Professional Development

Self-Paced Content

Teaching Contextually

For more than 40 years, the Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD) has been empowering faculty to make learning meaningful for students through the application of contextual teaching principles emphasizing the relationship of course content to real-life situations. In other words, teaching abstract subject matter such as mathematics in the context of how it’s applied in the workplace and everyday life.

This self-paced course provides an overview of the cognitive theories that support a contextual teaching approach, outlines its REACT model that promotes five key learner engagement strategies, and provides templates for developing contextual lessons that help students make meaningful connections between abstract ideas and practical workplace applications. Resources for developing integrated, scenario-based instructional projects are also provided to support faculty in their efforts to bring authentic workplace context into their classrooms.

At some point in their education, many adult students experience a disconnect between what they are learning and how that knowledge will be used in their future careers. This is particularly evident in gatekeeper academic courses such as mathematics, which are often taught in an abstract lecture or skill/drill format. Career-oriented coursework makes much more immediate sense to these learners. Why is this the case, and what can we learn from it?

Cognitive Theory

An examination of the convergence of theories about intelligence and learning provides clues. Combine Gardner’s theory that the mind’s capacity for learning is much broader than traditionally assumed, Kolb’s assertion that individuals have a natural ability to learn through a variety of methods, and Caine and Caine’s studies that connectedness is a key to effective learning and the result is a set of precepts with which to work. In general, most people learn best when:

  • Course content is addressed in a concrete manner involving participation, physical or hands-on activities, and opportunities for personal discovery.
  • Concepts are presented in the context of relationships that are familiar to the student.
  • Ideas are presented via concrete, tangible examples and experiences (rather than solely through abstract models).
  • Interaction with other students— through study groups and teaming—is built in to the learning experience.
  • Understanding is emphasized over rote memorization of isolated fragments of knowledge.
  • Instructors recognize that the ability to transfer what is learned from one situation to another is a skill that must be learned.

Contextual Teaching and Learning Theory

A synthesis of these ideas leads naturally to contextual teaching and learning theory. The contextual approach acknowledges that:

  • Learning is a complex and multifaceted process that goes far beyond drill-oriented, stimulus-and-response methodologies.
  • Learning occurs when learners process new information in such a way that makes sense to them in their own frame of reference.
  • The mind naturally seeks meaning in context, in relation to a person’s environment, doing so by searching for relationships that make sense and appear useful.

Curricula and instruction based on contextual learning strategies should be structured to encourage five essential forms of learning: Relating, Experiencing, Applying, Cooperating, and Transferring (REACT). In light of learning research these strategies seem “natural,” but as instructors we cannot take it for granted that students are aware of the strategies that will help them learn, retain and apply information. We should create learning experiences that use the REACT strategies and we should also take the time to inform students about why we have selected instructional methods that require active student participation. Furthermore, we should not be surprised if students need to be taught how to carefully observe and record data, for example, or how to communicate effectively as part of a group. The REACT strategies are designed to help students build new skills and knowledge regardless of their starting point.

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

Are You Teaching Contextually?

Are you teaching contextually? Take this self-test and see.

Explore contextual lesson design elements by reviewing these contextual lesson templates. Use the templates to practice the development of lessons that allow students to Relate, Experience, Apply, Cooperate and Transfer as they learn.

Contextual Lesson Design Templates

Building on REACT to Developed Integrated Curriculum

Presenting course content in an integrated manner promotes both depth and transfer of knowledge. Capitalizing on the natural relationships between subjects and disciplines provides for the reinforcement of knowledge and skills. Instructors should be actively searching for opportunities to increase instructional interconnections to provide deeper and more meaningful instructional experiences. Integrated lessons provide more breadth of context, demonstrating to students a wider perspective of content relationships.

The purpose of creating integrated curriculum is not to force academic content into technical courses or vice versa. Instead, instructors should look for opportunities to capitalize on concepts that are naturally embedded in course content. For example, a unit in which students draft plans for and build a structure, investigate its environmental impact, document the building process, and develop a budget would involve the use of skills and concepts drawn from courses in English, mathematics, construction trades, drafting and/or design, and biology.

An integrated approach recognizes that:

  • Students don’t want to learn in a vacuum.
  • Students are motivated by “how is this course relevant to my future career?”
  • Understanding real-world connections to course content increases student engagement.

The benefits of integrated instruction include:

  • Integration of technical and academic content,
  • Student engagement at a higher level that fosters critical, thinking, collaboration, and other skills valued by employers, and
  • Authentic assessment opportunities.

Integrated Curriculum Building Blocks

When creating integrated curriculum for adult learners there are three types of fundamental skills/competencies that should be addressed:

  • Academic Skills - reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, etc.
  • Technical Skills - industry-specific occupational skills
  • Employability Skills - skills needed for getting and keeping a job

Developing a scenario (an authentic workplace situation) is an important part of integrated curriculum design. Real-world scenarios provide students with relevant context for the academic, technical, and employability skills presented in a lesson. Scenarios:

  • Contain fact-based stories—may be from the news or invented (but must be plausible),
  • Provide the real-world context in which the lesson/project takes place,
  • Prepare students to examine a complex situation, and
  • Illustrate the need for using an integrated, multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving.
  • Sample Scenarios for Integrated Projects

Integrated Lesson Design Templates

Explore integrated lesson design elements by reviewing these integrated lesson templates. Use the templates to practice the development of lessons that allow students to benefit from the integration of academic, technical and employability skills that are presented through authentic real-world applications.

Developing an integrated project synopsis is a good way to brainstorm and organize preliminary integrated lesson ideas.

Once complete, a project synopsis is a helpful resource in the completion of the integrated project template below.

Assessment is considered an integral and ongoing part of the teaching and learning process. Assessment is the process of documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs. Assessment addresses the content, process, and product involved in meeting a standard. As your instructional approach includes more contextual teaching strategies, your assessment strategies should expand to include those that support active and collaborative learning.

Good Assessment Design

  • Begin with the end in mind – your learning objectives for students (Wiggins and McTighe, Understanding by Design)
  • Design instruction and evaluation at the same time – this is important when developing multi-activity lessons and projects
  • Ask not only “What information will I get from this?” (i.e., grades for the gradebook; prediction of performance on standardized tests) but also “How will this provide a learning opportunity for students?”
  • Design active assessments for active learning
  • Be precise—no surprises
  • Create a feedback loop—discuss expectations (and progress) regularly
  • Communicate in writing (e.g. syllabus, learning contract, rubric with detailed performance measures)
  • Provide opportunities for learners to reflect on and analyze their performance
  • Assessment Strategies

Authentic Assessment

Authentic assessment aims to evaluate students’ abilities in ‘real-world’ contexts. In other words, students learn how to apply their skills to authentic tasks and projects. Authentic assessment does not encourage rote learning and passive test-taking. Instead, it focuses on students’ analytical skills; ability to integrate what they learn; creativity; ability to work collaboratively; and written and oral expression skills. It values the learning process as much as the finished product.


Rubrics are a valuable teaching and learning tool. Providing a rubric at the beginning of a learning experience enables learners to clearly understand performance expectations. As a result, learners are better able to take charge of, and responsibility for their learning.

For an instructor, rubrics clarify the relationship between the learning experience and the expected outcomes. A rubric specifies criteria along a continuum. It is intended as a guide for the student who can then monitor progress along this continuum in light of the criteria.