Module 1 – How Students Learn


When students are taught a new technique, they start with the base mechanics of the skill. At this early stage, they do not have a “feel” for the technique. They are in the early stages of mechanics.

With practice, the mechanics are usually gradually replaced with a more natural, thoughtless execution. The focus transitions from the base mechanics to adjusting for targets, distance, offensive and defensive applications etc…

This scenario is an example of how students learn motor skills. What is important here is that you, the instructor, learn how to effectively guide your students through the three stages of learning.

These stages will vary with each class and even each student depending on motivation, quality of instruction, and student initiative.

Module 1 – Lesson 1: The Three Stages Of Learning

1. Beginning Stage — Cognitive (Thinking)

A. Give a brief explanation with a demonstration.

B. Provide “cue words” for important points to remember.

C. Give the students practice time.

D. Provide feedback to students.

This stage can be just a few minutes. More complex forms or skills will take longer. Younger students will also take a little longer to get through this stage.

2. Intermediate Stage — Associative (Getting it)

A. Demonstrate and encourage “perfect” practice. Perfect practice is attempting to do the skill as perfectly as you can at that stage of learning. Perfect practice will evolve as the student progresses.

B. Teach students how to self-correct the skill.

C. Provide reinforcement and encouragement.

An example of how to teach a student to self-correct a skill would be to have students round kick over a chair to make sure their knee is coming up and around for power rather than under and across the body. If they hit the chair, the know to raise their knee higher.

Motivation is always a factor in learning. Much of that motivation will come from the instructor’s class management and skill teaching both of which will be covered in this course.

How long a student spends in this stage depends on the quality and quantity of perfect practice and instruction.

3. Advanced Stage — Autonomous (Without thinking)

A. Increase the conditions of the class to be more competitive (sport) or realistic (self-defense).

B. Teach more advanced applications of the skill when applicable.

At this stage, the student thinks less about gross mechanics and should be fluid in execution. Focus shifts to the little tweaks that can improve the skill and its application.

Instructors continue feedback and creates conditions where the student has to use or demonstrate the skill in a more competitive or realistic situation.

Motivation is still important at this stage. A good instructor creates new challenges for the skills that keep the students interested and coming back for more.

* Adapted from the work of Fitts, 1964; Fitts & Posner, 1967.

Module 1 – Lesson 2: Skill Explanations and Demonstrations

1. Get the students’ attention before delivering any instruction. One technique is to teach students that when the instructor starts talking, everything stops and all eyes go to the instructor. This can be reinforced by teaching to respond to, “Eyes on who?” with “Eyes on you!”

2. Organize the students so that everyone can see and hear. Organize a class by height and make sure the beginners have a clear view of the instructor(s).

3. Utilize the KISS principle (Keep It Short and Simple) — spend no more than a minute on the explanation and demonstration of simple skills. Use the one correction per repetition rule.

4. Remind students of a previously learned skill that is similar to the one you are currently teaching (Example: when the students already know the back kick, but you are attempting to teach them the spinning back kick).

5. Demonstrate the skill or have a student demonstrate it while you provide the explanation.

6. Demonstrate the skill several times and have students observe the skill from various viewpoints (from the side and front) to give them a better idea of what the skill looks like.

7. Provide a few “cue words” that relate to the key components of the skill which will help the students focus on what is important to remember when performing the skill (Example: when teaching a front-leg front kick, the cue word could be “lift knee, extend, re-coil, and down”).

8. Use mirrors during the demonstration and explanation phase to provide students with an image of their own performance.

Module 1 – Lesson 3: Other Factors for Demonstrating

1. Instructor Demo. If the instructor demonstrates the skill, it helps to establish credibility. If the instructor is highly proficient, the students will view a model who has the standard for form, which will give them a good “snap shot” of how the skill should look.

Sometimes the instructor can help students get a grasp on a new technique by having another student demonstrate. This can help students to create a mental bridge from just learning the skill to proficiency.

2. Student Demo. In some cases, the instructor may want a student to demonstrate a portion of the skill, provided the demonstrator has some degree of mastery of it. The student may have more flexibility to chamber a side kick tight than the instructor has. So, to help students see what the instructor is talking about, it may make sense to call up a student to demonstrate.

3. The Time Machine Effect. Using a student who is 6 – 12 months ahead of the class to demonstrate is an excellent way to paint a picture in the student or parents of the level of skill that can be achieved with regular class attendance and perfect practice.

For example, a children’s white belt class is learning sidekick for the first time. The instructor might call up a brown belt child to demonstrate the kick and its components. This sets the stage for the instructor to point out that, “Billy has been training for a year. This is what your kick will look like if you keep coming to class and practice.”

4. Cue words are used to clearly label the segments of a form or skill. For sidekick, “chamber, pivot and lock it out, recoil, set down to balance.” These cue words are repeated with every step-by-step repetition of the skill.

When the instructor is making corrections, the cue words help to specify what part of the skill needs attention. For instance, “On the pivot and lock, make sure you pivot 90-degrees.”

Some instructors count students through a technique. For instance, “When I say 1, raise your knee. 2 kick. 3 recoil and 4 set it down. Ready 1-2-3-4.” This is a mistake because the numbers are not cue words. “Knee up” has more meaning and sticks in the memory more than “One.”

When varying the context of the practice, these cue words work to establish a baseline of measurement. For instance, practicing the jab can be done:

a. In the mirror

b. With a partner blocking and maybe countering

c. On a bag

d. On a mitt held by a partner who may be stationary or moving

Each instance may have a primary focus, but the application and reminder of the cue words will create a “language” for that skill. For the jab, cue words might be, “snap it,” “chin down,” “recover straight back to guard,” “elbow down,” “turn your shoulder,” “step in and point your front toes at the target,” “fist first” etc…

Using the same cue words every time reinforces the important components of the skills

5. Cue Word Instructor Role Play has the students partner. Like an instructor, the student states the cue words to the other. The actual instructor gives the class common errors to look for in each stage of cue words. Then, when student A calls out the cue words to student B, he or she looks for and points out any of the common errors he or she sees. This has three advantages:

a. Each student gets a rest while playing instructor.

b. Playing instructor forces the student internalize the key points, cue words, and common errors.

c. Students are more motivated to correct their own technique since they’ve, in a sense, set a standard of performance.

Module 1 – Lesson 4: Perfect Practice

Practice is the single most important variable affecting learning (Schmidt, 1988). The old saying that “practice makes perfect” is only partially true. The research on how students learn motor skills has found that “perfect practice makes perfect.” Perfect practice is striving to achieve mastery by executing with the best form possible.

The task for the instructor is to teach practice in a way that makes learning new and/or difficult skills as easy as possible for the student. This can be accomplished in several ways:

1. Teaching whole and part practice methods.

2. Selecting appropriate skill progressions.

3. Choosing a suitable teaching format.

4. Teaching for transfer.

Whole and Part Practice Methods

“Whole” can refer to a single skill (Example: a front kick), or whole can also refer to a series of skills (Example: a form or a series of movements in a sparring sequence — spinning hook kick, jab, hook punch).

“Part” can be a component of technique. For instance, shifting weight on a hook punch. Essentially it’s breaking down the skill into smaller, bite sized pieces. In the part method, practice of each part is performed before the parts are recombined into the whole skill. The part method is best for introducing more complex skills.

The downside to part teaching is it can become boring to the students. It slows down the learning process if overdone. In order to get to the thoughtless, fluid execution the whole method needs to the predominate method in the level 2 and 3 of learning as explained earlier.

A combination of the whole and part methods may be the best choice. This a “modification” of the “whole-part-whole” method.

This method has the instructor structure class so that the entire skill “whole” is taught first, and then teaching and practicing the component parts follows. Once all parts are mastered then the whole movement is practiced again.

Progressive Part (AKA Stacking)

When learning longer forms or more difficult skills such as an escape from the mount, “progressive part” teaching is a great option. This is also referred to as stacking because each part is progressively stacked upon the other.

The instructor progressively adds movements or saves corrections for later in the lesson when they will be more readily understood by the students. For example, teaching a mount escape, the instructor may start with a “part” of grabbing to the opponent’s elbow.

After letting the students try the escape with their partners, some are experiencing their partners “undo” the escape by pulling their arm out from the grasp of escapee. The instructor then gives them a specific technique for grabbing the elbow that instantly solves that problem.

The instructor could have shown the elbow grab at the beginning, but by waiting until the students experienced the problem, the grabbing of the elbow technique has greatly increased in value to the student. Students will be more rapt in their attention and appreciation of the importance of the skill than if it was just part of the opening series of things to remember.

Module 1 – Lesson 5: What to Teach and When to Teach It

It makes no sense to teach students a jump round kick before teaching them round kick first.

Curriculum will be covered in more detail later in this course, but for now, skills should be taught from simple to complex i.e. round kick before jump round kick.

For sparring, the progression process is also covered later in this course, but students have more success reaching competence in sparring when they are introduced to contact over time. Limited sparring drills, blocking contact only, no-head contact are just some of the stages students can be led through to feel comfortable with sparring.

Skill Progression

1. Start with basic technique with an emphasis on form.

2. As competence and experience with the technique increases, the skill is expanded in application. For instance, foot work options are added to the skill i.e. a sidekick is expanded to a skip-up sidekick or defensive sidekick.

3. Techniques are combined into combinations. When techniques are combined, form tends to suffer so reminders about perfect practice are important.

4. Skills are practiced on the pads and with partners but have no “reality or competitive stress” attached to the practice.

5. Pad and shield drills increase in complexity. For instance, defensive sidekick against a partner advancing with the shield.

6. Larger targets are replaced with smaller targets to improve accuracy.

7. Teaching students the defense against each offensive skill.

8. Combination exchanges between partners where each student is working either the offensive or defensive skills.

9. In combination exchanges, students start slow but as they progress the speed and intensity increases within safe parameters.

10. Impact progresses from low to medium to full power (on pads).

For expanded lists of variables, instructors could review: 1) Graham, Holt/Hale, & Parker (1993) (see Appendix A); and 2) Rink (1993) (see Appendix B).

Module 1 – Lesson 6: Class Structure

Typically, class activity is in:

1. Whole Group

Students performing same skills as a group.

2. Stations

Students break into smaller stations.

Each structure has its place. For example, a choke escape is taught to the class as a whole. The students are then partnered up to practice on each other as the instructors wander and correct.

Another example of stations would be a circuit of stations each with a different skill. Station 1 jab on pad and 10 push ups. Station 2-cross on pad and 20 crunches. Station 3-jab-cross on pads and 20 squats.

When you have students of different skill levels or rank, stations can be established that focus on the appropriate lesson for that rank or skill level.

A whole or station formats doesn’t have to be used throughout the class. Instructors might start working as a whole and then use stations and return back to whole.

Module 1 – Lesson 7: Teaching for Transfer

One way to make learning of new skills easier is teaching for transfer. Transfer is defined as “the gain or loss in the capability to respond to one task as a result of practice or experience in some other [task/skill]” (Schmidt, 1991, p.218).

Many skills have similar components or principles. Teaching for transfer uses that similarity to help a student grasp the fundamentals of a new skill faster.

For instance, the action of weight shift and body torquing for a cross is similar to swinging a baseball bat or a golf club. A hook kick is like a sidekick that hooks instead of recoiling in a straight line. Stomping a can on the floor is similar to the line of a sidekick.

The Steps for Effective Teaching for Transfer

1. Figure out the similarities between the old and new skill.

2. Explain and demonstrate the similarities.

3. Use cue words that emphasize the similarities of the old and new skill.

4. Make sure that the old skill components have been learned well enough to make a help with learning of the new skill.

Module 1 – Lesson 8: Feedback

A students’ proficiency in learning a new skill can be accelerated by immediate and specific feedback from the instructor. One of the most important roles of the instructor is to evaluate the student’s skill performance and to provide feedback. This role is especially crucial when an inexperienced student is attempting to perform new skills for the first time. The inexperienced student may not be capable of evaluating his/her own skill performance.

There are two types of feedback:

1. External (augmented)

2. Internal (intrinsic)

External feedback is information that the student would not normally receive as a result of the skill performance.  Two examples might be:

a) Verbal feedback from the instructor on some aspect of the skill performance (Example: when performing a front kick, “thrust your hips as the kick extends to create more power and added range.“

b) Visual feedback that is provided to the student by viewing his/her performance on a video or in a mirror.

Internal feedback is information that the student receives as a normal consequence of a movement. Example: the student can “feel” if his/her foot made solid contact with a shield or can “see” if the foot landed with accuracy on the target.

Module 1 – Lesson 9: Instructor Feedback — Skill Correction

One of the instructor’s primary roles is to provide feedback to students who are attempting to learn a skill. This feedback should function to correct the past skill attempt and to give information to help students perform the skill in a more correct manner on the next attempt.

When delivering feedback to students, the instructor should consider the following:

1. Give feedback on aspects of the skill that aren’t already known. Example: if the student missed the target during a kicking drill, he/she already knows that; instead, tell the student that he/she is standing too far to the left or right of the target.

2. Be positive. Start off with a statement that reinforces what the student is doing right and then move to the correction phase of the feedback. Example: on an inside crescent kick, the instructor might say, “Good, you are delivering the kick toward the center line of the body, but you need to strike the target with the side of the foot instead of with the heel.”

3. After giving feedback, don’t walk away from the student. Stay there and check to make sure that the student is attempting to make the correction to the skill that you just suggested.

4. Give brief and concise feedback related to the cause of the error. Example: don’t focus on the fact that the student just was hit in the face during a sparring situation; instead, tell the student to keep his/her hands up.

5. Provide the student with immediate and specific feedback on the skill.

6. If there are many components wrong with the skill, focus on the major skill problems first and, after the student corrects that problem, then move on to the minor corrections. Example: since stance is very important to the execution of many martial skills, that is usually a good place to start.

Module 1 – Lesson 10: Instructor Feedback — Motivating Students

Feedback can motivate students and it can also demotivate students. Good feedback should a student an idea of his/her present level of performance and what to work on to improve. Good feedback is defined as honest, quality, skill-related feedback delivered with some encouragement. Example, “I like how you fire your sidekick, but you gotta bring it back home safe or it might be caught. Let’s see you snap it back as fast as it went out.”

If the student’s execution is in serious need of help, break it down into parts. This gives the student a chance to at least improve some aspect of the skill. Example: Let’s review your sidekick real quick. First, pull your heel up and aim it at your target. Let’s just do that a few times. Okay, now extend and pivot. Now work on snapping it back and setting down into good balance in your stance.”

This example allows the student to focus on small parts rather than the whole skill. In a kata example, an instructor might have the student simply work on the first four moves and then add four more (progression) until the form is looking better.

That reduction to parts and/or progress helps the student to stay motivated. It makes the skill easier to digest by creating smaller bites.

The instructor also must provide students with concrete suggestions on how to improve. If not, then the student will either try harder or give up completely. Remember that once a student reaches a higher rank, the progress is measured in small increments.

Module 1 – Lesson 11: Feedback: Self-Correct

Teach students to self-correct with ways they can confirm they are in the correct position. Example: Teach students to to tap their temples with their fingers to ensure the guard is high enough.

Many skills have corresponding feedback related to how the skill should feel. This type of internal feedback can be extremely useful if the instructor takes the time to teach them about the “feel.”

Example: When explaining a spin back kick, the instructor might say, “The timing of the kick is related to the amount of pressure built up in the lower back (internal feedback), similar to a twisted rubber band.”

Instructors can teach students to use mirrors to self-correct movement (external/augmented feedback), after they are taught what to look for during the execution.

Example: a student could look for the following components when performing a side kick at the mirror:

a) heel of supporting foot pivoted toward target;

b) heel of kicking leg raised and aimed at the target;

c) foot position of kicking leg;

d) full extension of leg;

e) heel strike;

f) recoil with knee pulled back toward body; and

g) return to a good fighting stance.

Module 1 – Lesson 12: How to Vary the Degree of Difficulty

This is a Modified List of Variables from Graham, et al. (1993) Textbook. Here are ways to vary the difficulty of the skill/drill when teaching students:

a. Speed (fast, medium, slow). Example: strike or drill at the differing speeds.

b. Power (light, medium, strong). Example: use different forces at different stages of a drill.

c. Directions (up/down; forward/backward; right/left; clockwise/counterclockwise).

d. Levels (low, middle, high). Example: a sidekick at a high vs. a low level.

e. Pathways (straight, curved, zigzag). Example: practice offensive and defensive moves while moving in a curved pathway.

f. Distance (far, near).

g. With People (leading/following; unison/contrast; partner/solo/group).

Module 1 – References

Berliner, D. (1984). The half-glass: A review of research on teaching.

In P. Hosford (Ed.), Using what we know about teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Fitts, P.M. (1964). Perceptual-motor skills learning.

In A.W. Melton (Ed.), Categories of human learning (pp. 243-285).

New York: Academic Press.

Fitts, P.M., & Posner, M.I. (1967). Human performance. Belmont, CA: Brookes/Cole.

Gage, N. (1984). What do we know about teaching effectiveness? Phi Delta Kappan, 66(2), 87-93

Graham, G., & Heimerer. E. (1981). Research on teacher effectiveness. Quest, 33(1), 14-25.

Graham, G. Holt/Hale, S., & Parker, M. (1993). Children moving: A reflective approach to teaching physical education (3rd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Rink, J.E. (1985). Teaching physical education for learning. St. Louis, MO: Times Mirror/Mosby.

Rink, J.E. (1993). Teaching physical education for learning (2nd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Times Mirror/Mosby.

Rosenshine, B. (1983). Teaching functions in instructional program. Elementary School Journal, 83, 335-351.

Schmidt, R.A. (1988). Motor control and learning: A behavioral emphasis (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. Schmidt, R.A. (1991). Motor learning and performance: From principles to practice. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. Seidentop, D. (1983). Developing teaching skills in physical education. (2nd ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.

Additional Resources

Christina, R.W., & Corcos, D.M. (1988). Coaches guide to teaching sport skills. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Books.

Harrison, J.M., Blakemore, C.L., Buck, M.M., & Pellett, T.L. (1996). Instructional strategies for secondary school physical education (4th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark.

Martens, R., Christina, R.W., Harvey, J.S., & Sharkey, B.J. (1983). Coaching young athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.

Martens, R. (1990). Successful coaching: NFICEP edition (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc.