How do you know your students are learning something when you’re teaching them?
You might answer that they are learning if they’re busy, engaged and produce beautiful work in their books.
But, actually, all these indicators tell us is their performance at a particular time. What they might know in an hour, day or week is just us second-guessing at the point of teaching.
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Performance is easily measured, but only demonstrates temporary changes in behaviour, rather than robust learning. What’s more, approaches that look good in the short-term (aiding instantaneous performance) can actually be detrimental to permanent learning.
Not convinced? Have a read of Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review by Soderstrom and Bjork.
This paper explains the distinction between performance and learning, and outlines the research around desirable difficulties, which has had a profound effect on my teaching over the past few years. It’s prompted me to think less about what students are doing and more about what they’re thinking. And it’s helped me to reflect on what they’ll be thinking and doing in a year’s time, as well as simply judging what they’re doing in a particular lesson.
It feels instinctive to us that performance should reflect the learning that is occurring at any time, which is why people use "mini-plenaries" to show how much has been learned within a lesson chunk. It feels satisfying for teachers (and observers) when students answer questions correctly, soon after they’ve been taught something. And there is nothing wrong with checking for understanding at key points during a lesson.
However, it’s important to understand that this "learning" is not necessarily durable or flexible.
The research in this area stems from evidence that long-lasting learning can occur in the absence of any indication that it’s happening (latent learning); that continuing to practise something after mastering it can be beneficial (overlearning); and that someone might still be learning, despite them being tired and performing badly at the time.
A key finding from this paper for me, as a teacher, is that although massed practice feels effective at the time, because it aids short-term performance, distributed practice is better for long-term learning.
So if students are asked questions during (or immediately after) a block of teaching, they are likely to do relatively well. But this success won't necessarily be retained longer-term, so it’s better to space out learning and practice sessions over a longer period, even though it might feel harder (and less successful) while you’re doing it.
Seek out the challenge
Clearly, this is a difficult "sell", to teachers as well as to students.
As teachers, we want to know that we are helping our students to learn. It can feel disheartening at the very least to be told that the learning we observe in lessons won’t necessarily be robust or long-lived.
It’s also important to bear in mind that, whenever students are completing any work, the only indicator they have for how successful they’ve been is their current performance. They’ll often conflate short-term performance with long-term learning, and think they know more (and will retain more) than they do.
Playing the long game
So my advice? Hold your nerve and play the long game. Don’t take it as read that a correct answer reflects durable, flexible learning. Assess understanding a number of times, and in a range of contexts.
This assessment doesn’t need to be formal, but you do need to probe a bit deeper at times. Vary the type of practice you give your students, and distribute teaching and practice sessions, rather than teaching, testing and moving on to the next topic.
Explain to your students how and why you’re doing it, and reassure them (and yourself) that these approaches are based on empirical evidence, even if they feel tough at the time.
Dr Niki Kaiser is network research lead at the Norwich Research School at Notre Dame High School