Earlier this week, Wendi Iacobello, one of our Instructional Designers, gave an excellent presentation at OLC’s Accelerate 2022 virtual conference. Her engaging talk on contextualized learning explored how to bring subject matter to life online and addressed the myth that content automatically equals learning. There was a great response to her presentation at the conference, and we wanted to make sure even more people could benefit. 

Why Contextualized Learning Matters

Every instructor wants to engage their students with their subject, but in order to connect to the content, students need context. They need to see how this material is relevant to their past experiences and future aspirations. In other words, they need contextualized learning.

Wendi gave four main attributes of contextualized learning, describing it as a way of learning that:

  • Encourages students to apply classroom knowledge to real-world scenarios
  • Equips students to find connections between the subject matter and personal experiences
  • Is relevant and applicable
  • Allows students to make meaning from the content as it relates to their world

For example, imagine teaching a child who lives very far from the coastline, who may have never been to a beach before. Then, imagine asking that child to build a sand castle. You might try to engage the senses first, by teaching what the beach looks like, what it feels like, smells like, sounds like, or even what it tastes like. Then, you might tap into a part of the beach that the child may have experienced, such as the sand. Has he or she played in a sandbox before or felt kinetic sand? 

Aha! The main component of a sand castle is sand, but this particular student may have played in a sandbox or with kinetic sand before. That experience is valuable and exactly what we must tap into as educators–prior knowledge and the learner’s experiences are what make learning come to life. While this example might seem juvenile to those of us who work in higher education, it isn’t. Children and adults have some similarities in how they learn; however, adults bring a much more advanced repertoire of occupational, educational, and life experiences to the table. Those are the things we can use to engage our adult learners through contextualized learning activities.

A small sand castle on a beach
Photo by Erik Mclean from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-shot-of-a-sand-castle-9272407/ 

To achieve contextualized learning, you should look at every part of your course through the eyes of your students. Is it building on something they’re familiar with? Will they be able to apply it to their future work? How are they going to connect this concept to their experiences or goals? Then, take your content and find ways to connect it to those students’ lives.

How to create contextualized learning experiences

Redesigning our courses with contextualization in mind will improve relevance, application, and engagement. But how do we add more context to the students’ learning activities?

Some contextualized assignment types fit courses across all disciplines. There’s a wide variety of engaging learning activities that will help students connect the content to their experiences, such as:

  • Virtual field trips
  • Reflections
  • Discussions
  • Group projects
  • Scenario-based learning

There are also loads of examples of contextualized assignments for each content area. For example, Wendi does a lot of work with the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at OU, so she shared an example about how a course in Early Childhood Education might connect Erik Erickson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development to a current issue like the formula shortage crisis. An instructor could put this into a scenario-based problem for students to analyze. 

Similarly, a marketing course might explore Super Bowl advertisements to learn about target audiences. Or an English class learning about similes, metaphors, and other figurative language might dissect musical lyrics to connect with poetry. The possibilities are nearly endless for the creative instructor. 

Regardless of your subject area, there are several strategies you can use to create contextualized activities in your courses. In her presentation, Wendi shared four essential ones:

  1. Evaluate the learning goal and mode of assessing learning.
  2. Ask, “How does this assignment go deeper than checking a box?”
  3. Offer student autonomy.
  4. Use the top three tiers of Bloom’s Taxonomy to evaluate your assignments. 

By helping students apply what they learn in class to real-world situations, contextualized learning assists students in connecting the subject with their own experiences. Designing an online course should be more than checking off a list of boxes. Every lesson, resource, or assignment in a course should encourage each individual student to engage meaningfully with the content. 

Like the guests at Wendi’s presentation, we hope you will be inspired to go beyond prescriptive learning and instead create opportunities for students to connect the course content to their lives through contextual learning.

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