Athletes and Perceptual Learning

By Dan Peterson

One of the most e-mailed New York Times articles this week is on Perceptual Learning, and how it is being applied in schools. The idea behind perceptual learning is that, rather than focusing first on the rules and explicit logic behind a problem or skill, students should start by working with problems in a hands-on, concrete way, in order to develop a naturalistic, intuitive understanding of the task at hand. The concepts raise a whole host of exciting questions about how athletes might learn differently, too.

Via NYTimes:

Most American middle school students, though they understand what fractions represent, don’t do so well when tested on their ability to change one fraction, like 4/3, to another, like 7/3, by adding or subtracting (many high school students bomb these tests, too).

In a 2010 study, researchers at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania had sixth graders in a Philadelphia public school use a perception-training program to practice just this. On the computer module, a fraction appeared as a block. The students used a “slicer” to cut that block into fractions and a “cloner” to copy those slices. They used these pieces to build a new block from the original one — for example, cutting a block that represented the fraction 4/3 into four equal slices, then making three more copies to produce a block that represented 7/3. The program immediately displayed an ‘X’ next to wrong answers and “Correct!” next to correct ones, then moved to the next problem. It automatically adjusted to each student’s ability, advancing slowly for some and quickly for others. The students worked with the modules individually, for 15- to 30-minute intervals during the spring term, until they could perform most of the fraction exercises correctly.

In a test on the skills given afterward, on problems the students hadn’t seen before, the group got 73 percent correct. A comparison group of seventh graders, who’d been taught how to solve such problems as part of regular classes, scored just 25 percent on the test.

“The impressive thing for me was that we went back five months later, after the summer, and the gains had held up,” said Christine Massey, director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Research in Cognitive Science and a study co-author. When the younger students returned as seventh graders in the fall, they scored just as high as they had the previous spring on tests of fractions that they had not seen. Knowing what a fraction represents is one thing, the authors say, but repeatedly seeing and manipulating all those fractions by slicing and cloning drives the concept home once and for all.

It seems like the key difference here is in the students’ movement from “knowing what fractions represent” to an understanding of fractions on a deep, intuitive level. This is strikingly similar to a quote from Trent Dilfer in an article that we referenced last week on NFL players and how they learn playbooks:

Dilfer said it’s a three-year process to own a particular playbook. Owning a play is different from memorizing it, Dilfer explained. “Owning it to me goes from knowing it to understanding it to it becoming instinctive,” Dilfer said.

In many ways the ideas put forth in the article are the exact opposite of new. We humans are very good at picking up the rules of a game as we play it. Holistic, experience-based learning through trial-and-error is how we acquire language as toddlers–we don’t memorize every grammatical rule, phrase or verb form and then apply them in structured, logical ways–and this learning style is responsible for the logical, yet grammatically incorrect errors that toddlers make (e.g. “We swimmed today”). Similarly, the vast majority of people don’t learn music theory, but we can all intuitively recognize musical structures and determine whether music makes sense based on whether the musician’s moves are “legal” or not (for more on music and the brain see Daniel Levitin’s excellent Your Brain on Music).

The newness is in figuring out the best, most targeted ways to teach these intuitive, perceptual skills. After all, trial-and-error is often a slow, laborious process, and doesn’t always lead you to the optimal strategy, but merely one that works well enough.

The opportunity for applications in sports are both fascinating and endless. We have already looked at perceptual-cognitive training programs for teaching baseball players how to recognize pitch types and pitch location (post). In these tools the athlete is given limited visual information–the video of the pitcher is cut out at the point-of-release or just after–and so the athlete is forced to find the clues to unlocking the answer to the implicit questions (“what type of pitch is this, and where is it going?”) based only on the footage they are given. By limiting the amount of information the player receives, the program forces him/her to look for only the best and most relevant clues to anticipating the right answer.

It’s an interesting exercise to try to think of other skills/areas in sport where these teaching tools might be applied. For example, are their better ways to teach football or basketball playbooks than the traditional X’s and O’s chalkboard sessions, such that players quickly learn not only the “what” of the play, but the “why” and “how” behind it? Are there tools that might be used to teach soccer players how to see and use space on the field differently, and better?

Clearly, there are true experts that have acquired mastery over their game via trial-and-error and experience. When you think about the pick-and-roll in basketball, Stockton and Malone immediately come to mind: whether they could explain it or not, they had the theory of the pick-and-roll down pat. But through perceptual-cognitive training, could they have been even better, or reached that level of expertise faster, or, maybe most exciting, could we develop a whole lot more Stockton-and-Malone’s?

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