What is the impact of internal and external attention on learning?

The concept of internal and external attention in relation to learning physical skills or in rehabilitation has been well documented with studies and research. Internal attention relates to a focus on the body or a body part, external attention relates to putting focus on an external item or trajectory. For example, when teaching someone how to have better shooting technique in basketball. With internal attention,  you would tell them to extend their arm fully and create a short snapping move of the wrist, have a good shot. With external focus, you would tell them to imagine a curved line between their arm, wrist and the basket, as if the ball was following your curved trajectory fully.

Research studies in the health and physical education arena, found that to teach base skills internal attention is essential. However accuracy and performance were improved by adding in external attention. In video games and in virtual and augmented reality, where we are interacting physically with controllers, an element of both attention spans is required.  Internal attention will teach the physical holding and moving of equipment related skills, often you are shown by a friend how to hold a joystick, a headset, etc. External attention plays a role when you want to become better and more accurate in your movements, it requires focusing on the game or objects in virtual reality.

What is also really interesting is when you truly master a skill and it becomes automatic, like an unconscious move that through feeling you know is right or wrong. The research is indicating that in order to allow for this sense of physical skills mastery, the role of continuous realtime feedback, for example through trackers, is a factor that slows down mastery. Faded feedback with less and less focus on the external feedback, allows for more automation mastery.

I wonder in the world of virtual reality and augmented reality or even e-sports, whether real time feedback actually has the same impact. One would believe so, seen that the link between motor learned skills and performance are real in these circumstances. Games often have real-time feedback even into the controller with physical feedback and then the obvious scores or being killed or hurt in the game. When designing feedback loops in gaming or gamification where elements of internal and external attention come into play, it is important to realise that at some point dropping the feedback mechanism into the background will lead to greater mastery of the skill. Imagine playing without scoring in a game, but aiming to have your best score at the same time.

In road races I took part in, guessing your time before starting and then going off in the race without tracking devices or time indicators, always accounted for some unusual results. I actually knew my time speed quite well over the shorter distances and I have to say these races were the only ones I managed to have top 10 finishes in a large field of runners. Knowing you body and performance as a kinaesthetic learner is something that comes natural to me. In most sports, I played competitively at higher levels, I knew if it felt right then a free-throw shot would be successful.

In gamification design, applying some of this knowledge into feedback loops and mechanisms is important. I have yet to find research on the application of attention to more mentally focused ways of learning. My thinking would be that similar patterns occur.

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