Can Learning a Complex Skill Make Simpler Tasks Easier?

Therapists must often make important decisions regarding how they spend therapy hours with their clients. This involves choosing the kinds of activities their clients will do and the complexity of the activities. Research has shown that performing complex tasks may lead to improvements in the performance of unpracticed simple tasks. This blog post discusses a study that studied this hypothesis and what the results mean for you. 

Why Would this Matter? 

With therapy hours becoming even more scarce, therapists must spend therapy hours with their clients wisely. To maximize recovery and help clients succeed in the real world, therapists must choose adequately challenging activities and help a client complete tasks of similar or less difficulty. Completing only simple tasks during therapy hours may help a client perform them well, but they often will have a larger bridge to cross when it comes to more complex tasks. 

Complex tasks require consistent practice. For example, attempting to draw a portrait the first time may not come out the way the artist originally intended. However, after consistent practice of drawing faces and figures, the artist is likely to end up with a masterpiece. If they choose to create a less complex work of art, they will likely find it to be substantially easier. If the artist consistently drew shapes but never attempted to draw a face or figure, the artist would likely find portrait drawing to be very difficult.

What Happened?

One study conducted by Kantak, Zahedi, & McGrath (2017) studied whether patients with stroke when trained on a complex skill were able to retain long-term improvements in the performance of a complex motor skill and if the training of a complex motor skill would make the completion of a simpler unpracticed goal-directed motor task to be easier. In the study, the researchers examined 11 patients with left hemisphere stroke, 13 patients with right hemisphere stroke, and 9 healthy age matched controls. 15 patients were placed in the complex motor skill practice group, while 9 patients were placed in the test alone group. Age-matched controls only completed the simple goal-directed motor skill task in order to serve as a benchmark to compare the performance of the participants with stroke. 

For three days, participants in the complex motor skill practice group were trained to complete a complex motor task which was performed on a computer using their paretic upper extremity. Participants were trained to complete the complex motor task using predefined movement time bins. The goal of the training was to encourage participants to complete the complex motor task as quickly and as accurately as possible. Short-term retention testing was done on the third day, and all participants were instructed to return one month after their last session to complete long-term retention testing. Participants completed the simple motor task on visit one for a baseline measure and again during the short-term and long-term retention study visits after completing the complex motor task. 

 The researchers found that participants in the complex motor skill practice group significantly improved their performance accuracy during the short-term retention and long-term retention study visits. These accuracy improvements occurred without changes in movement time over the testing sessions. Performance on the simple goal-directed motor task improved from baseline to short and long-term testing, as noted by higher movement velocities and decreased submovements.

How Does This Relate to Me? 

When working with your clients, it may be helpful to give them reasonably more challenging tasks to complete during therapy sessions so that your clients may learn effective strategies for solving complex tasks, which can help them complete simpler tasks with ease. When your client is not with you, you may want to sharpen their skills using tasks with similar complexity. It is common for therapists not to want to challenge their clients over, but challenging clients within reason can prove beneficial use of therapy hours.

Kantak, S. S., Zahedi, N., & McGrath, R. (2017). Complex skill training transfers to improved performance and control of simpler tasks after stroke. Physical therapy, 97(7), 718-728.
Dustin Luchmee

Dustin was HappyNeuron's Product Specialist. With research experience in stroke, Dustin learned how a stroke can change someone's life. He also learned how different kinds of therapists can work together to help a person get better. He is passionate about neuro-rehabilitation and finding the active ingredients for effective therapy.

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