“For a man to attain to an eminent degree in learning costs him time, watching, hunger, nakedness, dizziness in the head, weakness in the stomach, and other inconveniences.” Cervantes

Learning (n)

1. the retention and transfer of knowledge

2. a change in the way the world is understood

I’m often asked what I mean when I talk about ‘learning’ so, although I’ve written about it many times before, I thought it might be useful to have a post dedicated to my definition.

Learning is tripartite: it involves retention, transfer and change. It must be durable (it should last), flexible (it should be applicable in new and different contexts) and liminal (it stands at the threshold of knowing and not knowing).

If we accept these ideas, then we should also accept that learning cannot be observed in the here and now. The only way to see if something has been retained over time and transferred to a new context is to look at what students can do elsewhere and later. Cognitive development happens gradually and by increments; the only way to find out whether a student’s understanding of the world has changed is to wait and see.

From this certain things must follow…

To know whether something has been learned we should ask ourselves three questions:

  1. Will students still know this next week, next month, next year?
  2. Will students be able to apply what they have been learning in a new example, a new subject, a new place?
  3. How will this transform students’ understanding of the world?

If these questions were routinely asked, teaching might turn out to be something very different. The main conclusion I’ve come to is that although we know learning occurs, we can’t actually see it. Learning is like dark matter; it exerts a sort of gravitational pull that reveals its existence but it takes places inside students’ minds.  All we can see is what a student is able to do at this moment in time. We can’t see what they’ll be able to do at another time or in another place.

One of the most useful and important concepts for teachers to understand is the distinction between learning and performance. Performance is what students can do. It is all that we can ever observe. Learning takes place inside a student’s mind and as such cannot be observed directly. We can make inferences about learning based on the performances we see, but, performances at the point of instruction are a particularly poor predictor of learning. What students can do in a lesson – or in response to feedback – tells us very little about what they might be able to do at another time and in another context. Teachers provide cues and prompts which increase students’ performance in lessons. And students are skilled at mimicking what they think teachers want to see and hear. This mimicry might result in learning but often doesn’t.

Most counter intuitively, psychologists have found that reducing current performance can actually increase future learning. If students struggle to perform well during instruction this can make their memories more flexible and durable.

Each item in memory has a storage strength and a retrieval strength. Storage indicates how well an item is embedded in long-term memory and retrieval indicates how easily an item can be brought to mind when needed.[1] Attempts to increase retrieval strength improve performance in the short-term but very quickly fade. It appears that retrieval practice interferes with our ability to store items more strongly. The best way to increase storage strength is to allow items to fade in memory before retrieval practice. Surprisingly, forgetting improves long-term memory.[2]


[1] Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation.

[2] Storm, B. C., Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2008). Accelerated relearning after retrieval-induced forgetting: The benefit of being forgotten.