How We Teach

REACTing to Learn: Student Engagement Strategies in Contextual Teaching and Learning

You read in the previous section that the REACT strategies represent five essential learner engagement strategies designed to help students build new skills and knowledge regardless of their starting point.

Let’s take a closer look at each strategy.

Relating: Learning in the context of life experience, or relating, places learning in the context of life experiences—everyday sights, events, and conditions. The process of relating provides a mental scaffolding of familiar situations on which new information can be hung.

Experiencing: Learning in the context of exploration, discovery, and invention is the heart of contextual learning. However motivated students may become as a result of other instructional strategies such as video, narrative, or text-based activities, these remain relatively passive forms of learning. Students understand and retain information more quickly when they are able to manipulate equipment and materials and perform their own active research.

Applying: Learning by using new concepts and information in a useful context allows students to envision future success in careers, even if the situation is still fairly unfamiliar to them. In courses taught contextually, applications are often based on occupational activities—ideally authentic, non-contrived, real-world tasks. These contextual learning experiences can be augmented with presentations by guest speakers or first-hand experiences like plant tours.

Cooperating: Learning in the context of sharing, responding, and communicating with others is a primary instructional strategy in contextual teaching. Contextually-taught courses are often built around hands-on laboratory activities (and other group exercises). These are cooperative in that students typically work with partners to follow the steps in the lab protocol; in some cases, they work in groups of three or four. Completing a lab successfully requires delegation, observation, suggestion, and discussion. In many labs, the quality of the data collected by the team as a whole is dependent on the individual performance of each member of the team. The experience of cooperating not only helps the majority of students learn the material, it is also consistent with real-world expectations. Employers value workers who can communicate effectively, who share information freely, and who can operate comfortably in a team setting. Instructors have ample reason, therefore, to encourage students to develop these cooperative skills while they are still in the classroom where the process can be facilitated.

Transferring: Learning in the context of existing knowledge, or transferring, builds upon materials and concepts that the student already knows. Learning to transfer previously learned information to new contexts helps students approach unfamiliar situations and problems with confidence.

In light of learning research the REACT strategies offer a natural approach for implementing contextual teaching and learning.

REACT in Action

Consider this example in which students learn about the physics and electronics concepts of thermal resistance.

  • Relating: The instructor asks questions and solicits responses from students about their experience with the phenomenon, e.g. sweaters, drink koozies, ice chests.
  • Experiencing: Students measure heat flow through an insulating jacket around a heat source.
  • Applying: The instructor talks about wall and air duct insulation, how a refrigerator/freezer works, and the insulating properties of window glass.
  • Cooperating: Students work in teams on activities and labs exploring thermal resistance.
  • Transferring: The instructor leads a discussion on the broad topic of resistance and students recognize that the concept extends beyond thermal resistance to mechanical, electrical and fluid resistance.

Contextual Classroom Environment

Another way of thinking about contextual teaching and learning asks instructors to examine the difference between traditional and contextual classroom practices. A contextual approach:

  • Encourages design of learning environments that use multiple teaching modalities and incorporate different forms of learning experiences.
  • Allows learners to discover meaningful relationships between abstract ideas and real-world applications.
  • Enables concepts to be internalized through discovery, reinforcement/modeling, and problem-solving.
  • Provides ongoing feedback that promotes further learner interaction with content.
  • Engages learners and motivates them to persist.

Contextual Classroom Environment - A Contrast
CORD, 2016

Are You Teaching Contextually?

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Are You Teaching Contextually?
CORD, 1999/2016