Another Look at Practice, Performance, and Learning | Steve Barkley

Another Look at Practice, Performance, and Learning

A post by Dan Meyer sent me back to review some earlier reading and writing I had done around the topic of practice to increase fluency. In Math Practice Isn’t Like Practice in Sports or Music but It Should Be, Meyer shared that math drill sheet practice tends to offer very limited feedback (compare to hearing the notes you played practicing an instrument) and is lonely (think sport drills with the team.)

There are digital math drills that offer students certain meager amounts of feedback but even here they tend to isolate students in ways that are distinct from the disciplines people namecheck when they defend math drill sheets.

It’s possible to work on a carpentry project by yourself or shoot drills alone in a gym. But those are less common than working with someone on a project, participating in group drills, or, at least, observing other people doing their drills, gaining inspiration and knowledge from others.


Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert Bjork describe how feedback from certain kinds of practice can provide misinformation. In Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning they describe a difference between performance and learning:

Performance is what we can observe and measure during instruction or training.

Learning—that is, the more or less permanent change in knowledge or understanding that is the target of instruction—is something we must try to infer, and current performance can be a highly unreliable index of whether learning has occurred.

My successful performance may get in the way of learning!

The way I practiced these problems… in an extended block with repetition of the same type of problem… can cause me to perform well on the quiz that the teacher gave later in the day (performance). I studied the vocabulary words for an hour the night before the test and scored well (performance). At the end of basketball practice, I stay late and shoot fifty foul shots. My percentage of shots that go in increases during the practice (performance).

This improvement in performance suggests that my practice strategy is successful, so I am likely to return to it often. The problem is that my learning, ‘permanent change,’ hasn’t happened. My percentage of shooting foul shots during a game hasn’t increased. The vocabulary words that are on the test I pass each week are not showing up in any of my writing. Next year’s math teacher is surprised that standards that last year’s teacher said were mastered seem totally new to the students.

Students hand holding pencil writing selected choice on answer sheets and Mathematics question sheets. students testing doing examination. school exam

As I looked to connect Meyer’s thoughts with the Bjorks’, I found a common message though they use the term performance differently. Meyer wrote, “When people practice sports or music, they generally do so with a strong understanding of the performance that practice is meant to support. They’ve watched other people play the games or listened to other people play music. They have very likely messed around clumsily on a court or at a piano. They understand its point and like it well enough that the practice feels welcome and necessary.” [ This says to me, that students see how this practice will support a more complex performance, what the Bjorks described as learning.]

Meyer describes the difference with most math practice:

Define the performance of math however you want and ask yourself, first, how well do your students understand it? Have they watched other people play math? Have they messed around clumsily with math themselves? Do they understand the point of math and like it well enough that the practice feels welcome and necessary?

The message that was reinforced for me as I reexamined “practice” is to provide opportunities for students to see and experience the real performance (learning outcome) as often and as engaged as possible. Studies show that learning under differing conditions (variation) leads to better learning than practicing in repeated conditions. Example: Some students practiced throwing a bean bag at a target from three feet while others practiced from varying distances. After a time interval, when tested for accuracy from three feet, the students who practiced at varying distances scored better than those who practiced just from the three feet distance. As I reviewed this, I recalled having teachers say they were going to adjust their teaching examples to match the testing examples (such as the wording of math problems). I was sure that they should be giving many different presentations to increase learning. I realize now their focus was on fastest way to short-term performance.

How we create “practice” tasks for students is worthy of teacher planning, individually and collectively as a PLC. Consider reading the Meyer’s and Bjorks’ articles and reflecting on your students’ current practice experiences. I’d be happy to join you in a conversation about the most valuable student practice learning production behaviors.

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