Implicit learning is innate to everyone. To learn a skill implicitly means to learn without conscious awareness of what is being learnt. A good example is a toddler learning to walk. A toddler is not consciously aware of the mechanics of walking, but still learns to coordinate their movements to begin walking.
In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, lots of research in cognitive psychology focused on implicit learning. This work primarily focused on cognitive tasks, such as learning language. Slowly this research filtered into the field of motor learning.
It was not until 1992, however, that implicit learning was demonstrated in a complex motor skill.
Masters (1992): The study
Rich Masters – a PhD student at the University of York at the time – designed a study that demonstrated that performance of a complex motor skill can be improved even if the learner has no conscious awareness of how they improved. Significantly, the study showed that this style of learning resulted in stable performance under pressure.
The study required participants to perform a golf putting task. 40 participants were divided into 5 groups, with each group undergoing a different training protocol.
- Implicit group. This group received no instructions about how to putt. Moreover, this group was required to perform a cognitive demanding secondary task whilst putting. The secondary task involved participants saying a random letter out loud when an electronic metronome clicked. The purpose of the secondary task was to ensure that participants were not consciously attending to the mechanics of the movement.
- Implicit control group. This group did the same as the implicit group, with the exception that they did not perform under pressure following the practice period.
- Explicit group. This group received a set of instructions about how to putt. These participants were therefore consciously aware of the mechanics of the skill.
- Stressed group. This group received no instructions about how to putt. This group was essentially a guided discovery learning group. It was expected that this group would become consciously aware of the of mechanics of the skill through trial and error in practice.
- Stressed control group. This group did the same as the stressed group, with the exception that they did not perform under pressure following the practice period.
Each group practiced 500 putts across 5 sessions. During the 5th session, 3 of the 5 groups (i.e., all except the control groups) were placed under pressure through a combination of evaluation apprehension and financial incentives. The control groups were included to clearly illustrate the effect of pressure.
Results showed that all groups improved. Notably, the implicit group reported the fewest rules about how to perform the skill. In other words, these participants were paying least attention to the mechanics of the skill. Hence, learning occurred despite minimal (if any) conscious awareness of what was being learnt.
Perhaps of most interest was the finding that the implicit group maintained stable performance under pressure, whereas the explicit group and the stressed group performed worse under pressure (see Figure below). Masters argued that motor skills are more susceptible to breaking down under pressure if the performer is more consciously aware of the movement mechanics (i.e., the rules governing performance of the skill).
This seminal study has led to many more experiments investigating the phenomenon of implicit learning in complex motor skills. The common finding is that skills learnt implicitly are more resilient to pressure, fatigue and additional cognitive demands, compared to skills learnt explicitly. Thus, coaches and practitioners are encouraged to promote implicit learning as much as possible during practice.