The Essential Distinction Between Learning and Performance: Insights for K-12 Educators

What is the difference between Performance and Learning

When it comes to teaching, the ultimate goal is to ensure students understand new concepts and skills and be able to apply that knowledge in varying contexts long after they’ve left the classroom. However, this ambition brings educators face-to-face with a paradoxical truth illuminated by Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork from the University of California, Los Angeles: the vital distinction between learning and performance. Understanding this distinction and how it applies in the classroom is key to planning for student learning versus teaching.

Performance ≠ Learning

The authors defined Performance as the “observable and measurable demonstration of understanding or skill during instruction or training.” In contrast, Learning is a deeper, more durable change in understanding or skill that can only be inferred from performance at a later date, often when the teacher is not present to guide the learner.

For educators, this implies that immediate, error-free performance in class doesn’t necessarily equate to long-term learning. Students might perform well on tests or in-class activities following teaching but need help recalling or applying the information weeks or months afterward. This phenomenon springs from the practices that target short-term memorization or understanding without embedding the knowledge deeply enough for long retention and flexible application.

Examples from Research

The distinction between learning and performance has been supported by various studies. For instance, early research with animals showed that rats could learn a maze without any signs of improvement during the learning process itself, known as latent learning. Similar effects have been observed in the overlearning phenomenon, where additional practice beyond mastering content can significantly improve long-term retention, even if it doesn’t seem to make a difference in the short term.

In practical classroom terms, consider a student who struggles to solve math problems under a time constraint, but through struggle and repeated effort, eventually grasps the concepts. This student might retain the knowledge more durably than another student who quickly solves the problems during class but without the deeper processing that comes from wrestling with the material.

 Classroom Example

In a 5th grade science classroom, Mrs. Thompson introduces her students to the water cycle, covering concepts like evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and collection. She employs various teaching methods, including a PowerPoint presentation, diagrams, and a short video with questions to explain the process. To assess her students’ understanding, she conducts a quiz at the end of the lesson. Let’s explore how this scenario reflects the distinction between performance and learning through two specific student examples: Maria and Alex.

Performance: Immediate Results in the Classroom

Maria’s Story: Maria pays close attention and takes detailed notes during the presentation. When Mrs. Thompson conducts the quiz at the end of the session, Maria answers almost every question correctly. Her excellent quiz scores reflect high performance—she can recall the information immediately after the lesson.

Learning: Long-Term Understanding and Application

Alex’s Story: Alex struggles a bit more during the lesson. He gets a few quiz questions wrong, especially those about condensation and evaporation. Recognizing his difficulty, Mrs. Thompson provides Alex with additional activities: a simple experiment where Alex observes water evaporating from a dish and condensing on a cooler surface and a project where he tracks the weather and identifies parts of the water cycle in action over a week.

A month later, Mrs. Thompson revisits the water cycle in preparation for a unit on weather patterns. She notices Alex can not only recall information about the water cycle more accurately than before, but also apply it to explain how clouds form and why rainfall occurs. His initial struggle, followed by targeted practice and application, led to deeper learning—a durable and flexible understanding of the water cycle. Furthermore, Alex begins to draw connections between the water cycle and his observations in the real world, demonstrating his ability to transfer this learning to new contexts.

Reflecting on Maria and Alex

While Maria showed high performance immediately following the lesson, it’s unclear without further assessment whether her understanding is as durable or flexible as Alex’s. Did she internalize the concepts deeply enough to apply them later, or was her success primarily a reflection of short-term memory?

On the other hand, Alex’s story exemplifies the learning process more profoundly. His initial lower performance, characterized by mistakes and misconceptions, became a foundation for exploration, application, and a clear understanding of the water cycle.

Implications for Teaching

Mrs. Thompson’s approach with Alex underscores the importance of embracing mistakes and challenges as learning opportunities. She supported his long-term learning by providing activities that encouraged Alex to engage with the concepts, make predictions, and see the principles in action.

This scenario highlights the crucial distinction between performance and learning in educational settings. High immediate performance on a quiz or test does not always indicate deeply rooted learning. Conversely, struggling with concepts initially can lead to stronger, more durable understanding when accompanied by thoughtful practice and application. For educators, recognizing and nurturing this distinction means prioritizing activities that foster long-term retention, comprehension, and the ability to apply knowledge in new contexts—key goals for any effective teaching strategy.

 Practical Implications for Educators

  • Embrace Productive Struggle: Allow students to grapple with challenging tasks without immediate correction. The struggle itself promotes deeper learning, even if it temporarily hampers performance.
  • Space Out Practice and Reviews: Distributed Practice, rather than cramming or massed practice sessions, ensures better long-term retention. Break down the material and review it over several days or weeks.
  • Encourage Self-testing: Encourage students to test themselves on the material rather than just reviewing or rereading notes. Retrieval practice enhances learning and retention far more effectively than passive study methods.
  • Use Varied Practice Conditions: Varying the conditions under which students practice a skill or engage with the material, such as through different types of problems or contexts, helps them develop a more flexible and durable understanding.

Final Thoughts

For educators, recognizing and applying the distinction between learning and performance can be transformative. It shifts the focus from short-term achievement to fostering long-term, transferable knowledge and skills. By integrating strategies prioritizing durable learning over immediate performance, we can significantly deepen students’ educational experiences and prepare them for lifelong learning and adaptability.

Questions to Ponder

  1. How do you measure true learning?
  2. How can assessments be developed that accurately measure long-term understanding and the ability to apply knowledge in novel situations, rather than just short-term memory or immediate recall?
  3. What role does feedback play in learning versus performance?
  4. How can educators balance the need for immediate results with long-term learning goals?
  5. How can technology support or hinder the learning versus performance distinction?

Action Steps to Take

  1. Regularly incorporate tasks that vary in context and complexity within a single learning objective to promote adaptable and durable learning. 
  2. Incorporate Spaced Repetition by designing lesson plans and review sessions that revisit key concepts and skills over increasing intervals. Utilize a mix of in-class review, homework assignments, and digital tools that facilitate spaced repetition to reinforce long-term retention.
  3. Experiment with delaying feedback slightly to allow students time to process and self-correct before receiving the correct answers. Also, consider providing aggregate feedback after multiple attempts to encourage synthesis and self-assessment skills.
  4. After assessments or major assignments, ask students to reflect on their study strategies, the effectiveness of their preparation, and what they might do differently next time. This step encourages students to become more aware of their learning processes and to recognize the distinction between immediate performance and long-term learning.

Source: Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176-199.

Don Marlett

Don has been an educator for 20+ years. Before joining Learning-Focused, he taught High School and Middle School Science and was a school administrator. Don has participated in school evaluations focused on implementing High Yield Strategies. In addition, he partnered with various state DOE to support leaders as well as present at numerous conferences hosted by multiple leadership organizations in Florida, NC, Ohio, WV, TN, and KY Don leads product development, provides leadership training and coaching, and coaches educators in the implementation of the High-Yield strategies.

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