Performance and Learning

Recent decades have found educators sharply focusing on performance. This arises from the dominance of standards to guide curriculum. At all levels of education, we define what it is that students are supposed to know and do, translate that into learning objectives, then check students’ performance on assessments that (ostensibly) measure the degree to which those met.

While the rhetoric of how poorly student perform on these assessments is well-known and rich, educators do have some excellent guidance on how to improve performance on them. I am of the opinion that the poor performance has as much to do with students’ perception that standards are irrelevant as it does with the fact that instruction is not designed to increase performance.

When they facilitate interleaved and distributed practice, educators are likely to improve performance on these assessments. The fact that these practices are not commonly incorporated into the design of courses (at least in those that I observe) is a different issue entirely.

My focus on this blog post is the observation that performance and learning are not the same. My definition of learning is the long-term ability to use when the skills and knowledge and habits they have been taught in unfamiliar situations and new problems. This requires the ability to recall (actually reconstruct) what was taught, assess its applicability to the situation, and evaluate how well their knowledge worked.  

One of the most distressing aspects of this disconnect between performance and learning is the fact that many educators miss the point. They reason, “students who perform well are learning.” Soderstrom and Bjork (2015) challenged this:

The distinction between learning and performance is crucial because there now exists overwhelming empirical evidence showing that considerable learning can occur in the absence of any performance gains, and conversely, that substantial changes in performance often fail to translate not corresponding changes in learning (p. 176).

We are likely to be taught a lesson as schools reconstruct themselves after the pandemic. I expect we will find students are unable to perform as they could previously, but they will have learned much. Perhaps this will motivate education leaders and policy makers to reevaluate the structures and organization of schools, including what we teach and how we teach.


Soderstrom, N, & Bjork, R. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives in Psychological Science 10(2), 176-199.