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Remembering Errors can Speed up Learning, Study Reports

Update Date: Aug 14, 2014 03:52 PM EDT

People are often told that in order to get good at something, they have to keep practicing. In a new study, researchers examined how performing the same task or a similar one over and over again can lead to improved skills. The team headed by Reza Shadmehr, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that people learn by remembering the mistakes they made earlier.

"In learning a new motor task, there appear to be two processes happening at once," explained Shadmehr according to Medical Xpress. "One is the learning of the motor commands in the task, and the other is critiquing the learning, much the way a 'coach' behaves. Learning the next similar task goes faster, because the coach knows which errors are most worthy of attention. In effect, this second process leaves a memory of the errors that were experienced during the training, so the re-experience of those errors makes the learning go faster."

For this study, the researchers conducted an experiment with a joystick that was placed beneath a screen and was not visible to the participants. The participants were aware of the joystick because it was represented as a blue dot on the screen. The participants had to move the joystick so that the blue dot reached a target red dot.

The researchers found that after a few tries, the participants were capable of correcting their errors. The more they moved the joystick, the easier it became for them to move the blue dot to the red one. The researchers found that participants were able to differentiate between the errors that occurred more frequently from the ones that occurred randomly. The frequent errors were corrected more often, which led to a better performance.

"They learned to give the frequent errors more weight as learning cues, while discounting those that seemed like flukes," stated researcher David Herzfeld, a graduate student in Shadmehr's laboratory.

"This study represents a significant step toward understanding how we learn a motor skill," added Daofen Chen, Ph.D., a program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "The results may improve movement rehabilitation strategies for the many who have suffered strokes and other neuromotor injuries."

The study, "A memory of errors in sensorimotor learning," was published in the journal, Science Express.

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