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J M (Mike) Nelson
Phone: 612-810-0157


Dance Instruction and the Psychology of Learning

This article will summarize a few principles of learning that seem particularly applicable to social dance instruction and offer a few, common examples of the consequences of their being ignored. The hope is that some in the teaching community will use these principles and the related examples to improve their teaching strategies and perhaps develop some new ones that are even more effective. Ideally, the conscientious teacher, perhaps not familiar with learning theories, will consider further examination of the ways that principles of systematic instructional design might be used to improve their dance classes.

Behaviorism assumes that learning is a result of responses to external events. Thorndike's law of readiness implies that a series of stimulus-response (S-R) connections can be chained together if they belong to the same action sequence. Stepping in sync with music, in a prescribed cadence (step sequence imposed onto the music tempo) and staying connected to a partner form an S-R chain. If the requisite connections are not present, the chain is broken, and the learner frustrated.

Cognitive Theories view learning as a more complex process that utilizes problem-solving and insightful thinking in addition to repetition of a stimulus-response chain. George A. Miller first documented, in 1956, that short-term memory can only hold 5-9 meaningful units of information. The limited capacity of short term memory became a basic element of all subsequent theories of memory and has been verified at all levels of cognitive processing. Many people are not aware of the universal limitations of short term memory, thus often feel foolish or inadequate when too many items are presented. It is counterproductive to overload short term memory; nor should one waste short term memory with things the student does not need to remember. Related sensory-motor skills are indisputably important in sports (dance). Marteniuk, 1976, discovered that continued repetition after proficiency is achieved will increase retention.

Most of the aforementioned principles of learning have been known for decades, and refined as research into human learning has continued. Many of these principles are also intuitively known, or at least suspected, by many dancers. The following describe some typical violations of principles of learning.

Law of Readiness. Dance teachers often violate the law of readiness by failing to review requisite skills; sometimes even what is considered the most basic can be beyond the student if the student does not have the requisite skills. Failure to assess often leads to failure to teach.

Short Term Memory. Dance teachers often frustrate the student by overloading short term memory. A sequence of prescribed variations, which need not be retained, can take up over half the capacity of short term memory simply to recall what to do, with less space left over for remembering how to do it. A better use of memory capacity might be for the dance frame and related lead/follow components that enable the couple to selectively implement a sequence of new variations on their own. In addition to better use of short term memory, the associated problem solving and exploration will lead to discovery as well as greater retention.

Self-Deception. Both teacher and student can deceive themselves into presuming accomplishment while actually teaching/learning nothing; skills not retained are not learned, even if they are successfully replicated during class. Experienced students often know enough requisite behaviors to hold several variations in short term memory, and this can prove a detriment. A class full of such students, not unusual in the dance community, might appear to master several, new, complex variations in one session, only to forget almost all of them because there was never enough repetition to move any of them into long term memory.

Knowledge about human learning and the subsequent principles of instructional design have much to offer the ballroom dance community. Unfortunately, dance curricula seemed to have evolved more intuitively than systematically, and the result has been a loss of effectiveness and efficiency in the teaching of social dance.

Recommendations. Three principles for teaching motor skills are: slow down, limit information, and practice beyond proficiency. Furthermore, retention of motor skills is more dependent on total practice than spaced practice. Since students rarely practice between dances, limiting content and increasing practice beyond proficiency will go far in improving retention. Dance Home Page Dance Curriculum Dance Articles

Copyright (c) 2006, J. M. Nelson. All rights reserved. Reproduction of contents prohibited without prior permission from the author.