Differential effects of task complexity on contextual interference in a drawing task

Acta Psychol (Amst). 1998 Nov;100(1-2):9-24. doi: 10.1016/s0001-6918(98)00022-5.


A large number of studies demonstrated the beneficial effects of contextual interference (CI) created by a random practice of different task variations during training on the retention and transfer of motor skills. Current interpretations of this phenomenon assume that random practice engages the subjects in deep and elaborate processing of movement related information, whereas blocked practice results in more superficial processing leading to poorer performance on later retention and transfer tests. According to this line of interpretation, we hypothesised that the complexity of the task to be learned could modulate the effects of CI. If the task is sufficiently complex, it could force the subjects to rely on such elaborate processing, and the beneficial effects of the intertask interference created by random practice could be obscured in that case. We tested this hypothesis by analysing the effects of practice schedule (random vs. blocked), on the acquisition, retention and transfer of learning in a drawing task where subjects had to reproduce accurately, without visual control, geometrical patterns presented on a video screen, as a function of task complexity defined by the number of segments (two, three or four) of each pattern. The results indicated a clear beneficial effect of random over blocked practice on delayed retention and transfer. However, this CI effect was only observed in subjects who learned the simplest movements, and was not observed in subjects who practised the more complex task. These results are discussed in terms of intratask interference created by the planning of multiple movements and the processing of knowledge of results (KR) when the number of drawing movements is increased. These findings support the assumption that the level of cognitive effort in which the subjects are engaged during training is a main factor influencing long-term retention and transfer of motor skills.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Art*
  • Attention*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Motor Skills*
  • Practice, Psychological
  • Psychophysics
  • Retention, Psychology
  • Transfer, Psychology