March 16th, 2015

Using Context to Deepen and Lengthen Learning


Nearly every teacher has experienced students forgetting something important. This forgetfulness comes in various forms. It might involve not following instructions for an assignment, missing a due date, forgetting important details on a test, or even forgetting to take the test itself. Whatever the memory infraction, there are usually good reasons why students forget. Gratefully, there are a few simple ways teachers can build context to help students achieve deeper and longer lasting learning.

The first step to helping students move from surface learning to deep learning is to create a willingness and excitement to learn by front-loading context. Teachers can then use “whole tasks” (Merrill, 2002) in their teaching and assignments to maintain and further build context, thus increasing the likelihood that their students will remember and use what they are learning.

Front-Loaded Context

One major reason students forget is because they are often not focused when we present critical information. When students enter our classes, they bring their anxieties, fears, troubles, and varied personal problems and distractions with them. When we find things in our teaching that connect with their world and help them find answers to their questions, then they are more likely to engage with what we are doing. Unfortunately, teachers often wait for the end of class to share relevant connections between a lesson and the students. By then, it is too late. When teachers take a few moments upfront to help students understand the significance of the day’s lesson or to help focus their attention or pique their interest, students are more likely to focus on what is being taught.

Front-loading context can be done with in-class exercises and homework assignments using a simple “look for…” technique. When teachers ask students to read long blocks of text followed by a reading comprehension question they usually experience blank stares and awkward silence. By asking a comprehension question before reading text or working on a problem, teachers give students a reason to focus their efforts and a way to process the material (e.g. “Look for two opposites in this next example and think about why both are needed” or “Look for the key element in this process and be ready to explain your answer”).

Students who engage with your material from the beginning are more likely to build meaning throughout a lesson. Do not assume that they come through your door ready and excited to learn the material. Help them build that excitement and readiness early and as needed in each class.

Whole-Task Context

Another reason why learning doesn’t seem to last long for many students is because they don’t see how each “part” of the instruction fits into the “big picture.” Teachers often choose to teach their material in discrete units for ease of course organization. This often leads students to compartmentalize, cram, and then forget as they turn their attention to the next unit.

This phenomenon should not surprise us. One of the brain’s most useful capacities is its ability to forget. Gratefully, most of what we see and hear gets forgotten very quickly. Students have figured this out. Likewise, they have learned that if they repeatedly review important material right before a test (i.e. cramming) they are more likely to remember it. The problem arises in what happens after the exam; the information or skill is often ignored and then quickly forgotten to make mental room for the next unit of instruction.

One way to combat this cram/flush cycle is to teach using whole tasks rather than detached and discrete units. Whole-task instruction consists of giving students just enough of an overview of all skills they will be taught in a class that they can work on a basic “whole-task” problem early on in a course. These first assignments will not be polished or perfected but they will provide a framework for everything else that will be taught later on. This whole-task context allows students to see the relevance of each unit as it relates to and becomes a part of the “whole” they are learning to build. As the course progresses, the complexity of the tasks and the grading expectations also increase.

This whole-task approach to instruction will ensure that students repeatedly experience the process of learning in your field at increasingly complex levels rather than just cramming and forgetting a few products of learning from your discipline.


By piquing our students’ interest early in the course and early in each lesson using front-loaded context, we give them a reason to focus and a desire to learn what we have to teach. Once we have their attention, we can maintain it and deepen it by using a whole-task context or framework on which to “hang” everything we teach. Building context will increase the likelihood that our students will not only remember but also be able to apply principles and skills they learn in our courses well beyond semester’s end.

Tyler Griffin is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). A pebble-in-the-pond model for instructional design. Performance Improvement, 41(7), 39-44. For further information see:

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  • Dan M. Mrejeru

    Deep learning should assist visual thinking, as a comeback vs. verbal thinking. Visual thinking benefits from a great memory capacity, but also helps us to understand the nonlinear in itself.
    Dan M. Mrejeru
    PS I published recently a book under the title Solovki's Ersatz (it can be downloaded for free). It may explain better this concept stated above.

  • Dan Mrejeru

    PS Our thinking turned toward verbal that is linear. And this was quite recently (from 5,000 years to 500 years). The world around us is nonlinear, while we strive to create a linear world that is only an artificiality. Our science, our social rules, our education and politics are exclusively linear. The only hope, in changing this detrimental situation populated of by an immensity of unknown dangers, is to find ways to understand better and more of the nonlinearity where we are embedded.
    Dan Mrejeru