Learning versus Performance

Last week, I listened to Mr Barton Maths Podcast 2017 interview with Robert and Elizabeth Bjork. For those readers unfamiliar with the names, they are a power couple in the field of memory research.

The podcast sent me down memory road, in particular their research on performance versus learning, in particular that:

A considerable amount of learning can take place with no or little change to performance and, the inverse is true that high performance does not mean learning has taken place. (Bjork & Bjork 2006)

Wow, that was an eye opener!

Early in my career I spent an exhaustive amount of time trying to make teaching and learning “cool”. Countless hours were spent on jazzing up resources with lot of pictures, building incredible interactive jeopardy PowerPoints and having pupils parade through kinaesthetic learning activities.

Even more frustrating was that it never felt natural. I am not asking for forgiveness but that period of time for teaching and learning was not really open to challenge – it was the epoch of heavy marking, singing and dancing and learning styles.

Nevertheless, my teaching was influenced significantly by these concepts and, in particular, the belief that pupil performance was a signpost for learning.

I cannot remember how many times I judged learning on performance (even worse, I used the same criteria to judge teaching!).

  • Did all pupils complete their differentiated task?
  • How engaged (or entertained) were the pupils in their activities? 
  • Did ALL pupils make progress by putting their thumbs up?

With some saving grace, however, Robert does not necessarily discount checking on performance but says teachers need be more suspicious about what it’s telling us about pupil learning.

Checking a pupil’s performance may flag a misconception but it can go terribly wrong when we mistake performance as pupils having learnt something, therefore, moving on in the curriculum with no intention to revisit it again.

Learning rarely magically happens in one go; instead it is a process that must be revisited on numerous occasions. Three is the magic number for Graham Nuttall but what is certain is that in a memory retention contest regular retrieval practice trumps learning something once.

Even then, determining whether pupils have learnt something is not that easy; that is why we default to checking performance – it’s easier! But cognitive science is helping us start to think about what works and what doesn’t work. It is still a minefield of ideas but at least the narrative has moved from what is “cool” to how can we improve learning?

This change in thinking could not have come at a better time now that the is curriculum taking centre stage. Exit stage left, sing song lessons; enter stage right, evidence based practice. By having a better understanding how pupils learn, we can think more carefully how we sequence, assess and resource the curriculum to help pupil remember more.

So how can we put learning first over performance?

  • First, understanding that learning is not linear and that it is not easily observed, and certainly not in one lesson.
  • Second, careful macro and micro planning of the curriculum needs to consider evidence based practice such as spaced learning, interleaving, cognitive load and retrieval practice to support memory retention.
  • Third, planning is more than what’s “cool”; lesson design and resourcing should focus on learning that is pitched at what Robert calls desirable difficulties – not too easy but not too challenging.
  • Fourth, it’s okay for pupils to forget things. Research has shown that memory retention is improved when we are on the verge of forgetting – just make sure you revisit it!

It’s difficult to pry ourselves away from solely focusing on performance. We want out pupils to do well so we are always searching for anything to confirm it. As Robert and Elizabeth say, we need to be cautious with performance and more intentional in our planning, assessment and teaching to help make learning stick.


Barton, C. (2017). Robert and Elizabeth Bjork – Memory, Forgetting, Testing, Desirable Difficulties. Mr Barton Maths Podcast. 29th June. Accessed Spotify 06th July 2020

Bjork, R.A. & Bjork, E.L. (2006). Optimising treatment and instruction: Implications of a new theory of disuse. In L.G. Nilsson & N. Ohta (Eds.), Memory and society: Psychological perspectives (p. 116 – 140). Psychology Press.

Nuthall, G. (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington, New Zealand: NZCER Press.