Contextual Interference

The Contextual Interference (CI) effect is the term used to describe the learning outcomes associated with different practice schedules. The schedules used are usually blocked, serial and random. In simple terms, they are ways of practicing tasks by changing the levels of challenge.

The CI effect is the term used to describe the findings that optimal levels of challenge/complexity promote learning when learning is assessed as performance in retention and transfer tests.

The concept of CI comes from an Information Processing (IP) research perspective and entails structuring practice of a number of movement tasks that need distinctly different motor programs (relative force and timing of muscle contractions) by manipulating levels of intra and inter-task interference created by different practice schedules.

A low CI practice schedule would be ‘blocked practice’, where the same skill is executed over and over again. This is often what people associate with drills practice. With blocked practice, there is no interference from having to re-organise movement coordination from a different movement pattern between subsequent attempts. This allows learners to execute and adapt one movement coordination pattern until they are able to perform it.

From an information processing perspective, this is supposed to allow the repetition of a solution. In most studies, this is associated with higher performance outcomes in the practice session, but lower learning when measured in retention or transfer.

Medium CI includes ‘serial practice’ schedules (like on the water circuits or short boulder problems) where skills that are likely to be performed by being linked together, are practiced linked together where they can be anticipated in advance. Serial practice schedules allow the opportunity to pre-plan, repeat, compare and reflect on subsequent attempts whilst maintaining practice conditions that are adaptive and realistic.

High CI is ‘random practice’ where there is no opportunity to plan or repeat and compare responses. It is worth mentioning that in reality there are unlikely to be any true random sports. There is always some element of reading and understanding the environment and context. High CI supports learning because it allows the development of quick decision-making and skilful execution of movement patterns linked to picking up perceptual information.

From an IP perspective, the solution has been forgotten and needs to be retrieved, leading to forgetting and retrieval and/or embellishment of the motor program. High CI is associated with low performance in practice but much better performance in retention and transfer tasks.

Obviously, from an ecological perspective, there are no motor programs and the advantages are more about supporting intention, focus of attention, and (re)calibration of perception and action. However, each individual may be experiencing totally different levels of variability in their performance and may need to increase or decrease complexity or variability in a way that is more individual.

Early CI research used to have everyone doing the same practice structure; doing the same things, in the same order, for the same number of repetitions. Studies allowing individuals to chose their level of challenge (the practice structure) have shown that participant choice is more effective than coach-led optimal levels of challenge. Often referred to as self-pacing, this more individualised practice may also have a benefit from increased levels of psychological needs support leading to higher levels of self-determined motivation and learning.

– Set up tasks and activities that have varying levels of challenge. Allow your participants to choose the level they start at, and when to move up or down a level.

– Ask the participants to tell you why they have chosen a level of challenge and why they changed. This simple activity will have a number of powerful impacts –
1. You will be amazed at what you learn (as a coach) about your participants, their thinking, decision making and motivations.
2. Your participants learning will increase when they realise that they need to pay attention to their intentions, what they focus their attention on, and how and why they make decisions – because you are not telling them what to do. Remember – whoever is making the decisions, is doing the learning!
3. There will be an increase in self-determined motivation due to the satisfaction of the participants basic psychological needs for autonomy, belonging and competence.

– Ensure that you keep as much of the tasks representative and simplified instead of broken up.

– Measure success by checking the level of retention and transfer (to the competition of other target environment), not by how well the task or activity is being performed at the end of a practice session.

If you don’t get these benefits over a period of time there may be a few things that you need to revisit with your participants. Check that you have been open about what you are doing and why and ensure that you have asked permission and are engaging them in the decision making.

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