In This Article Learning versus Performance

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Metacognition
  • Neuroscientific Evidence
  • Theoretical Perspectives

Psychology Learning versus Performance
Nicholas C. Soderstrom, Robert A. Bjork
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0081


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. For example, latent learning researchers demonstrated that rats could learn a maze during periods of free exploration in which their behavior was seemingly aimless (i.e., their performance was irregular). Similarly, findings in the overlearning literature suggested that considerable learning could occur well after performance during acquisition was at asymptote. In sum, this early research demonstrated that learning could occur without changes in performance. More recently, the converse has also been shown—specifically, that improvements in performance can fail to yield significant learning. In fact, numerous experiments in the domains of perceptual-motor learning and verbal-conceptual learning have shown certain manipulations—including distributing practice, varying the conditions of practice, reducing feedback, and testing/generation—to have opposite effects on learning and performance: Conditions that induce the most errors during acquisition are often the very conditions that lead to the most learning! Furthermore, that performance is often fleeting and, consequently, a highly imperfect index of learning does not appear to be appreciated by learners or instructors who frequently misinterpret short-term performance as a guide to long-term learning. These considerations, as well as others outlined in this article, suggest that the learning-performance distinction is critical and has implications abound, both practical and theoretical in nature.

General Overviews

A number of reviews provide an introduction to the learning-versus-performance distinction and summarize key findings that illustrate the distinction. Schmidt and Lee 2011, for example, synthesizes theory and evidence from basic and applied research and offers readers a comprehensive discussion of the complex nature of the learning-versus-performance distinction in the context of motor skills. A couple reasons for this complexity, as noted in Lee and Genovese 1988, is that learning and performance are not always at odds and that researchers often diverge in their definitions of what constitutes learning and performance. Christina and Bjork 1991 and Wulf and Shea 2002 examine the impact—in terms of both learning and performance—of a number of variables that can be manipulated during skills training, and Lee 2012 and Schmidt and Bjork 1992 show that the distinction between learning and performance is as necessary and crucial in the verbal-learning domain as it is in the motor-learning domain. Finally, Bjork 1999 discusses how students and instructors alike often fail to appreciate the distinction between current performance and long-term learning, which makes them susceptible to mistaking the former as reliable index of the latter.

  • Bjork, Robert A. 1999. Assessing your own competence: Heuristics and illusions. In Attention and performance XVII: Cognitive regulation of performance: Interaction of theory and application. Edited by Daniel Gopher and Asher Koriat, 435–459. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Reviews the evidence on which the distinction between learning and performance is based and focuses on the potential of learners to gain illusions of competence based on their interpreting good performance during the acquisition as evidence that learning, as measured by long-term retention and transfer, has been achieved.

  • Christina, Robert W., and Robert A. Bjork. 1991. Optimizing long-term retention and transfer. In In the mind’s eye: Enhancing human performance. Edited by Daniel Druckman and Robert A. Bjork, 23–56. Washington DC: National Academy.

    E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the distinction between learning and performance, mostly in the context of motor learning, and provides a review of the training conditions that do and do not show differential influences on performance during training versus long-term retention and transfer.

  • Lee, Timothy D. 2012. Contextual interference: Generalization and limitations. In Skill acquisition in sport: Research, theory, and practice II. Edited by Nicola J. Hodges and A. Mark Williams, 79–93. London: Routledge.

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    This recent review discusses the contextual interference (CI) effect, a signature finding that supports the learning-performance distinction. Empirical evidence from both motor and verbal tasks is reviewed.

  • Lee, Timothy D., and Elizabeth D. Genovese. 1988. Distributing of practice in motor skill acquisition: Learning and performance effects reconsidered. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 59:277–287.

    DOI: 10.1080/02701367.1988.10609373E-mail Citation »

    Highlights the importance of how learning and performance are defined and provides evidence that these two indices can be influenced in similar ways—in this case, a type of distributed practice was shown to increase short-term performance and long-term learning.

  • Schmidt, Richard A., and Robert A. Bjork. 1992. New conceptualizations of practice: Common principles in three paradigms suggest new concepts for training. Psychological Science 3:207–217.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1992.tb00029.xE-mail Citation »

    Reviews evidence from the verbal and motor domains showing that short-term performance is an imperfect indicator of long-term retention and transfer, and in doing so, reveals common learning principles that underlie both verbal and motor learning.

  • Schmidt, Richard A., and Timothy D. Lee. 2011. Motor control and learning: A behavioral analysis. 5th ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

    E-mail Citation »

    Provides a comprehensive analysis of the historical, theoretical, and empirical issues surrounding the complex nature of motor learning and performance.

  • Wulf, Gabriele, and Charles H. Shea. 2002. Principles derived from the study of simple skills do not generalize to complex skill learning. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review 9:185–211.

    DOI: 10.3758/BF03196276E-mail Citation »

    Reviews empirical work from the motor domain and, in doing so, advises caution with respect to generalizing results from experiments using simple tasks to more complex skill learning.

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