Simpler Than It Sounds: Increasing Variability to Improve Learning

By | December 5, 2018

Hey #WHPE #physed world! I imagine most of you are like me. You want your students to enjoy movement, BUT you also want movers who feel (and ideally are) competent. To me that’s a super tough balance. Here are some things that go through my head:

  • Some students will find lots of movements they enjoy:
    • Their movement repertoires will be large.
    • Through all those movements they’ll have many opportunities to be active.
    • Moving in all those different ways will also be good injury prevention.
  • Others may only enjoy few:
    • Are there easily accessible opportunities for them to use those skills they enjoy?
    • What movement pieces will they be missing, and how will that impact their future health & injury prevention?
    • How do I help them continue in what they enjoy, but also experience success in other movement areas?
  • Students will probably pursue what they feel successful in. How do I make that happen?
    • They need to work on skills at an appropriate level for them. Which will be different for everybody.
    • They need to recognize what’s an appropriate level of difficulty for them.
    • I need to be able to reinforce their success.
    • Everybody working in different ways has to be socially comfortable or they won’t feel empowered. Our class done poorly, is an easy place to feel ostracized.
    • How can everyone work in slightly different ways that’s efficient and safe for the space?

I could go a lot further down that rabbit hole. It can feel like a lot. In the rest of this blog I’m going share one way I try to account for all of the things I’ve talked about above.

What I am finding success with in Elementary Phy-Ed is progressively increasing variability in what my students practice. What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s imagine I am working on the 3rd Grade SHAPE America Standard for short-implement striking:

S1.E24.3a–Strikes an object with a short-handled implement, sending it forward over a low net or to a wall.

S1.E24.3b–Strikes an object with a short-handled implement while demonstrating 3 of 5 critical elements of a mature pattern

The first day we work on this standard here’s what my classroom would look like.

From this set-up here’s how my class progresses:

  • Rounds are 3-4 minutes long
  • After every hit they switch sides of the gym to keep activity level up, while developing skill
  • Zones are separated by cones

Round 1–Each student starts in Zone 1, every 4 “Tick-Tock-Step” hits they get over the net they back up a zone.

Round 2–Every hit (whether it goes over the net or not) you follow the same pattern: Zone 1-Zone 2- Zone 3- Zone 4-repeat

Round 3–Hit from a different zone every time (you cannot hit from the same Zone twice in a row)

Round 4–Hit from the Zone you think is the best challenge for you

Some of you are probably thinking, “Will……why that way?” Here’s why:

  1. Systematically increasing practice variability is shown to be an effective way to improve motor learning compared to strictly blocked practice and strictly randomized practice. (Porter & MaGill, 2010; Porter & Saemi, 2010; Saemi, 2012).
  2. Changing how we practice every few minutes keep the task novel. Keeping the kids interested.
  3. Kids are working on their skills while also getting time to socialize in an appropriate way. This again helps kids enjoyment.
  4. Privacy through chaos, this set-up is definitely structured, but with 20+ kids hitting from every which-way in the gym opportunities to feel socially isolated or on display are few. Helping students feel comfortable.
  5. Tons of repetition!!
  6. Students have a say in their learning. The last two parts of the lesson where they’re choosing what zones to play from are a huge part of the keeping their interest, and this too helps enhance learning (Lewthwaite & Wulf, 2016).
  7. Any feedback or behavior correcting that needs to take place can happen in a super individualized because of all the chaos surrounding them. It also leaves the kids feeling respected since it can be done subtly.
  8. The whole goal of this lesson outside of being a great assessment tool for me is that it helps students figure out what “zone” is the best challenge for them. They know this means the level(s) where they had a little of success and failure. You might say, “Will, don’t they just lie and go to the zone their friend did?” You’d be surprised most students are very accurate judges of where the best place for them is to help their form in this task. I prefer my students knowing this over focusing on critical elements of a skill, because that usually leads to students focusing on their body’s movements (internal focus) which gets in the way of performance and learning. I want them focused on their movement’s effect on the environment (external focus) (Lewthwaite & Wulf, 2016).

Thanks for your time. Hopefully, I’ve given you some things to think about. This is not the only way I go about teaching, but when I use it I find it effective on many levels. I know it’s easy to get into a rut of what you’ve always done, and sometimes simple changes can make a big difference. If you have questions/topics to debate please reach out. I love talking shop and making connections with other #pegeeks.

Happy Holidays,


Lewthwaite, R., & Wulf, G. (2016).Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: The OPTIMAL theory of motor learning, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, (23), 1382-1414.

Porter, J., & Magill, R., (2010). Systematically increasing contextual interference is beneficial for learning sport skills. Journal of Sports Sciences, 28(12), 1277-1285.

Porter, J., & Saemi, E., (2010). Moderately Skilled Learners Benefit by Practicing with Systematic Increases in Contextual Interference. International Journal of Coaching Science, 4(2), 61-71.

Saemi, E., Porter, J., Varzaneh, A.G., Zarghami, M., & Shafinia, P., (2012). Practicing Along the Contextual Interference Continuum: A Comparison of Three Practice Schedules in an Elementary Physical Education Setting. Kinesiology, 44(2), 191-198.

Will Westphal teaches 5K-4th Physical Education at Brillion Elementary School. He’s in his 9th year as a teacher. He has presented at the annual WHPE convention and for a #espechat #physedsummit. Lessons and units Will’s students learn from have been highlighted in Great Activities magazine and Teaching Today Wisconsin.