The Science of Learning and Sport Teaching In Physical Education or Sport Coaching

I became interested in the science of learning in the mid-1990s. At the time I was working in a low SES school with a majority of students with English as a second language, a large percentage of students with reading ages below their biological age, and many students coming from homes with 'social concerns'. The school leadership invested in whole school PD to help teachers differentiate their teaching to cater for the large range of 'learner readiness', and to develop strategies to assist student engagement with their learning. The school had an award winning special education program led by Ray, who clearly was a pedagogical and content expert in this area, as well as a continuous learner himself. Teaching in this school was constantly challenging, but I became a better teacher for the six years I spent in this school because of working with teachers like Ray, the PD, and experimenting with my teaching to enhance student learning efficiency and effectiveness.

One of the books that caught my attention during this time was How People Learn: Brain, Mind Experience and School (available here if interested). I refer to this book and provide a PE example demonstrating one of the key ideas presented in the book in the paper on meaningful engagement in sport teaching and PE I wrote with Brendon Hyndman (see here). How People Learn presented a very different understanding of the cognitive processes of learning from the Information Processing Model I was taught in my physical education teacher education in the mid-1980s. Since reading that book, I have continued to read in this area to infom my teaching and sport coaching. Significant advances in understanding and applying cognitive processes to enhance learning have occured since How People Learn was published in 1999. Specific recommendations are now available to maximise learning efficiency and effectiveness based on solid evidence. The recommendations are:

1. Space 'practice'
In skill acquisition literature, spaced practice might be called distributed practice. The idea here is that the same amount of exposure of the same information spaced out over time leads to greater retention of that information than repeated exposure for the same amount of time in one blocked period.

In some secondary schools, I have observed that PE is blocked into one 'double' or even 'triple' lesson a week. Timetabling a subject in this way is contrary to the evidence on maximising learning effectiveness. In some sport settings, teams may only practice once a week. If this blocking of practice/class time occurs, a PE teacher can space 'practice' via the use of homework opportunties to revist information, and sport coaches can also use the concept of homework through the use of 'practice task cards' for use by players outside of formal practice times.

Spacing can be implemented by creating opportunities to revisit information throughout a unit of work (or better still, over the course of a semester; or in sport coaching, throught the 'season'). For this effect, I like to use the idea of spiraling through the curriculum. The theory of spiral curriculum  comes from Jerme Bruner (1960). A spiral curriculum involves: 1. Revisting key information/ideas throughout the curriculum (this revisting includes both horizontally (single year) and vertically (year by year)); 2. Progressively increasing the complexity of the key information/ideas over the course of visits; 3. Creating connections between existing 'knowing' and new learning. Logical progression of key information/ideas from simple to more complex representations is therefore a feature of a spiral curriculum.

2. Interleaving 
The idea here is that different ideas or information are presented in sequence. Interleaving can involve presenting related but different ideas or information. One way to think about this in PE and sport coaching when using a game-based approach is to use the warm-up and the intial game form of the session to focus on what is 'known', and then the next game form works on the 'stretch' - an area of development or learning can be a different idea or concept but related to that focussed on in the initil game form.

3. Retrieval practice
The idea here is that the process of retrieving information from our memory improves the memory of the information. Practicing retrieval has been demonstrated to improve the application of this 'known' information to new situations.

In some standardised curriculum frameworks (e.g.the Australian Curriculum for HPE) an element of student acheivement to be at standard for Year 9/10 is to be able to consistently develop the 'thinking ability' to take what one knows about a game and transfer it to an unfamilar context. For example, a PE class has been learning how to beat a 2-3 zone defence in basketball. They have been practicing and refining ball movement and player court movement to create shooting opportunities, and practicing these strategies in scrimmages against other teams. The 'test' of whether the student is 'at standard' is not repeatablity of the knowledge of how to 'beat' the 2-3 zone in basketball, but to demonstrate how the offence strategies they came to understand in basketball can be applied in other invasion games where a zone defense is commonly used. To assist students maximise their learning effectiveness, before asking the students to test their ability to transfer their understanding the PE teacher concerned with optimising learning would use a retrieval practice. Thinking about sport coaching, in an inquiry focussed practice aiming to develop thinking players - independent, self regulated learners, a coach would use questions designed to retrieve expected 'known' information before using questions to develop new insights or understandings.

Retrieval practice can have the added advantage of making students and players thinking 'visible'. The PE teacher or sport coach is not then guessing or making assumptions about player understanding and degree/depth of understanding - the evidence of it is available. Ritchhart, Church and Morrison's 2011 book is a good resource on the concept of making thinking visible (if this idea interests you link here to the book).

4. Elaboration
The idea here is that learning is enhanced when new informtion or ideas is connected to an individuals pre-existing information and understanding, or when an idea or information is connected with other information or ideas in one's memory. Elaboration is therefore about adding depth, greater understanding, or better organisation of 'remembered' or 'to-be-remembered' information.

One of the elabotation techniques with the strongest evidence base is elaborative interrogation. This involves the teacher or coach asking 'how' and 'why' questions about the ideas, information or concepts being practiced. A few years ago, I saw this demonstrated very effectively in an elite sport setting. During the pre-practice run through of the session with players, after each activity on the screen the coach would ask either; 'how is this practice connected to 'wolves ball' (the team game plan)? or 'why are we doing this practice - what aspect of 'wolves ball' are we developing here?

An elaboration technique I like to use is the 'debate of ideas'. This idea is well explained in one of my favourite sport teaching/coaching tests, Teaching and Learning Team Sports and Games (the book is available here). The debate of ideas works by the teacher or sport coach using questioning techniques to encourage players consideration of the strengths, weakness or gaps in ideas as the information comes forward in answer to the teacher or coach question. In a way, the answer is 'workshopped' or peer tested before the teacher or coach accepts it.

5. Dual coding
The idea here is that more 'information' can be conveyed through illustration than talk-lecture or paragraphs of text. In skill acquisition literature, the use of metaphor to create a 'mental image' of the shape of movement, such as 'look through the window' created by thumb and first finger when setting the ball, might be an example of dual coding. The picture superiority effect is one theory used to explain why pictures are remembered 'better' than words. Physical education teachers and sport coaches who accompany verbal with visual and enacted representations of important ideas, information or concepts may enhance learning efficiency and effctiveness. However, enacted representations and illustrations of motor behaviour need to emphasise the biomechanics of the action and not the specificy the illustration to avoid players thinking there is only one 'way' of 'doing it'. That is, the student or player has to look exactly like the picture representation to be successful or 'right'.

Dual coding does not imply a need to cater for learning styles or learning preferences. My understanding is there is no evidence to support a thought that catering for individual learning styles or preferences enhances learning.

In closing
I would be very pleased to hear from any PE teachers or sport coaches who would be interested in testing these ideas in their PE classes, clubs or sporting organistions interested in trialing the ideas to create a culture of learning at their club or in their sport, or to hear from other PE or sport academics that might be interested in discussing a research project. My contact details are available at

One of the recent books in the area of understanding how learning occurs that I found very useful was What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology (link here).


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