Increase Your Student Retention by Contextualising Your Training

Most experienced teachers will be able to recall a feeling of losing the engagement of a learner at some point in their career. It’s not an easy circumstance to manage – circumstantially or emotionally.

Adult learners often have a choice about taking your course, as well as a voice (and in today’s world a very public one) about their opinion of your training  If they don’t feel like they’re getting what they need from it, they can leave and seek their education elsewhere – and can be extremely vocal about their reasons why in the meantime.  This isn’t just a problem for your personal reputation or business, but a huge let down on your learners; because ultimately their education and their experience of it IS our responsibility. As educators, it is our duty to make sure that our training captivates our learners and keeps them enthralled until the end.

So how can you keep them engaged?

In this article, edupreneur Sarah Cordiner will share how you can keep your learners engaged and learning through the processes of contextualisation.

What is Contextualisation?


Contextualisation is a practice you will become very familiar with if you’re working in the training design and development industry as a curriculum developer or educator of any kind. Contextualisation means adapting training in a way that makes it ‘tailored’ for use in a specific environment – by language, terminology, examples, application, delivery and assessment.

Contextualisation is an extremely powerful teaching and learning technique. Educators can use it to make each learner feel like your training was made especially for them.

I remember being in a leadership seminar once where the instructor spent the entire morning dropping golf metaphors as he taught us about leadership. As he referred to a bad leadership example, he backed it up with a joke about a bad golf swing. As he provided a strategy for successful leadership, he slipped in a reference to getting a ‘hole in one’.

This is a fantastic example of contextualising IF we had been golfers! If this seminar had been about leadership in the golfing industry, then this instructor would have absolutely nailed the contextualisation of this talk. Using familiar concepts and references that they are passionate about means that the new learning would be more rapidly constructed into understanding than it would without the golf references.

However, the fact that not a single one of us in the room was a golfer meant that half the room was asleep (switching off because it didn’t feel relevant) and the other half had no idea what he was talking about.

Contextualisation is an extremely powerful teaching and learning technique when the right circumstantial and environmental references are used.

The word ‘context’ means “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.”

When it comes to training, this means that we must design and deliver our training to the circumstances or environment in which our learners live in or will apply it.

For example, if I was teaching a course called “How To Create Online Courses” to the staff at a training institution such as a college, I would deliver it differently, use different language and give them different activities to practice their skills than if I was teaching the exact same course to solopreneur business owners who are instructing their own non-accredited training online – even though the outcomes are the same.

Why? Because they are applying their own learning in different environments (contexts), and the most effective training and trainers adapt and modify their programs for each group’s unique context.

Contextualising to Increase your Content Output

Sometimes, when we have very narrow topics or highly niched fields of practice, it can be hard to find new content to teach or use as content marketing.

I have found that we can use the concept of contextualisation to significantly broaden our topic and appeal to more learners, without deviating from our specialisation.

Here is a way that I have contextualised a range of seemingly irrelevant topics with my concept of ‘Edupreneurship’ and course creation to make my topic appealing to those who may not have seen it as relevant.

  1. First, I listed everything that my target audience (Edupreneurs and course creators) do, use or need to do to be successful.
  2. Then I added the words ‘For Edupreneurs’ at the end.
  3. Then I came up with blog posts and lectures in the topics I could cover
  4. Then I approached other subject matter experts and did a joint work with them (eg webinars and interviews) on the topics I am not an expert in, and I directed the entire conversation to my audience (in these cases, edupreneurs).
  5. Then I used the expert webinars as an information source for more blogs and tutorial videos for my training. My audience got expert advice, tailored to application in their context, and the expert got exposure to my audience.

Real World Example:

Here is one of my lists of training topics that are not directly about training and course creation, that I have ‘contextualised’ to make relevant to my learners (and are all/will be available to subscribers of my online school):

  • Google apps for Edupreneurs
  • Facebook for Edupreneurs
  • YouTube for Edupreneurs
  • Twitter for Edupreneurs
  • WordPress for Edupreneurs
  • Blogging for Edupreneurs
  • Creating books and ebooks for Edupreneurs
  • Linkedin for Edupreneurs
  • Snapchat for Edupreneurs
  • Public speaking skills for Edupreneurs
  • Launch strategies for Edupreneurs
  • LeadPages for Edupreneurs
  • PR and Media for Edupreneurs
  • Entrepreneurship for Edupreneurs
  • Webinars for Edupreneurs
  • Lead magnet creation for Edupreneurs
  • Email marketing for Edupreneurs
  • Podcasting for Edupreneurs
  • Graphic design for Edupreneurs
  • Partnerships and referral marketing for Edupreneurs
  • Building an email list for Edupreneurs
  • SEO for Edupreneurs

Now this is an extremely surface and beginners level of introducing the concept of contextualisation.  You cannot just add the job title to a topic and call your training ‘contextualised’.  You need to then make every word, activity, example and practical application of your training directly relevant to that role, circumstance and environment.  My aim in this article is to simply ignite your imagination to how many ways you could ‘niche’ what might currently be a generic training program into a format that could have multiple highly specialised versions.

To make your training more relevant and engaging for your learners, use contextualisation to address factors such as:

  • different learner profiles, roles, responsibilities and demographics
  • specific equipment and tools that they use in their work
  • specific policies, procedures and processes that they have to source, use and follow in their occupational practices
  • the physical environment they learn or work in
  • legislative requirements in that context

By changing activities, terminology, case scenarios, metaphors and supporting documentation, we can provide highly relevant training in any circumstance.

Making Material Relevant:

As another example, if you were writing a management course, you could have a generic course that covered management skills in general – a global topic that has similar concepts regardless of the industry the manager is in.

However, if you were delivering that course to a group of education managers, you could contextualise and adapt your training to bring in the unique managerial experiences and considerations in an educational context.

You could give examples of classroom management, managing teachers, managing students, managing school rules, managing school conditions, reference educational legislation that had to be adhered to, use education industry terminology, use policies from the specific learning institution as references and guidelines, and so on.

Contextualisation is NOT about altering the learning outcomes or objectives. It’s about modifying the WAY you transmit the training so that it applies and has relevance to the learner’s world as they know it.

If you were teaching a course on work health and safety, you could encourage learners to gather safe working procedures and company policies from their own businesses or workplaces to make the generic topic directly apply to their own environment.

Contextualising means adapting as far as you possibly can the content, the delivery, the language, the methods of assessment and the examples used, so that it is aligned to those particular learners, in that particular environment.

The Limits of Contextualisation

When I say “adapt as far as you possibly can”, you have to proceed with a degree of caution when contextualising. What we can’t do is contextualise training so much that it alters the learning outcomes, and subsequently becomes a different course.

Remember my experience at the leadership seminar? I would have argued that it was more of a theoretical training session on golf, rather than leadership. If we over-contextualise we miss the whole point of what we were trying to teach in the first place.

You must not contextualise to the point that you change the conditions of assessment, or what the student will be able to do, know and feel by the end of the course – because that would mean it is a different course that produces a different result. We simply want to tailor the way that it’s delivered and some of the delivery materials used to enhance understanding, learning, the application of that learning and the theory and practice of it in a particular environment.

Capitalise on Learners’ Interests

One way to embed the principle of relevance and context into your courses is to allow participants to choose projects that reflect their own interests within a specific subject area.

Learners succeed and excel when they are doing what they love. They will love their training if it involves their passion. The more you can find ways to bring in the element of joy, hobbies and interests to learner activities, exercises and projects, the more engaged and successful they will be.

Knowles states that “adults are practical.” Therefore, by focusing on the aspects of a lesson most applicable to them in their work and their roles, they will be more likely to learn and use what you are teaching.

Appeal To Their Passions

Many adults learn purely for the joy of learning as well as being in pursuit of a certain result. By adding some emotive references to their passions, their readiness to learn will increase as they will see the relevance and purpose of it to them and what they love.

Final Thoughts:

Contextualisation provides an opportunity for educators to make course material relevant to the learner, to invigorate their learning, and to keep them attentive, engaged and satisfied with the experience of your training.

How can you contextualise your training further?


This article is altered from Sarah’s bestselling book ‘The Theory and Principles of Creating Effective Training Courses: What To Do Before Creating Your Course


About The Author: Sarah Cordiner

A four-times international number 1 best-selling author, TV host, Podcaster, qualified educator and professional speaker.’

Huffington Posts’ ‘Top 50 Must-Follow Female Entrepreneur for 2017’. 11 years in business & education, over 10,000 students in 131 countries and multiple awards – Sarah combines education and entrepreneurship as the EDUpreneur’s internationally acclaimed leader in ‘profitably educating your marketplace’.  





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