Aaron Andrews works the peg-transfer test while Leah Gitto times his performance.

Student-Researchers Study Motor Performance

An on-going, multi-approach study at Penn State Altoona is exploring that possibility that positive feedback affects motor skills.

By: Therese Boyd
Back row (l to r): Adhassa Louis, Leah Gitto, Claude Regis; front row: Aaron Andrews, Kierra Irwin, Zoe McHugh

Back row (l to r): Adhassa Louis, Leah Gitto, Claude Regis; front row: Aaron Andrews, Kierra Irwin, Zoe McHugh

Image: Penn State

Positive feedback makes us feel good—everyone loves to hear “you’re doing a good job!” It might make us work a little harder. But does it also make us perform better? Specifically, could it result in improvement in motor skills? An on-going, multi-approach study at Penn State Altoona, led by Takehiro Iwatsuki, assistant professor of kinesiology with a specialization in motor learning and control, is exploring that possibility. His goal, he says, is “to provide better solutions for learning motor skills. We’re looking to find ways to make the learning process more effective.”

A number of students are taking on the role of researcher for this project. Leah Gitto and Aaron Andrews, sophomore kinesiology majors, are conducting a study on feedback and motor learning, “whether getting feedback at your preferred timing on your performance improves it or not,” Gitto says. Subjects perform the “peg transfer task,” a well-known psychomotor test usually used for training in laparoscopic procedures. Using “little graspers,” Gitto says, study subjects pick up objects on a peg board with the grasper in their nondominant hand and move the object to the grasper in their dominant hand before placing the object on the opposite side of the peg board.

The researchers are looking for improvement in subjects’ ability to perform the task, but only related to when the subjects are given their scores, what Iwatsuki calls “expected information.” Gitto elaborates: “The feedback we give is your score. Subjects in one group get their choice of when they receive their score; the control group doesn’t.” Their research continues and so recruiting new subjects is part of her job. “We’ve had a lot of participants so far. We recruit in different classes—chemistry and anatomy, a couple of nursing classes. It’s a big commitment,” she says, but it does have its rewards: “If they participate for three days they get extra credit.”

Aaron Andrews works the peg-transfer test while Leah Gitto times his performance.

Aaron Andrews works the peg-transfer test while Leah Gitto times his performance.

Image: Penn State

Andrews found another reward in working on this research. Before he started working in the lab, he says, he didn’t see how a course in statistics had any practical application. “The one thing I was sure about was I’m never gonna use this stuff.” He now admits he was wrong. “It’s cool to see how some of this applies, how it actually is used.”

Kierra Irwin is just beginning her research study using the same peg transfer test Gitto and Andrews use. “My study is a social-related study. We have a social group and a control group. They come in, they do one test trial. Afterwards we tell them they are individually unique. The control group gets no praise.” So far they have only had around a dozen participants so the data is yet to come.

Like Andrews, Irwin wasn’t sure what she was getting into when she started working on the research project. “I didn’t know what to expect from it. I didn’t know if I was going to like it.” But also like Andrews, Irwin sees practical application for these studies in her own goal of becoming a physicians assistant. “There’s always room for improvement in the field. A lot of it is psychological— that is mind blowing. It’s something I can use as a physician assistant.”

Claude Regis works with throwing studies to determine the effect of feedback on motor learning while withholding information about expectation for performance. Regis describes the study as “like throwing darts with a small golf-ball-sized ball—and they throw with their nondominant hand.” Regis has two groups: for one group, hitting the circle for “more than 6 points is successful”; for the other group “more than 9 is considered successful.” One group has relatively easy success criteria while the other group has difficult-to-reach success criteria (the center of the target is 10 points). They complete six blocks of 12 throws, which according to Professor Iwatsuki should be enough time to learn the skill. Two days later, they return for two more blocks of 12, one at the same distance and one 2–3 feet back. Regis says, “If they are learning the skill they should be able to transfer it” at a distance.

Leah Gitto and Kierra Irwin with their poster at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Fair

Leah Gitto and Kierra Irwin with their poster at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities Fair

Image: Penn State

Regis looked for a research project his first year of college on the advice of a relative. “My cousins were telling me ‘you need research.’” With this study, he says, “I can learn a lot about the human and about how small manipulations matter.” And, like his cohorts, he appreciates the practical experience: “I don’t feel like I’m in a classroom.”

At the end of the semester, three different but related studies were presented in poster form at the Spring Student Showcase by Iwatsuki’s student-researchers. Regis’s poster was titled “Enhancing Expectancy through Providing Different Success Criteria Enhances Motor Learning Outcome.” Adhassa Louis and Zoe McHugh presented a poster titled “Providing Choice Enhances Motor Performance under Psychological Pressure.” And Gitto, Irwin, and Andrews prepared a poster about measuring motor performance under psychological pressure as a function of choice, headed “Effect of Autonomy Support on Golf-Putting under Psychological Pressure.” The research subjects were split into two groups, one of which chose the color of ball to use, the other was assigned a color. While Gitto says “our results showed that there was no correlation with this data,” she also sees the value in performing the work. She says that she and her cohorts agreed that, among other lessons, “we learned how to conduct better studies.” Research is about finding answers, but it also provides lessons for the researcher— especially student researchers.