Learning vs. Performance in the Classroom

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How do teachers evaluate learning versus performance, particularly in lesson observation?

The primary purpose of teacher instruction is to facilitate long-term learning. So, how do classroom observations filter out ‘performance’ to be able to evaluate retention?

In a research paper published by Soderstrom and Bjork (2015),  Learning versus Performance: An Integrative Review,  academics consider what we can observe and measure as performance; this is often an unreliable indicator of whether any long-term changes have taken place in memory.

Learning Versus Performance

Some teachers will already be aware of this research. For those who are not, it’s an important read. For those who are, I have returned to this research with a renewed perspective on lesson observation.

Firstly, an ‘integrative review’ summarises past empirical and theoretical literature to provide a better understanding.

Secondly, over the last couple of months, I have been increasingly working with schools to develop their teaching and learning policies. Some are incredibly outdated whilst others follow a very succinct model for instruction. The former policies are clearly operating for performance.

In the research, the authors highlight the distinction between learning and performance and why it is crucial because “there now exists overwhelming empirical evidence showing that considerable learning can occur in the absence of any performance gains.”

The paper highlights that “the conditions that produce the most errors during acquisition are often the very conditions that produce the most learning.”

Translating this for teachers, just because a student shows you something in the lesson, doesn’t necessarily mean that they have learned it. This could be what is considered as a performance. Compare this to making a mistake, the challenges we all face when acquiring new knowledge – where there is some form of struggle – learning for long-term retention can happen.

So, how do we evaluate learning as teachers and as classroom observers?

Latent learning

The authors define this as “learning that occurs in the absence of any obvious reinforcement.” Meaning, it is hidden unless a task (perhaps a retrieval practice exercise) is ” introduced to reveal it.”

Overlearning and fatigue

The authors describe this as something we have already mastered. For example, we know how to recite a poem, but we keep on practising it. Equally, the paper highlights that learning can still occur even after fatigue. There is an interesting point is the paper which presents several case studies. On this point, a research control trial highlighted that even when students were fatigued, after a short delay (rest) they caught up with the other students who were well-rested (p179).

In summary, early research suggests that reinforcement is necessary to reveal learning, but it is not required to induce learning. However, academics highlight more recent evidence showing that gains in performance often impede post-learning. As with all research, what should a teacher do now with these conflicting messages?

This paper highlights the importance of retrieval, spaced and distributed practice.

Developing metacognition

The researchers pose an interesting question which I’m confident teachers are quite comfortable with. “To what extent are educators and students aware of what activities are beneficial for long lasting learning?”

Whilst I accept that the quality of teacher instruction is critical, when you strip everything away in the classroom, what we really want is our students to self regulate not only their behaviour, but their learning too. Therefore, what do young people need to know to manage their own learning, and again, how do we observe this in lessons?


The paper highlights the following recommendations:

  1. One must be aware of their knowledge and understanding of how learning and memory operate.
  2. How to monitor and control learning and memory

There appears to be a lack of understanding on the part of instructors and learners alike that performance during acquisition is a highly imperfect index of long-term learning (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015).

The interesting question of ‘What is effective for learning?’ can be misinterpreted “with a metacognitive assessment of what we think is effective for learning.” The conclusion? Students tended to endorse learning “strategies that were known to enhance short-term performance.

What should teachers consider?

Whilst more teachers are aware of effective teaching techniques, I still reflect on how many of our schools are teaching explicit study skills to our young people from an earlier age, not just during the examination years.

When teachers pose questions to the students, we should carefully consider how do we evaluate student responses. Is a response performance or can it be demonstrably proven that learning has happened? This is a tough one for teachers to evaluate on your feet in the micro-second moment. It’s also a greater challenge for a fleeting classroom observer who is not in that classroom environment day in day out.

Learning and performance can be separated.

The challenge for us all, is how to evaluate the differences.

What teachers should consider when facilitating learning, is the distinction between both, and to understand that expediting acquisition performance today does not mean that it will be evident tomorrow. Instead,  classroom “conditions that are slow or induce more errors during instruction, often lead to better long-term learning outcomes.”

It appears to me that the evidence for conducting one-off lesson observations are increasingly contentious. Plus, this research provides an official cue for teachers to teach slower if we want our young people to learn more.

The days of ‘progress shown in a lesson’ are surely (now) consigned to Room 101?!

Fleeting gains during acquisition are likely to fool instructors and students into thinking the permanent learning has taken place, creating powerful illusions of competence (Soderstrom and Bjork, 2015).

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