Debating the Difference Between Learning and Performance In Your Classroom

Learning vs. Performance

Learning can be defined as the ability to obtain new information. Many students are fascinated with new concepts and appreciate

Classroom Learning

learning. They value the opportunities to absorb new information and use it in their lives. Unfortunately, the school system places much emphasis on performance, which often results in immediate grades or test scores, instead of the value gained by students when learning.

Test scores don’t evaluate learning, but they provide information that is necessary to have some tangible score of. Many students do not completely learn topics and lessons based on these particular tests, but study them for the process of test-taking, then flush the information to make room for new information that will be tested. Not many students really enjoy taking tests, especially when it gets in the way of learning something fun and new.

"The issue of teaching to these tests has become a major concern to parents and educators. A real danger exists in that the test will become the curriculum and that instruction will be narrow and focused on facts." (Amrein and Berliner, 2010).

The difference between learning and performance narrows down to school expectation. How does the school expect a student to perform? Really, there isn’t much debate about what schools want students to learn.

"Whether or not what it is that assessment is trying to assess, is clearly specified in documentation, students work out for themselves what counts — or at least what they think counts, and orient their effort accordingly. They are strategic in their use of time and ‘selectively negligent’ in avoiding content that they believe is not likely to be assessed. It has been claimed that students have become more strategic with their use of time and energies since the 1970s and more, rather than less, influenced by the perceived demands of the assessment system in the way they negotiate their way through their studies." (MacFarlane, 1992)

These differences are of importance to educators and students since the focus of learning isn’t on the importance of performance. You can perform well and learn nothing, or learn a great deal but still perform poorly. This is why many students overall do poorly in school – they retain information just as long as they need it to take a test. There isn’t any value to them for this information and there isn’t a practical use for them to store the information.

Educators overall want their students to learn as much as they can within the year that they interact with the student. They attempt to make learning fun and encourage students. Students yearn to learn new information and have a great appreciation for what the end result is, especially when it results in projects where they put new skills to use.

Students often want to perform well and push themselves in school to learn all that is necessary to do well on tests. Much like adults in a new job, students want to learn all that they can to succeed in their industry. However, the end performance for the school system is generally not based on a student’s individual learning successes.

"Students tend to work harder for teachers they like and put little effort into classes where they feel disconnected and misunderstood. Strategic instruction within classroom contexts where students feel they belong plays an integral role in learning. Students put more effort into learning when they have a relationship with their teachers; they don't want to let their teachers down (Santa,2006, p.472)."

How can educators bridge the gap between performance and learning, is truly the question.

Bridging the Gap

Teachers can place emphasis on objectives for learning based on education standards for the grade they are teaching, but still provide interactive lessons that will enhance learning and hopefully increase performance as a result. This is a great incentive for teachers that are being provided performance payments for their students' achievement and performance.

"As a result, teacher time invested in creating an atmosphere of trust, respect for others, compliance with rules, and personal responsibility toward social norms will be handsomely repaid in student comfort and learning (see Wentzel Sc Wigfield, 2009).

Focus on hands-on opportunities for students to learn. Students remember far more when they have more exposure to information with more than just one of their senses. Generally, people remember about 90% of what they do, so when we take new information and expose students to it, we should be developing lessons that integrate multiple senses. Get up and move! The brain works better when the body is moving, as suggested by brain researchers. The more you integrate these practices in your classroom, the more you should see performance linked with learning.

Additional Resources:

Figlio, D. N. & Lucas, M. E. (2000). What's in a grade? School report cards and house prices. National Bureau of Economic Research [On-line].

Dr. Jean Feldman has a great resource for interactive learning for younger elementary students.


Amrein and Berliner, (2010) High Stakes Testing. Education Policy Analysis Archives

MacFarlane, B. (1992) The ‘Thatcherite’ generation of university degree results, Journal of Further and Higher Education, vol. 16, pp. 60-70.

Santa, CM. (2006). A vision for adolescent literacy: Ours or Theirs, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 49, 466-476.

Wentzel, K.R., Sc Wigfield, A. (Eds.). (2009). Handbook of motivation at school. New York: Routledge.