Testing (Playing Games) as a Means of Learning

I have not read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but I have followed the angst surrounding its publication (seems more like marketing than controversy). On her blog, Sian Beilock related one recent finding to the book and to her book, Choke.

Apparently, the Tiger Mother’s approach includes frequent quizzing and testing. In basketball terms, the quizzes and tests are scrimmages, small-sided games, and competitive games. Beilock wrote:

In a study published last week in the journal Science, Purdue psychologists Jeff Karpicke and Janell Blunt found that the act of retrieving information (which is part and parcel with repeated testing) leads to deeper learning and understanding of science material than just studying the material. Simply put, testing can help students learn.

Can we generalize these results to basketball? Probably not. However, the study tells us something new about the brain. Previously, testing was thought of as a measurement, not a way to enhance learning. In the same way, coaches view scrimmages as a way to measure performance or identify weaknesses, not necessarily as a means to enhance learning.

The problem is how we measure learning. If the testing simply measures the retrieval of information – essentially memorizing information and reciting the information on a test – it does not measure all the facets of learning. Learning requires improvement, consistency, stability, persistence and adaptability. If students improve their performance through frequent testing, they show improvement. However, it is debatable whether they show the other characteristics.

In sports, adaptability is the most important characteristic. When one learns a skill, he must be able to adapt the skill to different situations involving different teammates, different positions, different opponents, etc. If I know how to use a screen within the confines of a Flex offense, I may be able to show improvement (coming off a Flex screen in better body position), consistency (eliminating gross mistakes like cutting the wrong way), stability (ability to run the Flex after running a different offense of playing defense) and persistence (running the Flex after a period of not practicing the Flex), but I have not shown the ability to adapt the learning to other situations outside the Flex offense.

Frequent quizzing and testing may improve adaptability. However, it may not. It depends on the coaching. If the coaching is more authoritative and the coach wants the offense run specifically in one way, like the Flex, extra scrimmage time or games may have little to no effect on adapting this learning to different situations or contexts. However, if the coach teaches more general skills, frequent quizzing and testing (scrimmages and small-sided games) provide opportunities for learning that go beyond the drills. These situations create contextual interference and challenge players to find new responses to novel situations.

Therefore in terms of transfer to game performance, the Tiger Mother’s approach may or may not enhance learning on the basketball court. The efficacy of the frequent tests and quizzes depends greatly on the style and expectations of the coach.

If testing is beneficial, wouldn’t actual games be the best learning environment, an idea that runs counter to many of those (like me) who argue against the constant competitive season in high school basketball and for the need for periodization? Yes and no. Real games develop some lessons. As Beilock writes:

The benefits of repeated testing may extend beyond just giving students an opportunity to recall and reorganize their knowledge…One of the best ways to ensure that people perform at their best in important and pressure-filled situations is to “close the gap between training and competition.”

Now, I view this from a learning perspective; to improve transfer from practice to game, coaches need to incorporate more contextual interference and use more variable and random training. However, as a psychologist who specializes in performance under stress, Beilock sees the improvement as resulting from familiarizing oneself with the stress. People tell students to take the SAT multiple times because the anxiety reduces with every attempt which enhances performance by allowing the brain to use its resources to solve hard problems rather than deal with the anxiety.

Playing real games assist in this manner too. Players are no longer anxious or intimidated by games because they are so plentiful. Players grow more accustomed to the pressure of game situations, game officiating and more.

However, games do not provide a good learning environment because of the performance pressure. On a test, students do not try to go beyond their knowledge level. For instance, on my tests, we are given three questions, and we choose one to answer. Nobody chooses the one with which he is the least familiar to test his knowledge or ability to perform in adverse situations. Instead, everyone answers the question which he is most confident answering.

In games, players do the same thing. If I dribble down court and two moves might work, I use the one which I have practiced the most and have the most confidence using. I do what I know I can do. However, that does not improve learning. Improving requires the elimination of errors and/or the acquisition of new behaviors. If I use a move which rarely causes me to make a mistake, and it is a move that I have used many times, I am not learning anything new.

On the other hand, if I choose to try out a new move that I have never used in a game, I may learn a new move (behavior), which illustrates improvement. However, in all likelihood, I have to make numerous mistakes before I perfect the move. In the game situation, if I make the mistake trying something new to advance my learning, my coach may take me out of the game or my teammates may grow frustrated with my experimentation.

For this reason, competitive games do not provide a good environment for learning. Playing games offers a learning experience in some respects, most specifically the handling of game pressure and game-specific situations, but not a good learning environment for the acquisition of new skills.

Practice scrimmages, pick-up games, and small-sided games provide the same competitive repetitions and the frequent testing espoused by the Tiger Mother, but without the performance pressure. A player can experiment, much like a student answering the hardest questions on the study guide to prepare for the test rather than studying the material that he knows already. The exploration and experimentation lead to more mistakes, but also enhanced learning.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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