Of Course Context Matters.

Consider the following passage:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated.

How well do you think you could recall the above passage? Go on… turn away and try and write down as much as you can remember in as much detail as you can. I suspect you could do pretty well even though you might not understand its deeper meaning.

There is little doubt that memorization is a useful tool in teaching and learning but like any strategy, it does have its critics. This is perhaps because there is an assumption that memorization takes place in the absence of context and while this might be the case in some circumstances, I suspect (I hope) teachers don’t attempt to get students to memorize information without placing that information into the relevant context. That said, I also suspect that many exams could be successfully attempted without any wider information being applied.

So, how much of the opening paragraph can you recall?

What if I told you that the paragraph is a set of instructions for washing clothes before you read it? Would that increase your recall rate?

This task is taken from a series of experiments conducted by John Bransford and Marcia Johnson in 1972 (Bransford & Johnson, 1972) that found comprehension and recall to be greatly improved when information is given in context. This is most likely due to the deeper levels of processing involved. Over the last decade or so I’ve carried out this experiment with my students with consistent and highly predictable results.

Here is another one:

If the balloons popped, the sound wouldn’t be able to carry since everything would be too far away from the correct floor. A closed window would also prevent the sound from carrying, since most buildings tend to be well insulated. Because the whole operation depends on a steady flow of electricity, a break in the middle of the wire would also cause problems. Of course, the fellow could shout, but the human voice is not loud enough to carry that far. An additional problem is that a string could break on the instrument. Then there could be no accompaniment to the message. It is clear that the best situation would involve less distance. Then there would be fewer potential problems. With face-to-face contact, the least number of things could go wrong.

Recalling and comprehending the passage without any contextual cues is difficult. Obviously recall is easier than comprehension but, nevertheless, recall is adversely affected unless the passage is given within some kind of wider meaning. Participants who were shown the following picture were able to recall more information and performed better on comprehension tasks than those who were simply read the passage.


Of course context matters and of course teachers can get students to memorize information in its absence – but that isn’t really teaching is it? Context gives us something more; it provides a deeper cognitive appraisal and therefore results in deeper processing, better recall and increased understanding.

As I keep saying; Learning is much more than just remembering stuff; it’s far more complex than that.


Bransford, J.D. & Johnson, M.K. (1972). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. 11 (6). p.pp. 717–726.


1 thought on “Of Course Context Matters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s