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Guide to Contextual Learning Projects

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Introduction: Creating Contextual Learning Projects

Contextual learning projects engage students in academic work applied to a context related to their lives, communities, workplaces or the wider world. Projects may range in length from a single class period to a semester-long exploration. Projects may take place in after-school or summer programs or in work-based learning programs as well as in a regular classroom.

This guide explores ideas and principles for creating contextual learning projects. We hope this guide is useful to you, whether you are experienced in contextual learning, and looking for ways of deepening and enriching your work or whether you are just beginning to explore the design of contextual learning projects. We also hope it is useful whether you are already an enthusiastic supporter of contextual learning or whether you are just looking at whether contextual learning is right for your school or program and weighing the pros and cons of this approach to learning.

This guide is based on the Contextual Learning Portal, a website -– -- that provides an informal database of projects submitted by teachers, after-school program leaders and others from around Massachusetts. On the Contextual Learning Portal website, viewers can browse projects by project title, subjects, tags, frameworks, keywords or other criteria. Viewers can look at entire projects or can browse particular sections from the “project template” such as project themes, instructional techniques or assessment techniques. The Contextual Learning Portal uses a project template that includes seven tabs with information about the project. This template is flexible and allows users to modify or omit sections as needed.

  1. Basics: Basic information about the project, including project title, theme, subject areas involved, team members, technical support required, and any adaptations required;
  2. Key Questions: Questions about the context of the project, including the “key questions” addressed by the project, connections to the community, and outcomes, products or services provided to the community;
  3. Frameworks and skills used;
  4. Units / Activities included in the project;
  5. Instructional Techniques used in the project;
  6. Assessment Techniques used in the project;
  7. Tags (such as “History” or “Careers” or “Service-Learning” or “Literacy”) to help viewers find the project.

The Contextual Learning Portal was created as a space for school districts, community organizations, non-profit educational groups, and other youth serving agencies to share projects and lessons to support contextual teaching and learning for both teachers and learners. Teachers, youth program instructors and others are welcome to browse and contribute projects.

Visit the Contextual Learning Portal at

This guide walks through various aspects of planning and implementing contextual learning projects, starting with basic questions about getting started and then examining questions about “looking deeper” to make sure that contextual learning projects are effective. The guide includes an appendix with profiles of some of the skill areas and areas of focus – such as health literacy, environmental literacy and civic awareness – often explored in contextual learning projects.

Getting Started:

  • What is the theme and context for your project?
  • What knowledge and skills do you hope students will gain from this project?
  • What mix of formal and informal learning will your project provide?
  • What instructional techniques will you use to support your students in learning?
  • What assessment techniques will you use?

Looking Deeper:

  • Who in your school and community is engaged in work related to the theme you want to pursue?
  • Does this project help students (and families) connect with people, resources and ideas that they may want to explore beyond the life of the project?
  • Is the theme one that will appeal to students?
  • Does this project idea offer enough depth and challenge to let students exercise essential skills in areas such as critical thinking, creative thinking, writing, data analysis, scientific observation or leadership?