The distinction between performance and learning


Evidence from research has provided teachers and school leaders with plenty of useful insight and understanding about teaching and learning. One such finding is the distinction between performance and learning:

  • Performance refers to behaviour, knowledge and understanding that can be measured in the short term, for example; checking at the end of a lesson what students have understood about the new content.
  • Learning requires a change in long term memory (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006). To find out if information has been learned we need to allow some time to pass (enable some forgetting) and find out if it can be retrieved from long term memory.

It is often assumed that being able to correctly grasp and understand new content and concepts equates to successful learning of such material. However, long term learning is not always guaranteed and should not be assumed based on the performance of students in a lesson. This can be a common misinterpretation in the classroom.

Robert Bjork and Nicholas Soderstrom write (2015),“The primary goal of instruction should be to facilitate long-term learning—that is, to create relatively permanent changes in comprehension, understanding, and skills of the types that will support long-term retention and transfer. During the instruction or training process, however, what we can observe and measure is performance, which is often an unreliable index of whether the relatively long-term changes that constitute learning have taken place.” Checking for understanding during the encoding and consolidation stages of the learning process are indicators of performance, not learning.

Bjork and Soderstrom add, “We want knowledge and skills to be durable in the sense of remaining accessible across periods of disuse and to be flexible in the sense of being accessible in the various contexts in which they are relevant, not simply in contexts that match those experienced during instruction.” Accurate understanding and the ability to demonstrate progress during the performance stage is important, but this is not enough. Content must be revisited at a later date, after time for forgetting has elapsed, to ensure a change in long term memory has occurred and information has not only transferred to long term memory but can also be retrieved from long term memory.

Bjork and Soderstrom note, “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 into corresponding changes in learning.” This can explain why students can perform well in a lesson but can later struggle with the tasks and content where they experienced previous success. Bjork and Soderstrom add, “It’s a fascinating paradox in education: students can be wildly successful on tasks in class but learn virtually nothing; conversely, students can do relatively poorly on those same tasks but learn quite a lot”.

What are the implications for the classroom?

The classroom teacher should remain mindful of this important distinction when planning, designing, and delivering lessons. Throughout a lesson a teacher can ask questions and use a range of techniques to elicit evidence of understanding and performance. This will help students to consolidate knowledge and help the teacher know if students require further support. Those same questions and techniques can be used later when revisiting prior learning to ensure that knowledge remains accessible and accurate.

What are the implications for lesson observations?

An observer to the classroom, ranging from middle to senior leaders or an external visitor, will be looking to observe learning in a lesson. However, learning happens over time, not in a single lesson. To this end observers should ask students questions based on their prior learning, to find out what they can successfully retrieve from long term memory. An observer should ask students questions based on the content of the lesson, to find out how students are responding to and engaging with the lesson material and if they can understand correctly. It would be ideal, although not always possible, for an observer to visit the same class at a later date. This would help the observer to grasp how students performed and then later review long term learning.

Understanding the difference between performance and learning is essential knowledge for all teachers and school leaders. Sharing this with students can also help them to understand why they may struggle at a later date if content is not rehearsed, repeated and retrieved.



Robert A. Bjork and Nicholas C. Soderstrom (2015) Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles.

Paul A. Kirschner , John Sweller and Richard E. Clark (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching, Educational Psychologist.

  • Alan Chan

    Anecdotally, I’m not convinced this is correct. Learning and performance are not mutually exclusive but complement one another. The key difference that I denote between the two is one of timing. Performance is short term and summative, while learning is long term and formative, because of the need to recall knowledge and understanding and transfer it into long term memory. I, know for example, that if students have genuinely learnt something they are able to recall and explain it and perform relatively well in summative assessments. Memory recall is poor if the learning has not been (properly) understood, which affects performance. Thus, there is a direct correlation between understanding, learning and memory – one leading to another.

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