How much feedback?

 –If you were being taught a new skill, how much feedback would help you learn better?
–Does the amount of feedback vary between learning a motor task and a speech task?
–Does the amount of feedback vary between a young learner and an old learner?
–Does the amount of feedback vary between a healthy person and someone with neurological impairment?
–Why are these questions significant to Parkinson’s patients?

Just a couple weeks after my first research trial, I participated in a UW trial that intends to help answer these questions.  The significance to Parkinson’s patients is that we may have speech impairment  in later stages, and training has been effective in reducing the impairment.   (No impacts for me yet — whew.)

Ashley France

(Researchers Caitlin Sears on the left and Ashley France on the right.)
I would have thought that the answer to “how much feedback?” would be “as much as possible”, no matter what the task  or the student.  Turns out to not be as simple as that.  The degree of feedback had been studied extensively but the studies were  in the physical therapy field (not speech therapy) and the research subjects were largely 18-20-year-old females — hardly representative of Parkinson’s patients!

 UW’s speech therapy research started a couple summers ago by testing more representative controls (65 healthy individuals) who were 55-85 years ago (typical age range for Parkinson’s patients).  Yep, we baby boomers don’t want to admit it, but we do get, um, less plastic in learning new tasks as we age.

This year, the research team is testing Parkinson’s patients, recruited primarily through the Washington State Parkinson’s Disease RegistryThis registry was started in 2007 as a collaboration between Washington physicians and researchers and Parkinson advocacy groups.  It is a purely voluntary way for people like me to self-identify as Parkinson’s patients who want to participate in research. It’s worked really well for this study — I got a letter from the registry January 23, the UW team already has had 25 PD participants by mid-February, and hope to get up to the desired number of 65 by the end of February.

So what did I have to do?  I repeated the same phrase over and over — the task was to repeat it at different rates, and the feedback showed how well I matched the rate.   I also did a motor task (tracing on the computer) over and over at different rates, again with feedback how well I matched the rate.  I came back a couple days later to have my retention tested.

On both days, I was observed by a graduate student, a different one each day.  I asked the second graduate student how they kept from going nuts hearing the same phrase endlessly repeated.  She said they research team trades off who does which part of the trial and they get to meet fascinating people like me.  The research team has obviously steeled themselves that science in the trenches isn’t necessarily glamorous.  Both grad students,  Caitlin Sears and Ashley France, were informative, professional, and still had their wits about them!

About Laura Kennedy Gould

Author of "The Magic Trick -- Life with Parkinson's
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