Both David Didau and Dylan Wilam in their extremely civilised discussion on Assessment for Learning (Formative Assessment) at the Sunday Times/Wellington College Education Festival last weekend mentioned the work of Robert A. Bjork  at the  University of California, Los Angeles .

As it happened Didau and Wiliam agreed on quite a lot.  Essentially teachers tend to assume that what they teach pupils has sunk in. But often it hasn’t.  And you cant rely on teachers judgement or intuition when it comes to understanding whether or not their students are  actually learning . So Formative Assessment is about using evidence about classroom learning to adapt teaching and learning to meet student needs. This assumes that you can assess what pupils have learned in an individual lesson, and then adjust future teaching based on this information.

But Didau makes the point that if  we measure pupils’ performance we can only ever infer what might have been learned. If nothing has changed in the students  long-term memory,  though ,nothing has been learned.

This is where Bjorks work comes in. He argues, backed by a body of evidence, that Learning and Performance are different  though  we often assume they are the same.

Bjork says ‘The major goal of instruction—whether in the classroom or in the field—is, or at least should be, to equip the learner with the type of knowledge or skills that are durable (i.e., capable of sustaining long periods of disuse) and flexible (i.e., capable of being applied in different contexts). That is, the goal of instruction is to facilitate learning, which must be inferred at some  point after instruction  Learning, however, must be distinguished from performance, which is  what can be observed and measured during instruction or training. This important and seemingly paradoxical distinction between learning and performance dates back decades, spurred by early research that revealed that learning can occur even when no discernible changes in performance are observed’

Indeed, he says, research demonstrates that learning can  occur without changes in performance .

Bjork makes it clear that teachers or instructors ‘frequently misinterpret short-term performance as a guide to long-term learning’.That is a mistake.

The great challenge for teachers and teaching remains how to ensure students retain learning, over long periods and can apply their learning in different contexts. Most of what students are taught is not retained by them, or retained for only a short period ,so  is not embedded, although most teachers assume that it is. And their intuition about what works  and how their last lesson went is,  rather too frequently,  flawed.

Spaced Learning may have a role  to help  retention , through repetition over intervals, hardly a new idea, but there may be scope for more research and piloting here.



Academics at the University of East Anglia recently  tested 594 bioscience students in their first week of term at five universities on their ability to remember key pieces of knowledge from their A-level studies. The students, most of whom had scored a grade A in A-level biology, were asked to answer a series of multiple choice questions drawn from old AS and A-level papers. The findings showed that on average, the students answered about 40% of the questions correctly.

LEARNING VERSUS PERFORMANCE  Nicholas C. Soderstrom and Robert A. Bjork

University of California, Los Angeles



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