BlogLearning & Development

Contextual Learning: Providing Context to Training

Continu Team
One Platform for All Learning
Learning & Development
October 24, 2023

Dive into contextual learning, a method that integrates real-world relevance into educational experiences, enhancing comprehension and application.

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“Why do I need this training course? “How does it benefit me?” These are questions employees ask of corporate training. Instructors may ask themselves, “How will my students retain what was learned?” and “How will they apply what was learning to their jobs?” All of these questions can be answered by implementing contextual learning. So what is it exactly?

Contextual learning was started by educators Robert Berns and Patricia Erickson as a way for students to retain and understand why they were learning what they were being taught. Simply put, educators teach a course and then apply key elements of this course to real-life examples their students can understand. In return, students then think of their own scenarios where they can apply this new knowledge. The end result is students understand courses better since they have “contextualized” the material.

Why use contextual learning?

Now that you know what contextual learning is, why is it more beneficial than other corporate learning strategies? What are the key benefits?

1. Less learning curve

According to Harvard Business Review, new hires who use old classroom learning methods require at least 8 to 12 months to become fully productive. This in contrast to HireMe who found contextual learning saved employees on average one and half hours per week.

2. Subject matter more meaningful

For employees who ask, “Why am I sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer learning this?” Contextual learning answers this. When employees start to apply their own real-life examples to what they are learning, they will find meaning in the material. And when they see that there is meaning, they are more engaged and will commit more to memory what was learned.

3. More impactful learning

Using contextual learning, employees have more freedom in how they apply what is learned. Instead of being forced to memorize a bunch of facts, they choose how to remember the information through their own experiences. This makes learning more individualized and more impactful using personal examples.

4. Makes complex subjects easier

When there are several components to a course or lesson plan, employees tend to zone out. Or some employees master one part of that course and miss the remaining sections. With contextual learning, material is presented in a way where one component builds upon another. That way, employees master each section of a lesson before moving onto the next. The end result is comprehensive learning by all employees.

5. Immediate results

Most teaching methods involve learning something and then after a course is over, applying it. This is not very useful because employees often forget what they were taught before they are even expected to apply it. Or worse, they revert back to their old methods because they can’t remember how to use the new ones. With contextual learning, employees are taught material and immediately are expected to apply it. This forces employees to apply real-life examples while they are learning. This way new techniques are used from the start building a learned behavior.

How to implement contextual learning

Now that you know some of the reasons for choosing contextual learning over other learning methods, let’s discuss how to start using it in your organization. Here are some questions you need to ask yourself before implementation:

1. What training is needed?

This seems like an obvious one, but it’s very important you think about what training you are giving to your employees and at what stage. For example, your company may have six different training programs going on at the same time. Maybe it’s onboarding, sales, compliance, new product strategy, safety, and soft skills training. And within these training sessions, you have several levels of employees from new to seasoned.

Take a look at your learning objectives for each of these programs. What are you hoping to accomplish with each one? Then figure out how contextual learning can be used to accomplish each of these goals.

2. How will I exceed my learning objectives?

The benefit of contextual learning is really mastering a topic, committing it to memory, and utilizing it on the job immediately. In order to do this right, once you figure out how to use contextual learning to meet each learning objective, you then need to develop the correct training tactics. Use tactics or teaching methods where employees see how they can use what is being taught after returning to their work activity for the day. You want to improve the behavior of how employees function on the job.

3. What will make my employees successful?

As much as you think your employees think training is unnecessary, this is actually not the case. According to a study from Bridge by Instructure, they polled more than 1,000 working women and men across the U.S. and found that all of them value continuous education programs within their organizations. In fact, 36 percent of respondents agreed information training was more important, ahead of mentorship, a tuition reimbursement program and International fellowships. So, you want to make the most of your training program. You also don’t want to lose valuable employees to competitors since you know it costs more to hire new employees than train existing ones.

So using contextual learning, you can make the most of your valuable training program and keep your employees happier and less likely to leave. How? Since it’s easier to retain information using this learning platform, it’s also easier to build upon this learning. Because of this, you can easily train employees from level to level awarding them more marketable skills as they grow within your organization. Plus, since you are increasing your employees’ skill levels, promotion can be done from within saving you the added cost of looking outside your organization.

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4. What is the best platform for my training program?

Since contextual learning focuses on real-life examples, group activities are a must. If you think about it, your employees interact with several groups of people throughout the day. For example, customer service may deal with clients, vendors, and even internal employees like human resources. So learning as a group reinforces contextual learning behavior by applying what’s learned with external factors involved. Plus, just like you learn on the jobs from co-workers, you can learn from peers in group training.

5. Who are my employees?

Yes, you know who you employee, but where are they located? How do they interact with each other? Do they require different training? Contextual training can work across an entire organization, but you may need to tweak how you teach to different groups or departments. For example, you are an International company and employ people from various countries. Your learning management system may need to be altered to effectively teach to everyone. Or you have a marketing department who learns better with visual elements versus your accounting department who does better with an online quiz. Contextual learning is flexible and can be altered to fit your individual needs.

6. How should my learning activities be built?

Contextual learning focuses on the end result. Your goal with this type of learning is to have your employees start using their new knowledge on the job immediately. And really, during the training itself. So in order to do this, you need to build activities that incorporate real-life examples that your employees can relate to during training. Start with creating these scenarios and then built in the skills and knowledge needed to solve these scenarios.

7. Was my contextual learning program successful?

Once you roll out your new program and employees have had a chance to use it, you will want to assess how it worked or didn’t. The best way to do this is with assessments. The goal of contextual learning is creating better on the job performance. So give your employees assessments after they have taken a training course. These assessments test employees on the job to see if they are incorporating the new skills they have learned.

Revamping training materials

Once you plan out how to use contextual learning in your organization, you need to revamp your training courses. This may seem like a daunting task, but not if you hire help. Work with a learning management system provider who can look at your training materials and help tweak them to fit a contextual learning platform. Here are some ways an LMS provider can help:

Role Playing

Role-playing is a great activity to incorporate when using contextual learning. An LMS provider can create real-life scenarios your employees encounter on the job. Then once these are created, use a group of employees and have them act out these scenarios. This helps everyone see how others react in any given situation. Plus, employees can immediately see the benefit of the training at hand. There are several versions of role-playing you can use in your training:

  • Standard role-playing: Employees reenact situations they would encounter on the job.
  • Reverse role-playing: Sometimes it’s helpful to understand a situation from another viewpoint. Reverse role-playing switches employee roles so a subordinate would now be a supervisor for example.
  • Double role-playing: This happens when you are training a large class and have a subset of the group involved in role-playing while the others are observing. If someone observing then feels they want to contribute, they can physically move themselves into the role-playing they are watching.

Case studies

Using case studies can be very effective. Employees are given a scenario and then asked to solve and come to a conclusion on it. Not only can case studies make learning fun, but it forces participants to actively learn and others can observe this learning process.

Creating case studies can be complex so using a learning management provider can help. They need to be structured in a specific way including facts, feelings, and relationships. Plus, they need to be revised or tweaked over time if they contain time-sensitive information. It’s important to test case studies out before implementing them as well. By having a few employees go through your case study process, you can judge any information that is not clearly defined and rewrite these sections before rolling it out to the masses.


Simulations are basically case studies but acted out. Employees are given a real-life example and then instructed to solve it by physically walking through the process. It’s one thing to “think” you will use the information taught to you. But it’s another to actually “see” if you will use what is taught correctly. Plus, employees are forced to think on their feet which is super important in situations that may be dangerous or difficult.

There are two main types of simulations:

  • Hardware Simulations - Training on new products, services or computer programs.
  • In-basket Simulations - Teaching employees how to go through their to-do list and making sure all their responsibilities are met.

Panel Discussions

Panel discussions are typically thought of as a conference component. But putting on a great panel discussion can be a useful training tool. It’s an opportunity to ask specific scenario questions to see how well your employees answer these. Plus, they can hear what their peers are saying and will give further insight on how to better handle future situations. Using an LMS provider can help create questions and topics to use during these discussions.

Is contextual learning right for your organization?

Training is crucial to businesses of any size. Plus, as we have stated, employees value on-the-job training even more than company perks. So you want to utilize the most effective approach to your learning and development program available. Incorporating contextual learning where employees learn while they train is effective and keeps training fun. Plus, material will be better retained.

If you are ready to incorporate this type of training into your company, rely on an LMS provider to guide you through this process. It will save you time and energy and bring new life to your program.

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Continu Team responsible for Continu's content.
Continu Team
One Platform for All Learning

Continu is the #1 modern learning platform built to help companies scale and consolidate learning. From training customers to employees, Continu is the only platform you need for all learning.

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