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William A. Sparrow, Alison J. Shinkfield, Ross H. Day, Sarah Hollitt and Damien Jolley

Recognizing a class of movements as belonging to a “nominal” action category, such as walking, running, or throwing, is a fundamental human ability. Three experiments were undertaken to test the hypothesis that common (“prototypical”) features of moving displays could be learned by observation. Participants viewed moving stick-figure displays resembling forearm flexion movements in the saggital plane. Four displays (presentation displays) were first presented in which one or more movement dimensions were combined with 2 respective cues: direction (up, down), speed (fast, slow), and extent (long, short). Eight test displays were then shown, and the observer indicated whether each test display was like or unlike those previously seen. The results showed that without corrective feedback, a single cue (e.g., up or down) could be correctly recognized, on average, with the proportion correct between .66 and .87. When two cues were manipulated (e.g., up and slow), recognition accuracy remained high, ranging between .72 and .89. Three-cue displays were also easily identified. These results provide the first empirical demonstration of action-prototype learning for categories of human action and show how apparently complex kinematic patterns can be categorized in terms of common features or cues. It was also shown that probability of correct recognition of kinematic properties was reduced when the set of 4 presentation displays were more variable with respect to their shared kinematic property, such as speed or amplitude. Finally, while not conclusive, the results (from 2 of the 3 experiments) did suggest that similarity (or “likeness”) with respect to a common kinematic property (or properties) is more easily recognized than dissimilarity.