This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

The Neurophysiological Correlates of Choice on Engagement, Motivation, and Motor Skill Learning




Leiker, Amber

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation




Autonomous practice conditions have time and again shown to be advantageous for motor skill learning, but the reason for this benefit is still unclear. Some studies suggest this benefit arises from increased motivation during practice; others suggest the benefit arises from better information processing. The purpose of Experiment 1 was to investigate the relationship between autonomy over difficulty level, engagement, and motivation during a motion-controlled video game task. Participants were randomly assigned to a self-controlled group, who chose the progression of difficulty during practice, or to a yoked group, who experienced the same difficulty progression but did not have a choice. Controlling for pre-test, participants in the self-controlled group showed greater retention on the moderate level post-test given one week after practice, and reported greater levels of intrinsic motivation during practice. However, the latter effect was found only at the group-level, as we found no individual differences in engagement or motivation that were associated with learning. Thus, the results from Experiment 1 were inconsistent with strictly motivational accounts of how autonomy benefits learning, instead suggesting the benefits of autonomy may be mediated through other mechanisms (i.e., greater information processing). To further investigate the relationship between autonomy and learning, as well as address limitations of exhaustive and subjective survey measures in Experiment 1, we designed Experiment 2 to include shorter, single-item engagement and motivation questions and objective neurophysiological measures (frontal asymmetry and spontaneous eye-blink rate). As in Experiment 1, participants were randomly assigned to a self-controlled group or a yoked group. Unlike Experiment 1, however, we did not see significant differences between groups on the retention post-tests. However, the combined data from Experiment 1 and 2 did show greater learning effects for the self-controlled participants compared to yoked participants. Furthermore, there was not a significant Group by Experiment interaction, suggesting this result falls within what we may expect with our given effect size and sampling variability. We found no relationships between learning and engagement, motivation, frontal asymmetry, or spontaneous eye-blink rate. However, practice frontal asymmetry was positively related to average difficulty level and changes in difficulty level during practice (i.e., participants who played at a higher difficulty level and switched difficulty levels more often had greater left frontal cortical activity). The new single-item engagement and motivation questions significantly correlated with the previously used long-form engagement and motivation surveys, which can be utilized in future studies to dynamically measure these constructs throughout practice. Survey results from Experiment 2 also question motivation’s role in autonomy and motor learning. Although self-controlled groups showed superior learning to yoked groups, individual differences in motivation were not related to individual differences in learning across the two experiments. Our chosen neurophysiological measures also did not show support for the idea that these benefits arise from enhanced motivation (specifically dopaminergic processes). More investigation into the underlying neural mechanisms of autonomy must be completed in order to better understand this construct.