The Role of Task Difficulty in Learning a Visuomotor Skill

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Abstract

Introduction

Task difficulty affects the amount of interpretable information from a task, which is thought to interfere with motor learning. However, it is unclear whether task difficulty in itself is a stimulus for motor learning because the experimental evidence is mixed in support of the optimal challenge point framework that predicts one specific level of task difficulty to produce the greatest magnitude of motor learning.

Purpose

We determined the effects of functional task difficulty on motor skill acquisition, retention, and transfer.

Methods

Healthy young participants (N = 36) learned a mirror star-tracing task at a low, medium, or hard difficulty level defined by the bandwidth of the star. We measured skill acquisition, retention, and transfer to untrained difficulty levels, as well as the perceived mental workload during the task.

Results

Task difficulty affected motor performance, but did not affect motor learning and transfer. For the groups that practiced the task at the medium and hard but not at the low difficulty level, initial skill level correlated with the magnitude of learning.

Conclusions

The optimal challenge point framework does not capture the complex relationship between task difficulty and motor learning. Previously reported effects of task difficulty on the magnitude of motor learning are probably mediated by perceived mental workload. Task difficulty did not affect the magnitude of visuomotor skill learning but it affected how learning occurred. The data have implications on how athletes learn new motor skills and patients relearn injury-impaired motor skills during rehabilitation.

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