Will Johnson

Faculty, General Education

Our Stance

Simply put, contextualized learning occurs when subject matter is related to real world situations.  More specifically, new knowledge becomes stable and lasting when students process new information in such a way that it makes sense to them within the context of their own experiences, or their own prior knowledge.

We believe that, when presenting subject matter into the frames of reference of the students (i.e., their own experiences or their own prior knowledge), students will be more motivated to find meaning in the material, and develop an understanding of the relevant concepts.  The end product is more engaged learners, students more accepting and responsive to a holistic education.

The Frame of Reference

At the most basic, this refers to the 'eyes' (or 'lens', choose your metaphor) through which a student views an instructor's lecture, presentation, or discussions.  A key tenet of contextualized learning theory states that students will learn best when these 'eyes' are seeing an educational experience that understands, or even tries to occupy, the worldview of the student. 

Kendall serves more than culinary students, but let's focus on them to consider a potential contextualized learning experience, and see if it succeeds in adopting a beneficial frame of reference.


An English instructor devises assignments that require students to write about a restaurant experience in four different ways: (1) a Yelp review, (2) a newspaper review, (3) in a short poem, and (4) a one-page description of the cultural or ethnic origins of the ingredients in the cuisine.   

A math instructor has the students take a basic recipe that serves 4 portions, and scale it so it could feed a banquet of 150.  The students determine how much the ingredients would cost to provide for the entire banquet.

Do these example demonstrate examples of contextualized learning?

Well, yes and no.  The all-importance 'frame of reference' is a spectrum; whether a class activity is contextualized or not isn't as simple as yes or no.  Let's break it down:


We're not solving for x.  We're not writing paragraphs about medieval literature.  We're focusing on activities around the kitchen, and using those familiar activities to lead into an assignment.  Research has shown that, especially with students who need practice with basic skills these sort of assignments are far more beneficial than more traditional ones.


We're leaning very very heavily on an assumption that students will readily agree that these assignments fall within their frame of reference, since they touch on culinary topics.  However, culinary scenarios notwithstanding, just below the surface lies the staid classroom dynamic that many students decidedly judge to be OUT of their frame of reference.  It's not the more hands-on, collaborative environment of a busy kitchen, it's a student trying to squeeze an assignment by a teacher with a sufficient grade.

Frames of reference – valid for students, and for teachers too!  Ask: what are you trying to accomplish in the course?  For instance, research describes (follow the links below) that simple, re-framed exercises are beneficial for teaching the more basic, developmental skills.  For our foundational or 100-level subjects, the examples given above would likely prove to be effective exercises.  For higher-level subjects, 200- or 300-level topics, perhaps a true contextualized learning curriculum involves simulating team dynamics, or even changes in setting (field trips!) that more closely mimic the workplaces that our students anticipate to find themselves in during their careers.

Personal Experience

Let’s lean on the two example exercises introduced in the previous section to discuss the topic of personal experience.  If you need, take a minute to re-read the examples: one about a sample English assignment, one about a math assignment.
How can a teacher leverage personal experience – the personal experience of the student, we should be clear – to create a more engaging classroom environment in each case?  

Succinctly – don’t try to justify or equate the exercise with students’ personal experience.  Instead, relate or reflect their experiences in a way that creates a ‘hook’ that pulls them into a problem.  If you prefer slightly fancier pedagogical language, one could say we’re merging the traditional learning space with the experiential learning space.  Traditional spaces: the instructor says I should learn this.  Experiential spaces: the space occupied by a hungry 4 year old who is trying to learn how to get a meatball on her fork.  Try, try again... with focus and persistence!

How to bring the students into the experiential spaces?  How to find those personal ‘hooks’?  The short answer is to get to know your students!  Class discussions, in advance of assignments, can be beneficial in identifying scenarios where students have utilized basic mathematical or communication skills in their lives or careers.  For instance, our English instructor might set the stage by asking students how they find whether a new restaurant is worth visiting.  Do they read reviews online in Yelp? Word of mouth?  Newspaper or TV reviews?  If students do, in fact, mention that they use Yelp or they rely on newspaper reviews, then an instructor can leverage that fact to get students thinking in terms of compare and contrast when introducing, say, a cultural essay on an ethnic restaurant.

But life for a teacher in the experiential learning space, relying on students’ personal experiences, can be demanding.  If I’m familiar introducing an assignment that has student writing a Yelp review, and my students all discuss how they communicate on Facebook groups, I would be wise to adapt my assignment to accommodate this.  

Summarized:  to leverage students’ personal experience, don’t frame a contextualized assignment as though they have deep meaning to a student’s career.  Assume that a student might still regard the assignment as “busywork”, despite the best efforts to frame it as a career-focused problem.  Look for the personal ‘hook’ that gets a student to relate it directly to a prior experience -- whether a prior school, or work, or other experience.  And a critical, though demanding aspect of this for a teacher is to keep an open mind to altering or adapting your assignments in subtle ways to accommodate the experiences of your current students. 


Prior Knowledge

The quest for context, striving to pull students into an experiential learning space need not require deep reflections on students’ careers.  Rather, having them look at what they’ve learned in school previously, and asking them to reflect on how deeply they know a concept can be equally illuminating.

Above we talked about the English teacher’s example in writing a Yelp review; let’s consider the math teacher’s example about converting a recipe to cook for a large banquet.  Even if an instructor has culinary students, they may have no interest or experience in catering a banquet hall.  But, if they’re in a college classroom, they’ve learned multiplication and division.  An instructor, then, might not appeal to the culinary context of the problem, but rather to the students’ prior knowledge or basic math: “what makes numbers bigger, multiplying or dividing?”  Satisfied the students can take that step, keep chipping away:  “What would a chef need to do then, in this case, multiply or divide a recipe?”  On the verge of putting the students into a more experiential learning space: “What number, then, would they need to multiply by?”  Suddenly, the students can relate the problem – whether they find the scenario professionally relevant or not – to math problems that they have worked through previously (albeit potentially long, long ago…).

Certainly, where courses require certain pre-requisites – thinking again of the 200- and 300-level courses -- this technique can be useful, as a teacher can appeal directly to the knowledge students learned in a previous semester.  It can even be a wonderful ice breaker for faculty in discussing topics that would have overlap between courses.  For the lower-level courses, students’ previous knowledge might vary widely, and it can create difficulties in employing this approach.

Challenges of Contextualized Learning

  • The demand for a teacher to keep flexible and adaptable with assignments and activities, in an effort to keep them relevant to varying student experiences.
  • The difficulty in working with diverse students who may find meaning in vastly different contexts.
  • The need for more varied classroom settings that would be difficult to recreate in the traditional whiteboard, desk, and chairs space.
  • Cultural challenges with students who are accustomed to learning through more teacher-centered classroom models.