the behavior. “…performance changes during practice do not predict retention or transfer…” Sound familiar? A common complaint in speech therapy is that transfer can be so difficult.

I won’t describe Schema Theory here. I confess to not understanding it fully myself. Nevertheless, the authors suggest that some aspects of motor learning are easier to change than others. And, critical to any learning is the ability to compare current behavior with the new behavior one is trying to learn. This requires conscious and unconscious accurate feedback. If any aspect of the feedback process impaired, then the learner will have difficulty learning. A learner must be able to detect his own errors. Which brings me back to the beginning of the blog: if we consider how unaware we can be about our own behavior, imagine how difficult it might be to discover, recognize, and then change something about ourselves if we are working with an impaired sensori-motor system!

There are many factors to consider in motor learning and this article does a thorough job of reviewing this material. The take-home message for this blog is that it is important to verify that effective feedback is taking place for a student in speech therapy. Also, different kinds of practice are appropriate for different kinds of speech behaviors. Treatment choices are not intuitive. For example, random practice can be more effective than blocked practice. An internal focus (attending to the tongue, lips, jaw, etc.) is the norm for many speech therapy activities, however, an external focus, “…a focus on acoustic output rather than speech articulators…” is recommended to promote movement automaticity, retention, and learning.

In summary, speech therapy for stuttering is partially about changing a speech motor behavior and this change process is quite complicated. One critical factor is accurate feedback, both the quality and type of feedback processes should be carefully considered. “Clinicians may need to consider using instrumental measures of performance to supplement perceptual measures…” At another time we can review how delayed auditory feedback, visual representations of speech as wave forms, and simple timers can become useful instruments to promote speech changes.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.