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A motor skill is a learned ability to cause a predetermined movement outcome with maximum certainty. Motor learning is the relatively permanent change in the ability to perform a skill as a result of practice or experience. Performance is an act of executing a motor skill. The goal of motor skills is to optimize the ability to perform the skill at the rate of success, precision, and to reduce the energy consumption required for performance. Continuous practice of a specific motor skill will result in a much more improved performance. One should note that not all movements are motor skills.


In children, a critical period for the acquisition of motor skills is preschool years (ages 3-5), as fundamental neuroanatomic structure shows significant development, elaboration, and myelination over the course of this period (Denckla, 1974). Many factors contribute to the rate that children develop their motor skills. Unless afflicted with a severe disability, children are expected to develop a wide range of basic movement abilities and motor skills (Malina, 2004). Motor development progresses in 7 stages throughout an individual's life: reflexive, rudimentary, fundamental, sports skill, growth and refinement, peak performance, and regression. Development is age-related but is not age dependent. In regard to age, it is seen that typical developments are expected to attain gross motor skills used for postural control and vertical mobility by 5 years of age (Rosenbaum, Missiuna & Johnson, 2004).

There are 6 aspects of development:

  1. Qualitative: Changes in movement process results in changes in movement outcome.
  2. Sequential: Certain motor patterns precede others.
  3. Cumulative: Current movements are built on previous ones.
  4. Directional: Cephalocaudal or Proximodistal.
  5. Multifactorial: Numerous factors impact.
  6. Individual: Dependent on each person.

In the childhood stages of development, gender differences can greatly influence motor skill. In the article "An Investigation of Age and Gender Differences in Preschool Children's Specific Motor Skills", girls scored significantly higher than boys on visual motor and graphomotor tasks. However, boys were seen to be more proficient in the balance task. The results from this study suggest that girls attain manual dexterity earlier than boys (Junaid & Fellowes, 2006). Variability of results in the tests can be attributed towards the multiplicity of different assessment tools used (Piek et al. 2012). Furthermore, gender differences in motor skills are seen to be affected by environmental factors. In essence, "parents and teachers often encourage girls to engage in quite activities requiring fine motor skills, while they promote boys' participation in dynamic movement actions" (Vlachos, Papadimitriou, & Bonoti, 2014). In the journal article Gender Differences in Motor Skill Proficiency From Childhood to Adolescence by Lisa Barrett, the evidence for motor skill based on gender is apparent. In general, boys are more skillful in object control and object manipulation skills. These tasks include throwing, kicking, and catching skills. These skills were tested and concluded that boys perform better with these tasks. There was no evidence for the difference in locomotor skill between the genders, but both are improved in the intervention of physical activity. Overall, the predominance of development on balance skills (gross motor) in boys and manual skills (fine motor) in girls (Vlachos, Papadimitriou, & Bonoti, 2014). Components of Development: Growth: Increase in the size of the body or its parts as the individual progresses toward maturity, Quantitative structural changes Maturation: Refers to qualitative changes that enable one to progress to higher levels of functioning; It is primarily innate Experience/Learning: Refers to factors within the environment that may alter or modify the appearance of various developmental characteristics through the process of learning Adaptation: Refers to the complex interplay or interaction between forces within the individual (nature) and the environment (nurture)

Influences on developmentEdit

Stress and arousal: stress and anxiety is the result of an imbalance between demand and the capacity of the individual. In this context, arousal defines the amount of interest in the skill. The optimal performance level is moderate stress or arousal. An example of an insufficient arousal state is an overqualified worker performing repetitive jobs. An example of excessive stress level is an anxious pianist at a recital.

Fatigue: the deterioration of performance when a stressful task is continued for a long time, similar to the muscular fatigue experienced when exercised for a rapid rate or lengthy period of time. Fatigue is caused by over-arousal. Fatigue impacts an individual in many ways: perceptual changes in which visual acuity or awareness drops, slowing of performance (reaction times or movements speed), irregularity of timing, and disorganization of performance.

Vigilance: the effect of the loss of vigilance is the same as fatigue, but is instead caused by a lack of arousal. Some tasks include jobs that require little work and high attention.[1]

Gender: gender plays an important role in the development of the child. Girls are more likely to be seen performing fine, stationary, and visual-motor integration, whereas boys predominantly exercise object manipulation skill. While researching motor development in preschool ages children, girls were more likely to be seen performing skills such as skipping, hopping, or skills with the use of just hands. Boys were seen to perform gross skills such as kicking or throwing a ball or swinging a bat. There are gender-specific differences in qualitative throwing performance, but not necessarily in quantitative throwing performance. Male and female athletes demonstrated similar movement patterns in humerus and forearm actions but differed in trunk, stepping, and backswing actions.

Stages of motor learningEdit

Motor learning is a change, resulting from practice. It often involves improving the accuracy of movements both simple and complex as one's environment changes. Motor learning is a relatively permanent skill as the capability to respond appropriately is acquired and retained.[2]

The stages of motor learning are the cognitive phase, the associative phase, and the autonomous phase.

Cognitive Phase: When a learner is new to a specific task, the primary thought process starts with, “What needs to be done?” Considerable cognitive activity is required so that the learner can determine appropriate strategies to adequately reflect the desired goal. Good strategies are retained and inefficient strategies are discarded. The performance is greatly improved in a short amount of time.

Associative Phase: The learner has determined the most effective way to do the task and starts to make subtle adjustments in performance. Improvements are more gradual and movements become more consistent. This phase can last for a long time. The skills in this phase are fluent, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing.

Autonomous Phase: This phase may take several months to years to reach. The phase is dubbed “autonomous” because the performer can now “automatically” complete the task without having to pay any attention to performing it. Examples include walking and talking or sight reading while doing simple arithmetic.[3]

Law of effectEdit

Motor skill acquisition has long been defined in the scientific community as an energy-intensive form of stimulus-response (S-R) learning that results in robust neuronal modifications.[4] In 1898, Thorndike proposed the law of effect, which states that the association between some action (R) and some environmental condition (S) is enhanced when the action (R) is followed by a satisfying outcome (O). For instance, if an infant motions his right hand and left leg in just the right way, he can perform a crawling motion, thereby producing the satisfying outcome of increasing his mobility. Because of the satisfying outcome, the association between being on all fours and these particular arm and leg motions are enhanced. Further, a dissatisfying outcome (O) weakens the S-R association. For instance, when a toddler contracts certain muscles, resulting in a painful fall, the child will decrease the association between these muscle contractions and the environmental condition of standing on two feet.


During the learning process of a motor skill, feedback is the positive or negative response that tells the learner how well the task was completed. Inherent feedback: after completing the skill, inherent feedback is the sensory information that tells the learner how well the task was completed. A basketball player will note that he or she made a mistake when the ball misses the hoop. Another example is a diver knowing that a mistake was made when the entry into the water is painful and undesirable. Augmented feedback: in contrast to inherent feedback, augmented feedback is information that supplements or “augments” the inherent feedback. For example, when a person is driving over a speed limit and is pulled over by the police. Although the car did not do any harm, the policeman gives augmented feedback to the driver in order for him to drive more safely. Another example is a private tutor for a new student in a field of study. Augmented feedback decreases the amount of time to master the motor skill and increases the performance level of the prospect. Transfer of motor skills: the gain or loss in the capability for performance in one task as a result of practice and experience on some other task. An example would be the comparison of initial skill of a tennis player and non-tennis player when playing table tennis for the first time. An example of a negative transfer is if it takes longer for a typist to adjust to a randomly assigned letter of the keyboard compared to a new typist. Retention: the performance level of a particular skill after a period of no use.[3]

Types of tasksEdit

Continuous tasks: activities like swimming, bicycling, running; the performance level is just as proficient as before even after years of no use.

Discrete tasks: an instrument, video game, or a sport; the performance level drops significantly but will be better than a new learner. The relationship between the two tasks is that continuous tasks usually use gross motor skills and discrete tasks use finer motor skills.[3]


Gross motor skill[5] requires the use of large muscle groups to perform tasks like walking, balancing, crawling. The skill required is not extensive and therefore are usually associated with continuous tasks. Much of the development of these skills occurs during early childhood. The performance level of gross motor skill remains unchanged after periods of non-use.[6]


Fine motor skill requires the use of smaller muscle groups to perform tasks that are precise in nature. Activities, like playing the piano and playing video games, are examples of using fine motor skills. Generally, there is a retention loss of fine motor skills over a period of non-use. Discrete tasks usually require more fine motor skill than gross motor skills.[6] Fine motor skills can become impaired. Some reasons for impairment could be injury, illness, stroke, congenital deformities, cerebral palsy, and developmental disabilities. Problems with the brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves, muscles, or joints can also have an effect on fine motor skills, and decrease control[7]


This is the development from head to foot. The head develops earlier than the hand. Similarly, hand coordination develops before the coordination of the legs and feet. For example, an infant is able to follow something with their eyes before they can touch or grab it.[8]


Movement of limbs that are closer to the body develop before the parts that are further away, such as a baby learns to control the upper arm before the hands or fingers. Fine movements of the fingers are the last to develop in the body.[9]

Gross to specificEdit

A gross-to-specific pattern is the development of larger muscle movements, before the development of finer movements. For example, a child only being able to pick up large objects, to then picking up an object that is small between the thumb and fingers. The earlier movements involve larger groups of muscles, but as they grow movements become possible and specific things are achieved hence the name gross to specific.[9]

Brain structuresEdit

The regions of the frontal lobe responsible for motor skill include the primary motor cortex, the supplemental motor area, and the premotor cortex. The primary motor cortex is located in the precentral gyrus and is often visualized as the motor homunculus. By stimulating certain areas of the motor strip and observing where it had an effect, Penfield and Rassmussen were able to map out the motor homunculus. Areas on the body that have complex movements, such as the hands, have a bigger representation on the motor homunculus.[10]

The supplemental motor area, which is just anterior to the primary motor cortex, is involved with postural stability and adjustment as well as coordinating sequences of movement. The premotor cortex, which is just below the supplemental motor area, integrates sensory information from the posterior parietal cortex and is involved with the sensory-guided planning of movement and begins the programming of movement.

The basal ganglia are an area of the brain where gender differences in brain physiology is evident. The basal ganglia are a group of nuclei in the brain that is responsible for a variety of functions, some of which include movement. The globus pallidus and putamen are two nuclei of the basal ganglia which are both involved in motor skills. The globus pallidus is involved with the voluntary motor movement, while the putamen is involved with motor learning. Even after controlling for the naturally larger volume of the male brain, it was found that males have a larger volume of both the globus pallidus and putamen.[11]

The cerebellum is an additional area of the brain important for motor skills. The cerebellum controls fine motor skills as well as balance and coordination. Although women tend to have better fine motor skills, the cerebellum has a larger volume in males than in females, even after correcting for the fact that males naturally have a larger brain volume.[12]

Hormones are an additional factor that contributes to gender differences in motor skill. For instance, women perform better on manual dexterity tasks during times of high estradiol and progesterone levels, as opposed to when these hormones are low such as during menstruation.[13]

An evolutionary perspective is sometimes drawn upon to explain how gender differences in motor skills may have developed, although this approach is controversial. For instance, it has been suggested that men were the hunters and provided food for the family, while women stayed at home taking care of the children and doing domestic work.[14] Some theories of human development suggest that men's tasks involved gross motor skill such as chasing after prey, throwing spears and fighting. Women, on the other hand, used their fine motor skills the most in order to handle domestic tools and accomplish other tasks that required fine motor control.[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Kurt z; Lisa A. (2007). Understanding Motor Skills in Children with Dyspepsia, ADHAM, Autism, and Other Learning Disabilities: A Guide to Improving Coordination (KP Essentials Series) (KP Essentials). Jessica Kingsley Pub. ISBN 1-84310-865-8. 
  2. ^ Adams, J.A.(June, 1971). " A closed-loop theory of motor learning" J Mot Behav 3(2):111-49 retrieved from doi:10.1080/00222895.1971.10734898
  3. ^ a b c Lee, Timothy Donald; Schmidt, Richard Penrose (1999). Motor control and learning: a behavioral emphasis. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. ISBN 0-88011-484-3. 
  4. ^ Carlson, Neil (2013). Physiology of behavior. Boston: Pearson. 
  5. ^ Gross Motor Skills
  6. ^ a b Stallings, Loretta M. (1973). Motor Skills: Development and Learning. Boston: WCB/McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-697-07263-0. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Newton, T.J.,& Joyce, A.P.(2012).Human Perspectives (6th ed.).Australia:Gregory.</
  9. ^ a b Newton, T.J.,& Joyce, A.P.(2012).Human Perspectives (6th ed.).Australia:Gregory.
  10. ^ Schott, G. (1993). "Penfield's homunculus: a note on cerebral cartography". Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. 56 (4): 329–333. doi:10.1136/jnnp.56.4.329. PMC 1014945 . 
  11. ^ Rijpkema, M., Everaerd, D., van der Pol, C., Franke, B., Tendolkar, I., & Fernandez, G. (2012).Normal sexual dimorphism in the human basal ganglia. Human Brain Mapping, 33(5), 1246–1252. doi: 10.1002/hbm.21283.
  12. ^ Raz, N., Gunning-Dixon, F., Head, D., Williamson, A., & Acker, J. (2001). Age and sex differences in the cerebellum and the ventral pons: A prospective mr study of healthy adults. American Journal of Neuroradiology, 22(6), 1161–1167. doi: 11415913.
  13. ^ Becker, J., Berkley, K., Geary, N., Hampson, E., Herman, J., & Young, E. (2008). Sex differences in the brain: From genes to behavior. (p. 156). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
  14. ^ a b Joseph, R. (2000). "The evolution of sex differences in language, sexuality, and visual-spatial skills". Archives of Sexual Behavior. 29 (1): 35–66. doi:10.1023/A:1001834404611. PMID 10763428. 

Sparrow, W.A. (July 1, 1983). "The efficiency of skilled performance". Journal of Motor Behavior. 15 (3): 237–261. doi:10.1080/00222895.1983.10735299. PMID 15151872. 

Guthrie, E.R. (1957). Harper et Brothers, New York, ed. "The psychology of learning". 

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