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3 differences between Learning and Achievement

3 differences between learning and achievement

4 min read
  • The science of learning

This blog is a joint collaboration between Emeritus Professor in Educational Psychology, Paul Kirschner and InnerDrive’s lead psychologist Bradley Busch. We at InnerDrive are incredibly grateful for Paul’s time, effort and generosity in working with us on this.

How do we know if our students are actually learning? What at first sight may appear as learning may actually be an illusion. A mirage. Instead, what we may be witnessing is more akin to “achievement”. Though the difference between the two may seem to be subtle, the chasm between them is actually quite stark, with far reaching consequences.

So let’s explore in a bit more detail how “learning” and “achievement” actually differ….

1. Learning is a long-term change in memory, achievement is a short term performance

Learning is best though of as a “change in long-term memory”. Whereas on the flip side, achievement is a short-term change in knowledge or behaviour. If you teach students some new content and then answer a question on it correctly straight after, it’s tempting to assume that they’ve learnt. But these memories fade quickly. And change.

Answering correctly in the short term is simply evidence that the student momentarily knows the correct answer. It doesn’t mean that they’ve fully understood why it’s correct or can use it at a later moment. So, “getting” the right answer doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been consolidated in their long-term memory (though is a decent barometer of checking for understanding in the short-term).

2. Learning is stable, achievement is fragile

Learning is stable and fades slowly so that if something is forgotten, it’s easily relearned. Achievement is fragile and fades quickly. One illustration of this is when a student studies for a test, does it, gets a decent grade, and then forgets everything they studied after a few days. Teachers notice this constantly. The next time it needs to be learnt, it’s often as if it was never learnt in the first place.

Of course, forgetting is normal (and a key part of the learning process). But the key part about learning is that it is cumulative Prior knowledge, that is what the learner has in their long-term memory helps students gain new knowledge. Learning is stable because students can build upon it by continually securing information in their long-term memory.

Achievement isn’t cumulative. Previous achievement doesn’t necessarily beget future achievement as it hasn’t been incorporated in one’s long-term memory. As such, it’s temporary and fragile.

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3. Learning requires deep cognitive processing, achievement requires shallow cognitive processing

To learn something new, students need to store it in their memory as well as retrieve it. Both these things require students to think hard about new information, which takes a lot of cognitive effort. One-off achievements, by their nature, requires a more shallow process, as it can accomplished by parroting back information verbatim.

The learning conundrum

Learning is harder to measure than achievement. Due to learning being a change in long-term memory, which involves deeper processes, it can be more difficult to measure, especially compared to achievement. So how can we try to tell if students have learnt anything? Two possible strategies, that if desired could be used in tandem, offer some potential:

1. Assess students on multiple occasions

Giving students regular assessments allows you to track their progress by seeing where they have improved and what needs more practice, as this gives a more reliable depiction of students’ learning than a one-off test. This also gives an indication into their rate of forgetting too.

If the assessments are cumulative, where both “old” and “new” knowledge is assessed, students may also benefit from Successive Relearning, which is a technique that combines Spacing and Retrieval Practice. So, the more that students study for regular assessments, the more opportunities there are for successive relearning.

2. Get students to apply their learning

Arguably one of the best measures of learning is whether students can do something with the material they have learnt. Can they explain it? Apply it? Adapt it? Transfer it to different settings? Doing so can help us to see if they have learnt the material on a deep and meaningful level. For a more detailed look at this area, you may like our blog, 8 Ways to Check if You Really Know Something.

Final thoughts

At first glance, the distinctions between learning and achieving may appear subtle and inconsequential. The truth is that the chasm between them is vast and the implications for spotting the two numerous.

Paradoxically, by focusing less on achievement and more on learning, we increase the likelihood of higher achievement in the future. It is why focusing on learning strategies like Retrieval Practice and Spacing are so important.

Achievement may give a brief snapshot in time, but learning provides the firm foundation that everything in the future is built upon.

*If you would like to read more about this sort of thing, we strongly recommend following Paul on Twitter.


About the author

Paul Kirschner

Paul Kirschner

Paul Kirschner is an Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands and a Guest Professor at Thomas More University in Belgium. He is a member of the Scientific Technical Council of the Foundation for University Computing Facilities (SURF WTR) in the Netherlands, as well as a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Paul is an internationally recognised expert in the field of educational research, and co-author of How Learning Happens.

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