Aligning the Learning and Performance Contexts

Research from the world’s preeminent refereed journals on learning and instruction shows that by aligning the learning and performance contexts, learning results can be improved by substantial amounts. In fact, it is this alignment that makes simulations effective, that creates the power behind hands-on training, and that enables action learning to produce its most profound effects.

The research suggests the following points related to instructional design:

1. When humans learn, we absorb both the instructional message and background stimuli and integrate them into memory so that they become interconnected.

2. Humans in their performance situations are reactive beings. Our thoughts and actions are influenced by stimuli in our surrounding environment. If cues in our environment remind us of what we previously learned, we’ll remember more.

3. These first two principles can combine to aid remembering, and hence performance in powerful ways. If during the learning situation we can connect the key learning points to background stimuli that will be observed in the learner’s on-the-job performance situation, than these stimuli will remind learners of what they previously learned!

4. The more the learning context mirrors the real-world performance context, the greater the potential for facilitating remembering. When the learning and performance contexts include similar stimuli, we can say they are "aligned."

5. The more learners pay attention to the background contextual stimuli, the higher the likelihood of obtaining context effects.

6. Context effects can take many forms. People who learn in one room will remember more in that room than in other rooms. People who learn a topic when they are sad, will remember more about that topic when they are sad. People who learn while listening to Mozart will retrieve more information from memory while listening to Mozart than listening to jazz. People who learn a fact while smelling peppermint will be better able to recall that fact while smelling peppermint than while smelling another fragrance. People who learn in the presence of their coworkers will remember more of what they learned in the presence of those coworkers.

7. Context can aid remembering and performance, but it can have negative effects when aspects of the learning context are not available in the on-the-job performance context.

8. Context effects can be augmented by prompting learners to focus on the background context. Context effects can be diminished by prompting learners to focus less on the background context.

9. The fewer the background contextual elements per learning point, the more powerful the context effects.

10. The easiest and most effective way to align the learning and performance contexts is to modify the learning context. But other options are available as well.

11. The performance context can be modified through management involvement, performance-support tools, and other reminding devices.

12. When the performance context cannot be determined in advance—or when the learned tasks will be performed in many contexts—multiple learning contexts can facilitate later memory retrieval and performance.

13. Learners in their performance situations can improve the recall of what they learned by visualizing the learning situation.

14. Cues can be added to the both the learning contexts and the performance context to aid remembering.

15. Context effects have their most profound impact when other retrieval cues are not available for use. For example, context effects typically do not occur on multiple-choice tests or for other performance situations where learners are provided with hints.

16. To fully align the learning and performance contexts, instructional practice should include opportunities for learners to face all four aspects of performance, (1) situation, (2) evaluation, (3) decision, and (4) action. To create the best results, learners must be faced with realistic situations, make sense of them, decide what to do, and then practice the chosen action.

To read more about this fundamental learning factor (or to see the research behind these suggestions), you can access an extensive report from the Work-Learning Research catalog.