Most kids seem to love watching themselves on video – whether they’re singing, dancing, or just being their goofy selves.

Weird how things change as we get older though, no?

I remember thinking it was a blast to watch old 8mm film of myself as a kid, but by the time camcorders came out, I totally resisted watching any video of myself playing. It was bad enough to have to listen to my performances; adding video on top sooo did not make me feel any better.

Of course, watching someone else play – like Perlman or Heifetz – that was a whole different story.

Because in the same way that seeing Wolverine’s claws in the comics, and imagining how they might look is not nearly as cool as seeing them come to life for the very first time , hearing your favorite artist play and seeing them play is a different experience.

Plus, there are all the cool insights you can glean from observing an artist’s performance. Sure, everyone’s technique is different and you have to take it all with a grain of salt, but seeing their bowings, fingerings, and even subtler details about bow distribution or sound production can be a pretty rich education – even if you ultimately make different choices for yourself.

But watching video takes time out of our already busy schedule, and possibly, means less time available to spend actually practicing. Does watching recordings really offer a meaningful benefit that makes it worth the time?

Physical vs. observational practice

Researchers have been studying the effects of observational practice or “learning by watching” for a number of decades. There are a range of variables that influence the effectiveness of this practice strategy, but the general consensus seems to be that while physical practice is obviously best, observational practice is definitely better than no practice at all. And it seems (not unlike mental practice), that physical practice plus observational practice is better than physical practice alone.

But then the question of timing often comes up. As in, when should you watch video? Before learning the skill? After learning the skill? After every single repetition? Every day? Beginning/middle/end? As needed?

A study of basketball newbies learning how to shoot a jump shot give us some clues as to what might be most effective.

Training phase

26 German high school and university students were tasked with learning how to shoot (and make) a jump shot in basketball.

Participants were randomly assigned to two different groups, in gender-matched pairs. Everyone was told that they would get some time to practice shooting jump shots, and that they would be tested in one week.

In lieu of any actual individualized basketball training, each participant watched a short 25-second, 5-clip video sequence of an “expert” basketball player shooting a jump shot from different angles and perspectives, designed to give them a better idea of the mechanics and form of a successful shot.

Then, all were given 25 practice shots, in which their goal was to successfully sink a jump shot from the free throw line – and to do so with good form. And this is where the two groups’ training diverged.

The self-control group was told that they could watch the video anytime, and as often as they wanted during their practice trials. And that they could use it “as a general reminder or to observe more specific details of the technique.”

The yoked group, on the other hand, had no control over when they would be able to watch the video, and was simply told that they would be shown the video from time to time to remind them of the proper form, and allow them an opportunity to observe more specific details about technique.

Swish! Or not…

One week later, the participants returned to the gym for their test. Each participant was given 10 shot attempts, and reminded that they were being scored not just on accuracy (i.e. making a shot – or at least making contact with the rim and/or backboard), but on the quality of their shooting form as well.

Given how minimal their training was, the students’ performance on the test was not stellar, but there were still some pretty interesting takeaways and significant differences between the two groups’ scores.

figures

Form

With regards to proper shooting form, the self-control group started off their test performing right where they left off in their practice session the week prior, and even continued to improve their form across their 10 test shots.

The yoked group on the other hand, experienced a drop in performance after their 1-week layoff, and even though they improved over the course of their 10 test shots, seemed to be at a disadvantage relative to the self-control group which was poised to more effectively build on their previous week’s learning. (See figure on the left)

Accuracy

Here too, the self-control group started off their test at a level of performance similar to where they ended their practice the week before, and their accuracy scores continued to trend upwards through their retention trials.

And once again, the yoked group exhibited a drop in performance, starting off their test shooting worse than they did at the end of their practice trials the previous week. (See figure on the right)

Take action

This seems to be another example of the benefits of self-directed learning – where learners take things into their own hands and more actively guide their own learning process.

Of course, the first challenge might be getting students to take a moment to watch a video in the first place, which are so easily accessible nowadays that we probably don’t really appreciate them like we used to…

Additional reading

A review of this and other factors involved in optimizing motor learning: Motor skill learning and performance: a review of influential factors

A summary of some related studies specifically geared towards dancers (but others can benefit as well): Observational Learning of Complex Motor Skills – for Dancers