Using context in science lessons

Learning requires motivation. Motivation requires a rationale. Why should students care? Why should they spend their time and effort learning this? Luckily for science teachers there are some very tangible reasons as to why students would need or want to know science.

Why use context in science lessons?

For me, context provides the rationale for learning. It links the physical world to scientific ideas, in a similar way to practical work. This is important as it serves as a great starting point to introduce the learning in a way that (hopefully!) makes sense to students.

Picture Shows: Ed Stafford on Olorua Island in Fiji after spending 60 days alone on an uninhabited island
Ed Stafford on Olorua Island in Fiji after spending 60 days alone on an uninhabited island

An example of context in action

Imagine a lesson where students have to produce salt from an aqueous solution of NaCl. This problem could be set-up with a purely conventional theoretical background. Or, we could pose the problem in a more interesting, and contextual, way.

You are marooned on a desert island. You have just been out fishing and caught some fish for dinner. You would like some salt to put on your fish. You are going to try and separate some salt from the sea water that surrounds your island. How are you going to do it?

This context provides a rationale as to why we should care about crystallisation and frames the problem in a way that students can conceptualise. It’s not a particularly genuine context but is an imaginative one, that generates interest and focusses students’ attention onto a tangible goal – separating out salt. The problem is now more concrete and accessible – simply put a pot of ‘sea water’ on students’ desk and they will understand what they are being asked to do and why.

Benefits of context

  • It shows the relevance of what students are learning and therefore improves student attitudes
  • It provides a rationale to make the problem clear – this reduces the need for teacher instruction and supports students if they get stuck to be clear on the end goal e.g. make salt for dinner
  • It makes abstract ideas more concrete
  • It can spark curiosity
  • If a relevant context is used it personalises the science e.g. investigating air pollution in your local area

Explore what a context-based approach might look like – The Salter’s Chemistry course.

Too much of a good thing

Like salt, too much can be dangerous. If a lesson is dominated by an over-complicated context then students can become overwhelmed by the volume of information. This can distract students’ attention away from the scientific ideas that teachers are trying to convey.

Used sparingly, though, context is a powerful tool to increase student motivation and supports students to make meaning of the science, often at far greater levels of abstraction. Give it a go!

Further reading
  • Bennett, J., Lubben, F. and Hogarth, S., 2007. Bringing science to life: A synthesis of the research evidence on the effects of context‐based and STS approaches to science teaching. Science Education, 91(3), pp.347-370.
  • Krapp, A., & Prenzel, M. (2011). Research on interest in science: Theories, methods, and findings. International journal of science education33(1), 27-50.
  • Stuckey, M., Hofstein, A., Mamlok-Naaman, R., & Eilks, I. (2013). The meaning of ‘relevance’ in science education and its implications for the science curriculum. Studies in Science Education49(1), 1-34.
  • Wilson, F., Evans, S., & Old, S. (2015). Context-led science courses: A review. Research Matters: A Cambridge Assessment Publication19, 7-13.
  1. Planning lessons: the EPIBA approach
  2. Clearly defined lesson objectives
  3. The Do Now
  4. Activate prior knowledge
  5. Challenge your students
  6. Use a context
  7. Challenge all students appropriately 
  8. Use direct instruction to provide clear explanations
  9. Model abstract ideas in concrete ways
  10. Use questioning to probe understanding
  11. Check for understanding – give and get feedback
  12. Troubleshooting – why did it go wrong?