Education is supposed to help equip learners with the skills they need to thrive as adults and reach their full potential. And yet, have you ever heard a student groan, “But I’m never going to use this in real life!”? This common complaint highlights a major challenge in education: students often can’t understand the relevance of curriculum content.

All is not lost: contextual learning could provide the solution.

But what is contextual learning?

Many think contextual learning is simply using context to illustrate a point, but it’s so much more than that. Contextual learning is a student-centred teaching method. Instead of memorisation, it actively engages learners by exploring curriculum topics through real-world scenarios. Examples include:

  • Relating and teaching lessons that highlight recent, real-world events
  • Guest speakers and TED talks
  • Reading case studies
  • Going on school trips
  • Projects that work towards solving community issues

Getting students engaged and motivated

There’s a good reason as to why engagement is a common concern: half of students themselves admit that they’re disengaged.

Engagement packs a powerful impact. Surveys carried out by Gallup on students aged 11-18 show that engaged students are 2.5 times more likely to report that they get “excellent” grades. They’re also 4.5 times more likely to be “hopeful about the future”. According to Harvard, the key to engaging your students and optimising learning is all about tapping into their intrinsic motivation. In other words, you need to spark their curiosity and desire to problem-solve.

Classroom tasks or projects relating to real-world applications provide the perfect opportunity for this, with challenging, yet accessible, problems to solve. They also often require a mix of skills, and can even pull knowledge from topics they’ve already studied.

Making the information stick

This picture is of Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve, which visualises the theory that we forget 50% of new information we learn within an hour. And within a day? It can be up to 70%. Context-based learning is a helpful way of combating this and boosting retention.

Firstly, topic information is easier to digest when students can apply it to their own life experiences.

Secondly, contextual learning activities facilitate active participation in class through open-ended discussions, solving of real-life problems, presenting group projects, or encouraging debates.

And finally, the increase in perceived relevance of classroom content makes it more valuable in our minds. Our brains work with a limited capacity, so subconsciously prioritise what information we keep or discard. The minute that something can be applied to our real lives, we’re more likely to retain it.

For example, carbonyl compounds in post-16 Chemistry classes may not be the easiest topic to get to grips with. However, you could apply carbonyl compounds to vaping, exploring what compounds are in popular flavours, and suddenly it becomes more interesting and therefore memorable, for teens.

Bridging the skills gap

The benefits don’t end with learning curriculum content. Context-based learning boosts the development of important core skills in students, like problem-solving, inquiry and critical thinking.

Transferable (or “job proof”) skills are in heavy demand in many careers. Hart Research also suggests that the number of graduates with good critical thinking skills falls well below the percentage of employers who rate it as the most valuable skill in candidates.

By tackling real-world problems, contextual learning challenges students to use evidence, observation, and logic to analyse and evaluate issues.

A digital solution?

However, not every educator has the time to edit their approach or materials for every class. While the internet has made it easier to find case studies, lesson plans, speaker videos, and research project ideas, not all of these are appropriate for schools or vetted for quality.

This is where digital resources step in. They have the chief benefit of being reliable, high-quality, and relevant to teachers and learners across K-12.

Infobase stands out as a publisher excelling in resources for contextual learning, with two standouts: Science Online and Today’s Science.

If you’ve not tried it before, Science Online is excellent for transforming STEM classes. Alongside natural sciences, it also provides insights into engineering, computer science, climate science, and more. There are experiments that can be performed digitally on the platform or recreated in the classroom, videos on real-life phenomena, and in-depth explorations of scientific advancements in the Learning Center, all accompanied by explanations and discussion questions.

Meanwhile, Today’s Science is an applied science resource designed to “bridge the gap between the science taught in class and real-world discoveries.” Here, you’ll find conversations with scientists, videos and articles about the latest science news, DIY experiments, and research project ideas that link to the real world.

These STEM databases make sure that students have dedicated and trusted resources to access for improving their understanding of course material and the field itself, ultimately boosting their confidence and potentially providing career inspiration.

And, for those at UK or British International Schools, Hodder Education’s Magazine eLibraries offer A-Level students topical articles, cutting-edge research, and case studies. Covering subjects across the arts, humanities, and STEM, all content links directly to major UK assessment boards and exam topics, so schools can spend less time finding curriculum-aligned reading, and more time on instruction or revision.

These articles alse enhance academic profiles for university applications by showing students’ deep engagement with subjects. For example, an English article might explore how modern readings of fairy tales can activate social change. Or a sociology piece could examine social inequalities through reality television, which students may be inclined to explore further.