PhD Studentship - Improving Skill Learning

University of Sheffield

Fully Funded PhD Scholarship in Psychology at the University of Sheffield

This is one of many projects in competition for the current funding opportunities available within the Department of Psychology

Project title: Improving skill learning

Primary supervisor: Dr T Stafford

Project description: Learning theory has identified a number of fundamental trade-offs in motor skill learning: component vs “whole-skill” training; blocked vs interleaved practice; the exploration-exploitation trade-off. All learners and coaches will have an intuitive feel how to vary training so as to balance emphasis on the different ends of these spectra. There is evidence, however, that the self-guided practice of non-elite sportspeople is systematically biased so as to produce sub-optimal improvements in skill learning (Huang, Shadmehr & Diedrichsen, 2008). For example, a bias towards practicing what we already know (the ‘exploitation’ part of the exploitation vs exploration trade-off) is widely-known, and reflects, broadly, ‘confirmation bias’ in the psychological domain (Nickerson, 1998). This bias leads to the under-exploration of the complex parameter space of skilled motor actions, hindering us from learning optimal movements. We have developed a laboratory motor skill learning task and shown that participants show just such a reliance on what they already know, and that this hampers optimal skill learning (Stafford et al, 2012).

The aims of this project would be

  1. To show that interventions to decrease reliance on what is already known (i.e. to increase exploration via perturbation and/or handicap training) improve skill learning in our laboratory task.
  2. Develop metrics which allow us to diagnose when interventions in training will be most effective.
  3. Test if laboratory interventions which can improve rate of skill learning can generalise to athletes learning a new athletic skill

Huang, V. S., Shadmehr, R., & Diedrichsen, J. (2008). Active Learning: Learning a Motor Skill Without a Coach. Journal of Neurophysiology, 100(2), 879 –887.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2(2), 175-220.
Stafford, T., Thirkettle, M., Walton, T., Vautrelle, N., Hetherington, L., Port, M., Gurney, K., et al. (2012). A Novel Task for the Investigation of Action Acquisition. PLoS ONE, 7(6), e37749. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037749

Start date: 1 October 2018

Requirements: Applicants must have a minimum of a first class or high upper second-class undergraduate honours degree and a distinction or high merit at Masters level in psychology or a related discipline.

Funding: Tuition fees £4,194 per year Living Expenses £14,500.00

Science Graduate School

As a PhD student in one of the science departments at the University of Sheffield, you'll be part of the Science Graduate School. You'll get access to training opportunities designed to support your career development by helping you gain professional skills that are essential in all areas of science. You'll be able to learn how to recognise good research and research behaviour, improve your communication abilities and experience the breadth of technologies that are used in academia, industry and many related careers. Visit to learn more.

For further details and the application process please visit:

Closing date for applications is 5pm Wednesday 24 January 2018

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Northern England