Practice as a Learning Production Behavior: Practicing for Performance or for Learning - Steve Barkley

Practice as a Learning Production Behavior: Practicing for Performance or for Learning

I have a continuing focus on empowering students by clearly teaching them the optimal learning production behaviors. I am increasingly convinced that a teacher’s ability to explain to students how the tasks she is requiring them to complete produces learning is empowering and motivating.  A student’s confidence in his teacher grows as he sees learning outcomes being gained from the work or practice he has completed.

A podcast on the Trainugly website, Boosting Learning with Desirable Learning Difficulties, sent me to examine the work of Elizabeth L. Bjork and Robert Bjork. Their information about the difference between performance and learning provides a starting point for identifying and explaining the learning production behaviors connected to practice.

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. (Source: Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning)

Learning bulls eye concept

Wow! 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…. caused 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.

I have historically labeled this problem as teachers being focused on teaching rather than on learning.Teaching (can be) neat, orderly, sequential, managed, or documented. Learning (often is) messy, spontaneous, irregular, non-linear, or complex

I now have a new insight, realizing that the student successful performance reinforces the pull a teacher feels to move on to the next piece of the “always too big” curriculum. I have shared the need for teachers to get feedback from next year’s teacher as to the learning that was really achieved. Without that information, teachers continue the instructional practices from the year before because the performance feedback said the teaching was successful. The Bjorks define the difference between storage strength (learning) and retrieval strength (performance). How much time have students and teachers spent in learning production behaviors that generated performance but missed learning?

So, what are strategies that provide more effective learning production behaviors? Those that are more likely to generate learning (storage strength). Bjorks suggest using desirable difficulties that trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering:

Varying the Conditions of Practice

Studies show that learning under differing conditions (variation) leads to better learning than practicing in repeated conditions. 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 read 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 performance.

Boy reading a book

Spacing Study or Practice Sessions

Where do we teach this?

Good test performance following an all-night cramming session is certainly rewarding, but little of what was recallable on the test will remain recallable over time. In contrast, a study schedule that spaces study sessions on a particular topic can produce both good exam performance and good long-term retention.” (Source: Bjork and Bjork pg 59)

I find very few students receiving structured instruction in the student learning production behaviors connected to studying.

Interleaving Versus Blocking Instruction on Separate To-Be-Learned Tasks

In an earlier blog, Motor Learning/Classroom Learning, I explored the benefits of random vs block practice.

Blocked practice is defined as a practice sequence in which individuals rehearse the same skill repeatedly. Random practice is defined as a practice sequence in which individuals perform a number of skills in a (quasi-) random order, thus avoiding or minimizing consecutive repetitions of any single skill.

Blocked practice produces faster short-term performance success. That success is confusing to students and teachers concerning desirable difficulties needed for learning

What conversations need to occur in PLCs and coaching conferences around the student learning production behaviors for learning rather than for performance? Is there a need in your school for an increased focus on learning?

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3 Responses to “ Practice as a Learning Production Behavior: Practicing for Performance or for Learning ”

  1. Tamara Cykosky Says:

    I am a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) and an Elementary Math Coach. This article combines both practices!! I love thinking about math instruction in this manner. It is exactly how I approach work with my autistic clients and daughter, but I was not utilizing these principles in my math instruction and coaching. Thank you for this wonderful article!

  2. Steve Barkley Says:

    Tamara, thanks for the input and insights.

  3. Steve Barkley Says:

    Thanks for the input and new insights for me

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