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The difference between learning and performance

The difference between learning and performance

5 min read
  • The science of learning

Arguably one of the most important distinctions we can make to help support our students is the difference between “performance” and “learning”. This difference at times can be quite subtle, but can be very significant.

A lot of the time, when we think we’re seeing learning, we’re actually seeing performance. Research is starting to make a meaningful distinction between these two concepts. On the surface, it might seem that they go hand in hand, but the research tells a different story; and this has important implications for how we go about teaching people.

So, what actually is performance? And what is learning? And what’s the difference between the two?

Performance vs Learning

Performance is what can be measured and observed. It’s the relatively short-term impact of being taught something. The classic example is at the end of a lesson, the teacher asks students some questions to test what they’ve “learnt” in the past hour. Unsurprisingly, they get the answers right. After all, they’ve only just been told the information. Unless they completely switched off and didn’t listen at all, most students can respond well to this end-of-lesson questioning.

However, by no means does this mean that the students will retain this knowledge tomorrow, next week, next month, and come exam season. Yet, it gives students (and potentially)  teachers false confidence that they have learnt this information.

In contrast, learning is the process of accumulating knowledge and being able to make the connections with previously learnt information. It is often not linear or clean, as it requires students to wrestle with concepts (often known as ‘desirable difficulties’).

For example, consider the following study. When we assess students straight after a lesson, what we are likely seeing there is their short-term performance (which appears to show blocking as a more effective technique). Whereas when we assess them a week later, it gives a better reflection of what they have learnt (which shows interleaving is more effective…but more about this later).

The difference between learning and performance

What’s the difference between performance and learning?

Performance is often short-term, compared to others and is done with the outcome in mind (i.e., to win). Learning, which is an ongoing process, is often measured against our previous abilities. Arguably, both cannot happen effectively at the same time.

Research evidence suggests that performance can actually hinder long-term learning. This is because the focus on rapid results that happens with performance can promote ineffective learning strategies and, as mentioned earlier, gives a false sense of confidence.

Other distinctions that highlight the contrast between performance and learning are that:

  • Performance occurs under connotations of judgement or assessment, while learning happens in non-judgemental settings;
  • Performance tends to coincide with high pressure while learning happens at low levels of pressure;
  • Performance has an emphasis on proving yourself, often in relation to others, whereas the pure focus of learning is on improving
Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

How to promote learning over performance

If performance hinders learning, does this perhaps suggest that learning can in fact improve performance. If this is the case, then quite counter-intuitively, long term in order to improve performance, we have to focus less on it (as the famous phrase goes, “you don’t fatten a pig by constantly weighing it“).

Research on “desirable difficulties” may play a role. Desirable difficulties reflect how the task needs to be challenging in order to help students think hard about the topic. By doing so, they are more likely to learn and remember it. This means there needs to be an element of failure to it (some research highlights that 75% success rate is a good rate for learning). Whereas with performance, the aim of the person is to minimise the failure rate to as low as possible

So, how can we help develop a culture that is heavy on learning and utilises desirable difficulties? We think the answer may be spacing, interleaving, and retrieval practice. Let’s remind ourselves what these are, and how they are difficult yet desirable…


This means spacing out studying as opposed to cramming it in all at once. This includes testing student knowledge after leaving time for them to forget, rather than straight after teaching information.

  • Difficult – For students, it will be less satisfying than being assessed straight after a lesson. They’ll find it harder to recall the information, and may make more mistakes.
  • Desirable – It will give a clearer idea of what students actually do and don’t know. They can identify gaps in knowledge, and know what they need to study further. Every time students have to recall information after leaving time for forgetting, this strengthens the connections in their long-term memory.


This means mixing up the order in which teachers teach topics, in which students practice different types of questions, and in which students study their topics.

  • Difficult – Students often resist this way of studying. It’s initially much less rewarding and can make students feel that they haven’t learnt anything. They much prefer the structure of studying each topic one by one. Again, students may make more mistakes at first when interleaving their study.
  • Desirable – Despite the initial hurdles, interleaving improves long-term memory retention, recall and exam performance.

Retrieval Practice

This is all about generating answers to questions, under low stakes so that these questions are a learning strategy rather than a performance. It’s not just about doing practice tests and past papers, but also about students answering questions as they first learn information, rather than simply being read the information from a presentation.

  • Difficult – Once again, students may make more mistakes at first, and they much prefer to be told information than to have to work it out for themselves.
  • Desirable – Evidence has consistently shown retrieval practice, including pre-questions, to be effective in helping students remember more information, and thus perform better in exams.

Final thoughts

So, there’s the important distinction between learning and performance. While performance is the short-term display of knowledge and current ability, learning is the ongoing development and accumulation of that knowledge. When teaching, we should be aiming for learning, as long term that is the only way to consistently increase performance.

What’s important to remember as we implement these strategies is that what students like isn’t necessarily what’s best for them. Given the choice, most students prefer cramming to spacing, they prefer blocking to interleaving, they prefer re-reading and highlighting to retrieval practice. It may help to explain to students the benefits of these “desirable difficulties” on learning, so that they know they will reap the rewards later.