Typical and Maximal: Both Types of Performance are Important

Posted By Michael Milone, Ph.D. | Jan 11, 2017

Please bear with me through the first few sentences. They are necessary to establish a bit of background. The good stuff will follow shortly. And don't eye-roll me about transporting (think Star Trek) a construct from sports or personnel management to education. It works well.

In the field of psychological testing, a difference exists between typical and maximal performance. When personality is measured, we hope to identify typical characteristics. When abilities are measured, we try to get subjects to do their best so we can understand what their maximal performance is. I'm not going to dwell on this, but keep in mind that both measures take place at a single point in time, and humans change. So, you got it? There is a difference between typical and maximal performance.

Now, let me dismiss a misperception among some policymakers and members of the public. The mandated assessments that are administered in the spring of the year do NOT measure maximal performance. In fact, because of the stress involved, they may not even measure typical performance for the majority of students. By now, you are probably thinking, “What’s the point?” Good question. There are many better ways to measure the academic performance of students for accountability and instructional purposes, and perhaps on some beautiful day (turn on U2 in your head) in the future, we will use them.

Maximal Performance is an Occasional Event

As much as we would like to believe that students (and the rest of us) should always be performing maximally, that is not the case. Maximal performance is an occasional event prompted by a variety of internal and external factors. A student may become fascinated by the solar system, so she memorizes the mnemonic My Very Eager Mother Just Serves Us Nachos to remember the names of the planets and their order from the Sun. (She is a little sad about Pluto being absent, but she'll get over never.) A related external factor that might prompt her maximal performance in recalling solar system facts is getting ready for the weekly class Science Showdown.

Typical Performance is What Students Do on a Regular Basis

Typical performance, a much-undervalued construct, is what students (and the rest of us) do on a regular basis when learning or showing what we have learned through informal assessment. A student might not be very interested in how the months got their names, but he reads the assignment and takes notes. He is somewhat motivated by the assessment that follows the reading, primarily because he feels he has discovered an enormous historical error. The months September through December are misnamed because of the adoption of the Roman names for months. (His teacher is very impressed and surprised at how thoroughly he frames his argument, showing that he really understood the assignment.)

The relationship between typical and maximal performance is obvious, once you start thinking about it. Typical performance provides the foundation on which maximal performance is built. This foundation includes both knowledge and personal traits like perseverance and the ability to generalize knowledge.

VLY-student-computer-logoIn building the Velocity® learning system, we recognized the importance of cognitive and noncognitive skills and the relationship between typical and maximal performance. On the cognitive side, students have the opportunity to learn critical skills in a way that is efficient and consistent with their academic needs. They are also exposed to a broad range of content that builds background knowledge so they are more likely to understand what they read in any subject area or do what they are expected to do.

At the same time, Velocity enhances students’ noncognitive skills through interactions with on-screen characters, their peers, and the teacher. Among these noncognitive skills are self-confidence, perseverance, and strategies needed to apply existing knowledge in new ways.

As students work their way through Velocity, the level of challenge and variety of activities increase to reflect the growth in students’ abilities. This type of scaffolding has an interesting pair of outcomes. First, it raises the level of typical performance. Students are more willing to attempt challenging content and are better equipped to learn the information, retain it, and apply it in new situations. The second outcome is in the noncognitive domain: students have the opportunity to learn when to step up to maximal performance. It is important to recognize both of these outcomes—increasing the level of typical performance and stepping up to maximal performance—are accomplished transparently.

The student is provided with appropriate feedback from the onscreen characters, which contributes to efficient learning. The characters also prepare the student subtly for what is to come next.

This technology-based encouragement is paired with guided support from the teacher either individually or in small groups. It’s a powerful combination that prepares students to engage in productive struggle as they go about their typical, everyday learning in preparation for those occasions when maximal performance will be needed.

Watch this video to see how Velocity guides students through challenging content.

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