Starfish Therapies

October 16, 2012

Motor Learning: Stages of Motor Learning and Strategies to Improve Acquisition of Motor Skills

Filed under: Developmental Milestones — Starfish Therapies @ 12:00 pm
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Motor learning has been defined as a “set of internal processes associated with practice or experience leading to relatively permanent changes in the capability for skilled behavior.”  In other words, motor learning is when complex processes in the brain occur in response to practice or experience of a certain skill resulting in changes in the central nervous system that allow for production of a new motor skill.

There are three stages in which motor learning occurs:
1. Cognitive Stage– During this initial stage of motor learning, the goal is to develop an overall understanding of the skill.  The learner must determine what the objective of the skill is and begin to process environmental factors that will affect their ability to produce the skill.  The teacher must do their best to provide an optimal environment for learning, which may mean removing large distractors.  During this stage, the learner mostly relies on visual input and trial and error to guide learning. Example: Before your child masters walking, they will most likely look a bit awkward and will definitely stumble a few times. The reality is that the process of learning how to walk begins way before your child actually takes their first assisted or independent step as they have been visually observing others around them walking and beginning to understand the purpose. So while they make look clumsy during this stage of learning, they are only just beginning to transition from understanding the skill to executing it.
2. Associative Stage – During this stage, the learner begins to demonstrate a more refined movement through practice. Now that the learner has had some practice and has identified various stimuli that may occur, they can focus on “how to do” moving on from the “what to do” in the first stage.  Here, visual cues become less important and proprioceptive cues become very important.  Proprioceptive cues refer to the learner focusing more on how their body is moving in space and what input is being felt from their joints and muscles. The more practice, the more proprioceptive input the learner receives to aide learning.  Therefore, the more practice the better! Example: Let’s continue with walking.  During the initial clumsy stage your child may demonstrate small, choppy steps, wide base of support, arms up high in a guarded position, and little to no trunk rotation.  In this stage, you may see your child taking longer, more controlled steps, narrowing their base of support, and allowing their arms to relax at their sides.  These behaviors indicate that your child has moved past the initial stage of learning and has progressed to a more refined movement.
3. Autonomous Stage – During this final stage of learning, the motor skill becomes mostly automatic. Progression to this level of learning allows the learner to perform the skill in any environment with very little cognitive involvement compared to the first stage. Example: Your child will now be able to walk in a predictable environment such as your home or an unpredictable environment such as a crowded birthday party at the park on grass without difficulty.
Keep in mind that the learning process can take different lengths of time for every individual and progression can be dependent on a variety of factors such as motivation of the learner, feedback received, environmental stimuli, organization of practice, and the presence of musculoskeletal or neuromuscular impairments.  Talk with your therapist for more suggestions to optimize motor learning more specifically for your child.
Check back tomorrow to read about Motor Control.

Physical Rehabilitation: Assessment and Treatment. O’Sullivan, S. B., Schmitz, T. J. 1994. pgs 366-367.
Physical Therapy for Children.  Campbell, S.K. et al. 2006. pgs. 76-90.


  1. […] meaningful information from the useless jargon. And this skill can only be developed through the Associative stage of Motor Learning and that is through practice, practice and more […]

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  2. […] 1.  Motor Learning:  Stages of Motor Learning and Strategies to Improve Acquisition of Motor Skills […]

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  3. According to me the stages of motor development should be categorised in 4 category-1-Prenatal motor development, 2- Motor development during infancy,3- Motor development during childhood, 4-Motor development during adolscence.

    Comment by ASEESH KUMAR — January 7, 2014 @ 5:41 pm | Reply

    • That could be also right but it is specifically based on the general growing stages of a human being.

      Comment by Festus Nghifikepunye — March 9, 2017 @ 11:11 pm | Reply

  4. Reblogged this on 1st PT !ntern and commented:
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    Comment by 1stptintern — April 24, 2014 @ 2:21 pm | Reply

  5. […] 2.  Motor Learning:  Stages of Motor Learning and Strategies to Improve Acquisition of Motor Skills […]

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  7. the information in this page helped me lot 4 my assignment

    Comment by Manohar — September 25, 2016 @ 4:34 pm | Reply

  8. This info had been helpful. I don’t recall this was mention in the course of study when i was reading the course last two years. Thanks for the info. Learnt a new thing stagies in which motor lerning occure :
    1. Cognitive stage
    2.Associative stage
    3.Autonomous stage

    Comment by Amevinya Gershon Korbla — December 20, 2016 @ 6:46 pm | Reply

  9. […] devoted to bouncing the ball and progressing this skill. To do this we looked back at the how motor learning occurs and started with blocked practice of the basic skill and slowly added to it to get to the […]

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  10. […] O’Sullivan. (2012, October 16). Motor Learning: Stages of Motor Learning and Strategies to Improve Acquisition of Motor Skills. Retrieved October 09, 2017, from… […]

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  11. […] ‘feels’ a deeper analysis of this stage of learning can be found on the web page. (😉 . proprioceptive cues are vital to developing a skill as the performer needs to be aware of their […]

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  12. […] 1.Motor Learning: Stages of Motor Learning and Strategies to Improve Acquisition of Motor Skills […]

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  14. […] with motor learning, muscle memory is the ability of our muscles to learn certain motor function, usually through […]

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  15. […] Afterwards, it is time to hustle and scramble up the mountain. I do not remember the author of this quote, but it goes like this: “The more you immerse yourself over an extended period of time the more noticeable progress you will be able to see”. There is also the concept of “reference experiences” and the three stages of learning: Link […]

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