Learning vs. Performance in the Classroom

I’ll admit that it’s a somewhat common scene in my classroom…we’ve finished the lesson for the day, covered a handful of new terms, a few new concepts, and probably heard a psychologist’s name for the first time. On the way out, I have students answer a few questions about that new material in hopes they consider how much of the material really sunk in for the day.

Or, better yet, during instruction students are tasked with answering questions as we go; sort of a mini pop quiz to provide feedback to the students about their level of understanding and comprehension mid-lesson.

As it turns out, I am not necessarily measuring my student’s learning or providing them with accurate feedback about their learning. I am measuring performance, not learning…and there’s a difference.

Drs. Elizabeth and Robert Bjork gives these definitions (1):

Performance – what we can observe and measure during instruction or training.

Learning – more or less permanent change in knowledge or understanding that is the target of instruction.

By measuring my student’s learning during or immediately following instruction, I am painting an inaccurate picture of their level of understanding. I am measuring their performance, not their learning. When teachers and students interpret performance as long-term learning, not only are poor habits formed for learning, but all parties become overconfident. Teachers believe their instruction was more impactful and students falsely believe they have obtained knowledge they have not.

So, how can teachers and students more accurately measure long-term learning? Bjork and Bjork (1) provide four ways this can be done:

  1. Varying the conditions of practice. When practice occurs in a predictable and static context, sometimes the learning also becomes contextualized. By simply practicing material in two differing environments can increase recall of material (2). A simple way to do this might be to have students practice retrieval of information during class, but also take those same questions home to practice with at a later time. “…When testing after training takes place under novel conditions, the benefits of variation during learning are even larger” (1).
  2. Spacing retrieval of information rather than cramming. By providing time for forgetting before assessing student knowledge, students are given a clearer picture of what they actually know and don’t know. Now, for students, it will probably be more satisfying to assess during or immediately following instruction of particular material, but it isn’t correct. What does this spacing of retrieval look like in my classroom? Here’s a strategy I call Last Lesson, Last Week, Last Month.
  3. Interleaving Instruction rather than blocking. In a math class, it is a common occurrence for students to practice 4 or 5 questions that cover a particular topic/concept before moving on to another topic/concept to practice a few more problems before moving on to another topic/concept…you get the point. The student is blocking instruction rather than interleaving their practice. With interleaving, the differing topics/concepts to be practiced would be interspersed, rather than predictable and blocked together. Just like with spacing retrieval vs. cramming, interleaving does not feel as rewarding immediately to students. More mistakes will probably be initially made, which may leave students underestimating their level of knowledge vs. blocked practicing. However, there is evidence that interleaving enhances performance on delayed tests (3).
  4. Generating answers rather than being presented solutions. While it may feel better for students to reread their notes and/or listen to others talk/discuss information, this is not the best way to accurately measure learning. By providing students with the opportunity to answer questions on their own so they can generate solutions, teachers are giving students a vehicle to more clearly understand what they know and what they don’t know. Understanding where these gaps are in their knowledge hopefully guides students on what to prioritize when studying/practicing later. Here’s an activity I use in class that very clearly shows students what they know and what they don’t know: Brain – Book – Buddy.

So, is it a bad idea to ask students questions before they leave class (for example, an exit ticket)? Not at all. Just make sure you’re not trying to assess students knowledge for that day’s lesson and make sure the questions require students to only use their brain (no notes/textbook/peers) to answer.

We’re in the business of teaching students. I know I want to do this in the most efficient and effective manner. I am going to adjust some of my practices in the classroom to ensure I am more clearly measuring learning and not performance.

Here is a nice video produced by Lasting Learning where Dr. Robert Bjork explains further the difference between performance and learning:

  1. Bjork, Elizabeth & Bjork, Robert. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. 56-64.
  2. Smith, S. M., Glenberg, A. M., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Environmental context and human memory. Memory & Cognition, 6, 342–353.
  3. Rohrer, D., and Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics practice problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481-498.

3 thoughts on “Learning vs. Performance in the Classroom

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  1. Thanks for this. Performance versus learning is really important and not understood very widely IMO. I don’t think that interleaving is perhaps as straight forward a technique to use in the classroom as it seems. There is a tension with the costs of task switching if the material is not learned well enough. Interesting that in the Dunlosky review of learning techniques interleaving was only rated as moderate in effect compared to testing and distributed practice.

  2. Don’t we ask questions as the children leave in order to see whether they’ve taken the info in there and then? It doesn’t promise they’ll remember it forever but if they can’t even remember it at the end of the lesson, it does tell us something. I agree that we must be careful in how we interpret that data.

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