#LTHEChat 229: Contextual analysis for inclusive learning and teaching. Led by: @VirnaRossi and @NokuthulaVila16 on 9 March 2022, 8 pm GMT

Jigsaw puzzle with missing piece – via Freepik.com

How can contextual analysis support more inclusive design and teaching practices?

Both at curriculum design stage and at curriculum enactment stage teachers and those supporting learning tend to focus primarily on content and assessment:

  • What do the students ‘need’ to know (on this course, session or workshop)? 
  • How will they be assessed (pass)?

Certainly, we need to clarify the input students need on a course, even in the case of self-directed learning pathways. This can be in the form of themes, or it can be expressed in the form of learning goals. It is also important to identify suitable ways of assessing learning and progress, through various formal and informal formative and summative assessment aligned with the course themes and hoped-for outcomes. But we suggest a different starting point for learning design and enactment: before focussing on content and assessment, we ought to focus on wider contextual factors. There are many interacting contextual factors that affect learning on a course, so we need a 360-degree approach to contextual analysis. 

Know Thyself

First, know thyself. We need to become aware of our own personal context and positionality as academics: we need to see beyond our local contexts and become aware of just how culturally situated our understanding of knowledge, teaching and learning is. We could map our identities and reflect on questions such as: How does my (socio-cultural) background affect my worldview and my professional practice? What are the values that inform my practice currently? It is a good idea to share a positionality statement with students at the start of the course.

Understand our Students and their Context

Second, we need to better understand our students and their context. We must take time to get to know who our students are, what is their context and how this affects their learning. The most favourable and useful time to do this is just before a course starts in week 0 or week 1. Contextual considerations mean that we are giving attention to the learning environment of the students, taken with a broader meaning, in our learning design, using it as a third teacher and allowing it to shape the learning in order to more fully engage the students, because we better understand their positionality. Below you can read an example about culturally respectful students’ needs analysis done at the start of a course to inform more inclusive learning design.

Institutional Factors

Third, we need to recognise what forces are at play in our institutions and what contextual factors have the greatest impact on our learning design. The institutional learning environments available to us (physical and digital) have various affordances that we can exploit in learning design. A very big factor which affects the leeway afforded to teachers when designing and running courses is whether the curriculum is centralised or decentralised: in practice there’s usually a mix of both where some aspects are centrally controlled while others are left up to the academics. Assuming this is the case in your institution, and that you have a certain amount of freedom in the way you develop your course, ask yourself: What physical and learning spaces are available to me and what are their affordances and limitations? What are the local community and the broader national contexts which affect my institution’s priorities, policies and practices? How can I leverage institutional contextual factors to design more inclusive learning?

Disciplinary Context

Fourth, closely linked to this is the disciplinary context. What habits of heart, mind and hand do students need to develop to become proficient in my field? What are the big ideas and thresholds in my discipline? How have they changed in the past 50/20/10/5 years?

There is a two-way relationship between context and learning design: learning design depends on the context; on the other hand, the learning design affects, changes and can create new contexts.

Various contextual dimensions coexist and overlap.
Image copyright: Nat Bobinski and Virna Rossi

It is very important to recognise that all the contextual factors mentioned above are not fixed, on the contrary, they are in constant flux and they considerably overlap. In our busy academic schedule, it pays off to take the time to carry out a contextual analysis to inform our curriculum design at course level. 

Culturally Responsive Students’ Needs Analysis

Of the four dimensions above, the most crucial one is the students’ needs analysis. Nokuthula Vilakati (University of Eswatini) shares how she carries out a culturally responsive students’ needs analysis (as part of a broader contextual analysis) at the start of her courses.

We draw upon tenets of a cultural wealth model (Yosso, 2005) to underpin how we design a survey to get to know students better. An overarching aim is to appreciate the cultural capital that diverse students bring to the course from a non-deficit standpoint. Through the survey, we examine various forms of cultural capital: aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, navigational, and resistance. As a result, we can better explore the talents, strengths, and experiences that students bring with them to enrich their learning environment. We are also able to avoid implicit bias. Academics need to have knowledge of their students for deep human connections to be forged prior to learning. To design the survey, we drew upon prompts suggested by Hall and Kidman, (2004: 333) as follows: 

Who are they? Where are they from? What reasons do they give for enrolling in the course? What background knowledge and skills do they bring to the course? What are the age, gender and ethnic characteristics of the class? What educational and professional qualifications do students already hold? Do the students have a rich work experience, or are they mainly straight from school? What approaches to study do they bring? And what networks already exist among students for peer support in learning?

Therefore, items in the survey include students indicating their preferred names other than the official one; pronouns; other self-identifying cultural markers; available circles of support. Additional items relate to identifying specific challenges likely to impede individual student success then the personalised forms of academic support to be proffered. Based on survey mini data, some of the students are identifiable as ‘high opportunity students,’ who require more personalised forms of learning support (Pacansky-Brock, et al. 2020). In the end, one is likely to be more inclusive in order ‘to leave no student behind.’ 


Students and other learners are our main stakeholder so we need to understand their context and needs in order to design relevant and rich learning experiences that will engage them and help them grow both academically and as human beings. The needs analysis and broader contextual analysis we carry out at the start of learning design might reveal hidden opportunities and is likely to lead us to design more holistic learning experiences and environments where context is king, not content.

References 📗

Bager-Elsborg, A. (2017). Discipline context shapes meaningful teaching: a case study of academic law. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 43. 1-13. 10.1080/0309877X.2017.1377162.

Becher, T. and Trowler, P. (2001) Academic Tribes and Territories: intellectual enquiry and the cultures of disciplines (2nd edition). Buckingham: Open University Press

Gronseth, S. L., Michela, E., & Ugwu, L. O. (2020). Designing for Diverse Learners. In J. K. McDonald & R. E. West, Design for Learning: Principles, Processes, and Praxis. EdTech Books. Retrieved from https://edtechbooks.org/id/designing_for_diverse_learners 

Hall, C., & Kidman, J. (2004). Teaching and Learning: Mapping the Contextual Influences. International Education Journal5(3), 331-343. 

Hailu, M., Mackey, J., Pan, J., & Arend, B. (2016). Turning good intentions into good teaching: Five common principles for culturally responsive pedagogy. In Promoting Intercultural Communication Competencies in Higher Education (pp. 20-53). IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-5225-1732-0.ch002 

Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., and Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education. Current Issues in Education, 21(2).

Stentiford, L. & Koutsouris, G. (2021) What are inclusive pedagogies in higher education? A systematic scoping review, Studies in Higher Education, 46:11, 2245-2261, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1716322

Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8, 69-91.

TweetChat Questions

Q1 – Why is context (of the learner/educator/discipline or institution)  important in the way we design and enact the curriculum?

Q2 –  Personal context: How does your personal context, especially your professional values and experiences, inform your current practice of teaching and/or supporting learners?

Q3 –  Students’ context: How can you find out who your students are and what the students’ context and needs are (for example just before or at the start of your course, session or workshop)?

Q4 –  Institutional context: How do the policies, strategies or initiatives impacting teaching/supporting learning at your institution affect and inform the inclusivity of your learning design?

Q5 –  Discipline context: What are the ‘habits of heart, mind and hand’ typical of your discipline (academic and/or skills)? How have they evolved in recent years?

Q6. In teaching and providing support for learning, (why) should context be king and not content?


Here’s the link to the Wakelet for this chat: https://wke.lt/w/s/Ok0nSX

The Hosts’ Bios 📷

Virna Rossi (@VirnaRossi)

Photo of Virna Rossi
Virna Rossi

Virna is the course leader of the Post-graduate certificate and MA for Creative Courses within Learning and Teaching at Ravensbourne University London. She is a passionate teacher, with 24 years teaching experience in all educational sectors: Primary, Secondary, College (FE), Adult Education, Higher Education. She has worked in the field of university teacher education for 14 years and finds it very rewarding to assist colleagues in developing their teaching practices. 

Virna’s research interests are around inclusive learning design. She hosts the website www.inclusivelearningdesign.com and is currently co-creating a book on inclusive learning design with over 80 contributors from all the continents, including Nokuthula Vilakati. The book is due to be published by Routledge in Summer 2022. 

Her motto is ‘learn to thrive’.

Nokuthula Vilakati (@NokuthulaVila16)

Photo of Nokuthula Vilakati
Nokuthula Vilakati

Nokuthula is currently undertaking a PhD in Education research with the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching, University of Cape Town. Her research focus is on academic staff development for working on curricula for distance and blended learning environments. 

She works for the University of Eswatini, where she has been part of a team undertaking a cross-national research project on rural student transition into higher education. 

This entry was posted in announcement. Bookmark the permalink.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s