How to Increase Learner Retention by Contextualizing Your Training

How to Increase Learner Retention by Contextualizing Your TrainingAdult learners typically struggle with understanding new concepts and ideas when such information lacks perspective – their unique perception. That’s because learning theory, be they Behaviorist, Cognitive, Constructivist or Motivational, underscores that, putting information into context, and giving perspective to knowledge produces better learning outcomes. Without adequate contextualization, most learners tend to disassociate from what they are learning. And when that happens, they may disengage from learning, leaving trainers an uphill task of re-engagement.


Contextualization is all about framing learning concepts in a way that’s familiar to the individual learner. To bring contextual value to your learning, it’s important to understand where your learner is coming from – not just his/her geographic location (we’ll touch upon that in a moment), but also their previous experiences, the terminology they’re familiar with and their expected application of the knowledge you’ll be imparted during the course.

Let’s look at some examples of how contextual application might differ, based on who the learner is, and what background they come from:

  1. An engineering course on building maintenance might seem out of context to U.S. learners if the trainer speaks about the “lift”. In the context of a U.S. audience, a “lift” is a ride from/to somewhere. But for British audiences, it means “elevator”
  2. A baking class might bring different expectations to U.S. and British learners – if the topic of the day is “Biscuits”. Aspiring U.S. Chefs look forward to creating a buttery bread-like dish, while their British counterparts think they’ll be learning how to bake cookies

Finally, contextualized learning leverages learners’ past experiences. An eLearning course replete with sports metaphors, such as “being behind the 8-ball” or “running with the ball” or “batting a thousand” may daze and confuse non-jocks among the audience. That’s because the non-sporty-types in your course will likely not relate to what you’re trying to say.

Here’s a real-world example of how contextualization helps knowledge transference and understanding:

Assume that a trainer, teaching a course in urban planning, voices his/her strong opinion against building a children’s playground within a municipality. It is very likely that he/she will meet the ire of many students attending the course (Is the trainer opposed to children’s exercise?). Many students might consider the trainers’ views irrational, and may even want to leave the course.

However, explaining his/her decision in the context of irreparable environmental impact – the need to cut down 100 rare oak trees that have been around for 500-years to build the playground – might help people better understand the rationale behind the opposition. Instead of exiting the course, learners might now explore the course through a different paradigm.


So, how can trainers contextualize their eLearning content? Here are 10 points to consider:

  • Know Your Audience (KYA): Contextualized learning helps engagement and contributes to participant retention. The most essential building block, to improve student participation and retention, is to engage in a comprehensive KYA exercise early in the course design cycle. In fact, that should be the very first step L&D professionals should undertake
  • Focus on Language and Lexicon: Learners grasp concepts more readily and therefore retain what they learn when trainers speak in a language that they (learners) are familiar with. If they understand what you are teaching them, they’re more likely to “stick around” for the duration of the course. Therefore, use the results of the KYA analysis, and create content in the context of terms, terminology, and abbreviations that are in line with the learner’s background
  • Personalized Learning Paths: Learners know what interests them, and can therefore bring context to learning topics of their choice. Allowing learners to personalize their own learning paths enables the contextualization of eLearning
  • Set clear expectations of success: Success in one context – achieving a “B” grade – might not be motivation in another context – e.g. someone that was expecting an “A+” grade. To contextualize your eLearning, it is therefore vital for learners to understand, upfront, what “success” means, and how they might achieve it
  • Give Context to Examples and Case Studies: Use illustrative content, such as examples and case studies, that each learner might relate to. In a course for the healthcare industry, using a case study from a hospitality industry application might not make your content relevant to medical students
  • Contextualize Assessments and Evaluations: Make sure that your contextualization efforts span beyond core content – it must include assessments and evaluations as well. Do so by changing phrases, words, and terminology assessments, and making changes to standard assessments to fit specific work scenarios applicable to a learners’ workplace
  • Create Learning Communities: When learners congregate with like-minded learners (Group Chats, Facebook Groups), pursuing similar learning objectives, it’s more likely to create better learning outcomes. That’s because everyone in the community is on the “same wavelength” and brings similar experiences and context to their learning journey
  • Engage in Frequent Outreach: Context can change over time. Contextualization is therefore not a “one and done” step. It entails making a continuous change to various elements of the course in order to re-align context with learner expectations. The best way to accomplish that is to institute a cycle of continuous feedback with learners. Early detection of disengagement offers a better opportunity for timely re-engagement interventions (e.g. modify lesson plans, recommend alternate learning resources, review assessment criteria, etc.)
  • Use Data Analytics Where Possible: The success of contextualization lies in delivering learning experiences that the learner can relate to. And to do that, trainers need to make informed decisions around contextualizing various aspects of the course. Use data and analysis to understand learning habits and improve data-driven contextualization and personalization – where possible
  • Personalize Advisor/Trainer Availability Personalize the level of support you extend to each learner. Not all learners require the same level of learner-trainer interaction. Therefore, consider personalizing the level of your availability, for each learner, in the context of his/her needs/expectations. For example, less tech-savvy learners might require more “hand-holding” to set-up their learning environment.


Contextualized learning is an instructional strategy that links the teaching of new concepts and ideas by personalizing content to appeal to a learners’ perspective. By tailoring your content to specific professional and career context, that is of interest to your learners, you’ll not only enhance learner retention, but you’ll also foster learner engagement.

In my Instructional Design for ELearning program, I teach how to create courses that increase learner retention and bring transformational results. You can also check out my Instructional Design for ELearning book on Amazon.

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