The 3 Stages of Motor Learning

Motor Learning in VR

10,000 hours. That’s how many hours Malcolm Gladwell famously said it takes to do a thing well.

But if you’re training employees to do their jobs proficiently, do you really have 10,000 hours to devote to training each individual person? Luckily, the exact number of hours it takes to gain expertise has been hotly contested since Gladwell published his book Blink, but the basic idea remains solid: excellence at a skill takes a lot of practice.

People who are really good at something don’t have to think about it while they do it. A first-chair violinist does not think while performing. Nor does a champion skier think while slaloming down a hill at 80 miles an hour. They operate from what we think of as instinct and talent, but in reality, they’ve had a lot of practice — usually since early on in childhood.

What happens in the brain to master a skill is a complex learning process that involves three distinct stages of motor learning.

The point of Gladwell’s book Blink was this: What we often think of as innate talent, intuition, or gut reaction is in fact, our brain’s ability to process information more quickly than we’re even conscious of. The brain does this because of past experience, enabling it to act on known patterns and prior information to make split-second decisions.

This is true not just of talented artists and athletes, but of the employee on the floor of a hectic, crowded warehouse. They move quickly amid a lot of distractions, but when a heavy box teetering on a top shelf comes into their peripheral vision, they act almost instinctively. “Clear the way!” they yell, and everyone else in the immediate vicinity acts too — quickly and without thinking. After all, they’ve been well-trained.

What is motor learning?

Motor learning is the brain’s way of committing automatic reaction to memory by practicing a skill or action over and over until it’s ingrained in the brain and central nervous system. The repetition of motor learning enables people to more or less permanently change their brains so they can automatically react in a given situation without having to think on a conscious level. 

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Anyone who knows how to drive or play the piano or simply walk up a set of stairs has mastered motor learning. It’s a function of the brain that’s deeply ingrained in people and animals at a deep, basic level. We take it for granted, but neuroscience doesn’t. Science has broken down the process of motor learning into three distinct phases or stages of learning.


The Stages Of Learning

Stage 1: The cognitive stage

“The cognitive stage is characterized as having large gains in performance and inconsistent performance.”

Jeffrey Huber

The first step to learning something so deeply you don’t even have to think about it? To think about it. That’s why the first stage of motor learning is cognitive. 

Someone learning something for the first time has to have a conscious understanding of what they’re trying to learn. This information can enter the brain in many ways: reading about it, watching a demonstration, seeing a visual, or hearing an auditory explanation. At this stage of motor learning, processing occurs on an intentional level. 

This is the “fake it til you make it” stage of learning when you begin to deeply understand something, but often by trial and error. During this stage of learning, guidance is critical so the learner can get the information they need and receive corrections as necessary.


Stage 2: The associative stage

In the associative stage of motor learning, the learner takes in less verbal information and begins to make nuanced adjustments to their behavior. As the second step in the stages of learning, a skill is honed in increments, so while gains in performance are less impressive than in the cognitive stage of motor learning, this is where people get really good at things, moving beyond beginner status.

For star athletes, this stage of motor learning is perpetual, since there is always improvement to be made, small gains to conquer, and tweaks to enhance performance. The same might be said of any type of employee who needs motor skill acquisition to get the job done: the food worker in the frontlines, the warehouse employee, or the retail associate who has to react automatically when a shoplifter strikes. Over time, their skill may require honing as the environment changes and challenges shift.


Stage 3: The autonomous stage

The final stage of motor learning is autonomy, which is when people arrive at the place where their motor performance becomes automatic and little cognitive processing is required to get the job done. As one of the final stages of learning, the principle is that after enough repetitive practice, performance becomes largely unconscious — and hopefully smooth.

Obviously, arriving at a smoothly functioning autonomous stage depends upon the right training. It’s just as easy to build bad habits as good ones, after all. The last thing you want is for your employees to act unconsciously in ways that are inefficient, unsafe, and bad for business.

This is why Immersive Learning is a critical application in the workplace. It can be applied to all of the different stages of learning, empowering an employee to master each stage at any point in the training process – whether they’re a brand new hire or a seasoned employee mastering a new skill.

VR as a vehicle for motor learning

Immersive Learning is a workplace learning method where the learner is placed into a virtual environment using a Virtual Reality (VR) headset that creates a profound feeling of presence. This experiential training methodology allows learners to physically and cognitively experience something as if it were really happening. Based on decades of neuroscience research, Immersive Learning is a highly accurate and safe way to impart skill acquisition to teams of employees.

Learners in this construct learn by doing — but not in a real-life, on-the-job way. Through an immersive experience, they have the opportunity to practice and experience the stages of learning as if they’re in a real job setting, impacting the brain in virtually the same way a real setting would, without putting themselves, customers, or the business at risk. It’s a powerful paradigm in employee onboarding and development that enables businesses — even really big businesses — to scale their best training to multiple locations and an unlimited number of trainees.

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Why and where VR enhances motor learning

The brain learns best through repetition of in-body experience. This is what allows for the strengthening of synaptic connections in the brain. Within Immersive Learning experiences, the learner physically and cognitively practices skills until they are firmly established in the oldest parts of the brain: the cerebellum and motor cortex.

Immersive Learning is most applicable to the first stage of motor learning: the cognitive stage when the participant gains skill acquisition through trial and error. For this reason, Immersive Learning is often used for onboarding new employees or teaching existing employees new skills. However, Immersive Learning also applies to the second stage of motor learning: the associative stage. Through repetition of an Immersive Learning module, the learner ingrains the information until it’s automatic.

The journey of learning can be long — even lifelong. Just ask a professional athlete or lauded pianist. But within the professional environment, Immersive Learning can speed up the process of learning new things and make motor learning profoundly more effective and efficient — with far fewer than 10,000 hours at stake. 

If you’re curious how an L&D organization typically gets started with Immersive Learning, read on for the 5 steps.

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