Schmidt's Schema Theory of Motor Learning

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In 1975, Schmidt proposed his Schema Theory of Motor Learning. This theory was produced as an alternative theory to Adams’ Closed Loop Theory (1971). Schmidt (1982, p.482) says “In 1975, largely due to my dissatisfaction with Adams’ position, I formulated a theory that can be considered a rival to Adams’.” Schmidt had concerns about Adams’ theory, that it didn’t place enough emphasis on open loop control processes. According to Schmidt (1982) a major limitation of this theory is that it focuses on slow, linear-positioning responses, which are not representative of the many other different kinds of skills we use in everyday life.

Adams’ theory was based on the premise of perceptual and memory traces. The perceptual trace is a memory of how an action felt in the past and is compared to how the action being performed now feels. It includes proprioceptive, visual and auditory information. The memory trace is how the action is initiated, and leads to the use of the perceptual trace. If this is true then how can actions be executed that have never been performed before. Schmidt (1982) cites the studies by Taub (1976), Lashley (1917), and Taub & Berman (1968) as evidence to back up this point. These studies involved deafferentation in animals. This involves the surgical removal of different neurological pathways, yet it was found that accurate movement could still occur in the absence of feedback. The animals could still learn new skills. Schmidt (1982, p.481) states, “If the only mechanism for controlling skilled actions involved feedback in relationship to a perceptual trace, then these individuals should not have been able to produce the actions they did.” Schmidt also looks at the way Adams’ theory fits in with the literature on variability of practice. Adams’ theory predicts variability of practice sequences should be less effective in learning the criterion target than practice at the target itself. This is due to the fact that the perceptual trace is the feedback of the correct action, and because of this, making movements different to the correct action will not result in development of perceptual trace strength. Shapiro and Schmidt (1982) reviewed this and found no clear evidence that variable practice was less effective than practice at the transfer target for adults, however for children, variability of practice was more effective than practice at the transfer target itself. This contradicts Adam’s belief that practice must take place at the criterion target. Although quite critical of Adams’ theory, Schmidt (1982, p.482) does admit “It generated substantial research and thinking, and paved the way for newer theories.” Indeed it did, as in 1975 Schmidt proposed his Schema Theory.

Schmidt aimed to take all the good points from Adams’ theory, such as subjective reinforcement, and add some of his own beliefs. Schmidt believed that Adams’ theory would lead to a storage problem within the memory. He proposed that patterns of movement were generalised. The idea being that once a movement was learned if the person needed to execute a similar movement they could use the same motor programme developed before and adapt it, thus using less memory storage. He called these Generalised Motor Programmes or Schema‘s. These Schema wouldn’t take up so much storage in the memory, and may also help to explain how people perform either new tasks or tasks in new situations. This differs from Adam’s theory as he believed a new motor programme was needed for every new movement thus gaining the perceptual trace. The schema theory is about how the parameters are changed once the Generalised Motor Programme has been chosen to allow novel movements. For example, if the movement was a throw then distance and speed are changed according to how far the object needs to be thrown.

After an individual makes a movement using a generalised motor programme, four things are stored. 1) The initial conditions. These can include the weight of the...
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