Aristotle’s famous law of contiguity (Ross & Aristotle, 1906, p. 111) has held up for literally hundreds of years in the study of human learning and underlies the principle of association behind both behavioral and cognitive learning theory. Application of this law toward the understanding of the role of context suggests that all elements apprehended in the total learning situation—individually, in permutation, and as a collective—become associated with whatever it is that is being learned. Based on his own observations of cats escaping from puzzle boxes Thorndike found general agreement with this position, clarifying, however, that certain features of a situation will assume prepotency with the animal over others based on the utility of those features in escaping from the box (Thorndike, 1914a, p. 134). Furthermore this association of contextual elements will persist from one box to another, and therefore, “due to assimilation of analogous elements between two stimuli, an animal will respond to a novel stimulus in the way it has previously responded to a similar stimulus”(p. 135). Thorndike also explained the teaching of ordinary animal tricks as possible due to bonds contracted with the total situation (p. 136). The psychical reactions investigated by Pavlov were associations that formed between the activity of the dog’s salivary glands and all the properties of sorts of objects present in the surroundings in which the dogs were fed:

In the psychical experiments the animal is excited by properties of the external object which for the work of the salivary glands are unessential, or by even entirely accidental and unimportant properties. Visual, auditory, and even pure olfactory properties of our objects, per se, applied to other objects, remain without any influence on the salivary glands; for they, on their side, possess no business relation, so to speak, to these properties. In our psychical experiments there appear before us as stimulators of the salivary glands not only such properties (appearance, sound, odour, etc.) of the various objects which are unessential for the work of these glands, but absolutely all the surroundings in which these objects are presented to the dog, or the circumstances with which they are connected in real life. For example, the dish in which it is presented, the furniture upon which it is placed, the room, the person accustomed to bring it, and the noises produced by him—his voice, and even the sound of his feet—though at the moment he cannot be seen.”(Pavlov et al., 1928, pp. 51-52)

Watson attributed conditions of the environment as both leading to the formation of new habits in response to environmental shifting (Watson, 1930, p. 197) and to the breakdown of existing habits when established environmental conditions change (Watson, 1914, p. 49). Skinner (1938) leveraged associations with specific properties in the environment to teach animals to respond only when certain properties of the stimulus were present (e.g.,  a tone or a light). This type of learning is referred to as discrimination learning. From his experiments Skinner formulated his laws of discrimination of the stimulus for both type S (p. 170) and type R (p. 228) conditioning.

To set the stage for, and enable the reader to appreciate, his discussion on the functional dynamics of compound conditioned stimuli, Hull (1943) gave an insightful analysis of the complex stimulus condition in the deceptively simple learning situation for a typical Pavlovian conditioned reflex:

As a matter of fact, the buzzer vibration makes up only a small part of the total number of stimulus components involved….Among the many additional components of the conditioned stimulus (S) not ordinarily mentioned are: the fact that the animal’s two ears receive the buzzer vibrations with different intensity or in different phase, depending (1) the direction of the bell from the dog’s head and (2) the orientation of the head at the moment; the pressure of the dog’s feet against the table top upon which it stands; the pressure of each of the three or four restraining bands upon the skin receptors of the dog’s neck, thighs, etc.; the biting of a number of insects which may be hidden in the dog’s hair; the contact of the capsule over the fistula; the pressure of the muzzle against the dog’s head; the pressure of the rubber tube in the dog’s mouth; the odor of the rubber from which the tube is made, together with a large number of miscellaneous odors to which the human olfactory receptors may or may not respond; the multitude of visual stimuli of light, shade, spatial combinations, etc., arising from the laboratory lamps and reflected from millions of points within the dog’s visual field; the proprioceptive stimulation arising from the external and internal muscles of the dog’s eyes as they fixate one object after another about the laboratory; the infinite number and variety of proprioceptive impulses originating in the several parts of the other muscles of the animal’s body as they are employed in the maintenance of the postures taken from moment to moment; the too-little understood stimulations associated with the bodily state resulting from food, water, and sexual privation, rectum and bladder pressure, etc.; and, finally, the preservative traces of all the multitude of stimuli recently acting, whether the stimulus energy is continuing to act at that moment or not. The conditioned stimulus in the experiment under consideration includes all of the immensely complicated stimulus elements here enumerated and many more besides; nevertheless this list, incomplete as it is, should aid the reader somewhat in overcoming the misleading suggestion of singularity and simplicity otherwise likely to be conveyed by the S of the symbol, SHR. (pp. 205-206)

Guthrie (1942, pp. 31-32) used Pavlov’s conditioning technique as an example to reconcile the apparent conflict between his theory of one-trial learning and the obvious need for  practice. By controlling the external stimuli in the situation, Pavlov was able to reduce the number of pairings required to establish an association. Guthrie also applied this to rote learning in the classroom, concluding that “effective practice is conducted in the general situation in which we desire the future performance to be given” (p. 32). Estes’ stimulus sampling theory described a process by which environmental elements are paired, a few at a time, with a response simply by being present in the active stimulus situation when the response is made (W. K. Estes, 1950, p. 96).

Ebbinghaus spoke of involuntary mental reproductions being “brought about through the instrumentality of other, immediately present mental images” (Ebbinghaus, 1913, p. 2). Tolman (1948, pp. 203-205) demonstrated rats’ use of contextual clues (the walls of the room and lights) to navigate a modified maze. He also noted that his rats did not “merely passively receive and react to all the stimuli which [were] physically present” (p. 201) but demonstrated an “active selective character”(p. 201) in the building up of their cognitive maps. The use of tools by Kohler’s chimpanzees was highly contextual. He found that “the best tool easily loses its situational value if it is not visible simultaneously or quasi-simultaneously with the region of the objective” (Kohler, 1951, p. 53).

In cognitive information processing, context has been shown to have a marked effect on pattern recognition, with symbols being interpreted largely based on their surrounding context (Driscoll, 2000, pp. 86-87). It is also generally believed, according to the principle of encoding specificity, that the probability of recall depends on the similarity of context during initial learning and the context during later recall—with the context being defined by (a) the material being learned, (b) the mental set derived from the material, (c) the environmental surroundings, and (d) the mood or prevalent emotion and feeling of the individual during learning and retrieval  (Leahey & Harris, 1997, pp. 147-149). “You recall best if the circumstances of recall match the circumstances of encoding. Even seemingly irrelevant aspects of the learning environment can be encoded along with class information and can later function as retrieval cues.” (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 290) It is also believed that one of the reasons positive transfer is difficult to achieve is because all learning is situated (p. 335).  Richard Spiro and his colleagues (1991) suggest that “revisiting the same material, at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives is essential for attaining the goals of advanced knowledge acquisition” (as cited in Woolfolk, 1998, p. 348).

Ausubel et al. (1978) wrote that “the defining attributes of a concept are learned most readily when the concept is encountered in a large number of different contexts” (p. 113) and that “the proper balance between heterogeneity and consolidation can be achieved by promoting mastering within a given context or subcategory…before proceeding to another context” (p. 113). Transfer is facilitated by learning principles in as wide a variety of situations as possible (p. 200), and learning is enhanced “when the conditioned of practice closely resemble the conditions under which the skill or knowledge in question will eventually be used” (p. 342).

Rumelhart and Norman (1976, pp. 6-7) described two types of information in memory. Some information “is particular to the situation that it represents” (p. 6), other information is more general and is “an abstraction of the knowledge of particular situations to a class of situations” (pp. 6-7). As has already been discussed in chapter 3, the latter type of information is the mental schemas we activate to interpret a given situation. The enacted schema provides a mental context of expectations by way of variables and default values. “The different variables in a schema are often constrained” (p. 9), for example, “we do not expect to find all possible plants or animals on a farm” (p. 9).

A task force of the American Psychological Association assigned to develop a set of guidelines for school redesign and reform recognized the importance of the context of learning by stating that “learning is influenced by environmental factors, including culture, technology, and instructional practices” (Learner-Centered Work Group of the American Psychological Association’s Board of Education Affairs, 1997).  And, a major tenet of constructive learning theory in general is that students should work on real-world problems (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 449) “using multiple representations of content to help students….develop realistic, flexible, and useful mental representations of knowledge that are not artificially limited as a function of having been learned in a particular context” (p. 450). The constructivist approach to memory “recognizes that prior experience and context affect how we encode memories, how we recall things, and what we actually recall” (Alexander, 1996  Greeno et al., 1996, as cited in Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 297).

The importance of context and the environment in Piaget’s theory of development should be quite obvious. External objects are used in the development of the reflexes:

In studying the use of reflexes we have ascertained the existence of a fundamental tendency whose manifestations we shall rediscover at each new stage of intellectual development: the tendency toward repetition of behavior patterns and toward the utilization of external objects in the framework of such repetition. (Piaget, 1963, p. 42)

In fact, external objects and a suitable environment are critical in both the development and preservation of the infant instincts and reflexes. Without a suitable environment, they are lost:

Only practice will lead to normal functioning. That is the first aspect of accommodation: contact with the object modifies, in a way, the activity of the reflex, and, even if this activity were oriented hereditarily to such contact, the latter is no less necessary to the consolidation of the former. This is how certain instincts are lost or certain reflexes cease to function normally, due to the lack of a suitable environment. (Piaget, 1963, p. 30)

Bruner’s theory of discovery learning brings the manipulable external world into a manipulable mental model of the environment:

“Two matters will concern us. The first has to do with the techniques or technologies that aid growing human beings to represent in a manageable way the recurrent features of the complex environments in which they live.” (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 1)


“If we are to benefit from contact with recurrent regularities in the environment, we must represent them in some manner.” (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 2)

In a way, Bruner’s mental models of the environment are similar to Tolman’s cognitive maps in rats. Tolman’s rats were able to use their previously obtained knowledge of a maze to quickly navigate their way to food, once it was introduced into the maze. Similarly the child’s “manipulable model of the environment that is governed by rules of implication….permits him to go beyond the information before him”  (J. S. Bruner, 1964, p. 13). How could any child build such a model without having any experience with the world which he is supposed to model?

Context is also important to perception and interpretation. Heider (1958) explained that a stimulus “which is ambiguous as long as it is given singly, may become unequivocal with the addition of further data” (p. 51) and that it is the world outside of a person that is “the source of many events that are evaluated by the person in terms of their causal and affective significance” (p. 51). These evaluations lead to understanding of causal forces and a perception of self-worth and self-efficacy. Bandura (1977a) noted that context is critical in the development of self-efficacy inasmuch as independent mastery in varied context promotes authentic personal efficacy:

The more varied the circumstances in which threats are mastered independently, the more likely are success experiences to authenticate personal efficacy and to impede formation of discriminations that insulate self-perceptions from disconfirming evidence. (p. 202)

Vygotsky gave great emphasis to the importance of context when he declared the basic law of historical human development to be “that human beings are created by the society in which they live and that it represents the determining factor in the formation of their personalities” (Vygotsky, 1994c, p. 176). Although he viewed development to be “conditioned by outward influences” (p. 64) and “the function of socio-cultural experience of the child” (p. 64), he also described it as being subject to, and a convergence of, both internal (biological) and external (social) factors:

Only at a certain level of the internal development of the organism does it become possible to master any of the cultural methods. Also an organism internally prepared absolutely requires the determining influence of the environment in order to enable it to accomplish that development. Thus, at a certain stage of its organic development the child masters speech. At another stage he masters the decimal system. (Vygotsky, 1994b, pp. 63-64)

According to Vygotsky, situational constraints are predominant in the life of the young child (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 96). Lewin demonstrated “the great difficulty a small child has in realizing that he must first turn his back to a stone in order to sit on it” (p. 96). This predomination of situational constraints continues until freedom is found through learning to act in a cognitive realm, which is largely developed through imaginative play:

Action in imaginary situation teaches the child to guide her behavior not only by immediate perception of objects or by the situation immediately affecting her but also by the meaning of this situation. Experiments and day-to-day observation clearly show that it is impossible for very young children to separate the field of meaning from the visual field because there is such intimate fusion between meaning and what is seen. Even a child of two years, when asked to repeat the sentence “Tanya is standing up” when Tanya is sitting in front of her, will change it to “Tanya is sitting down.”” (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 96-97)

In play, “the child sees one thing but acts differently in relation to what he sees” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 96). “Thus, a condition is reached in which the child begins to act independently of what he sees” (p. 96).  When such a condition is reached however, the environment does not, by any means, go away, but the relationship between the child and the environment change. Paired with limited cognitive resources, objects in the environment can be used to assist a child in solving inner problems—e.g., by use of task-irrelevant objects such as “paper, pins, string, [or] small shot” (Vygotsky, 1994b, p. 60). With the acquisition of speech and graphics systems, the child becomes able to employ “cultural mnemonics” (pp. 60-61) to mediate connections between forms.[1] And through the use of tools and speech, he masters “not only…the items of cultural experience but the habits and forms of cultural behaviour, [and] the cultural methods of reasoning” (p. 57). Through speech the child “begins to master his surroundings…[and produce] new relations with the environment in addition to the new organization of behavior itself”(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 25). Through use of tools he interacts with the environment, learns the ways of his culture, and is changed himself. Vygotsky’s close associate and collaborator, Alexander Luria, stated it this way,

The tools used by man not only radically change his conditions of existence, they even react on him in that they effect a change in him and in his psychic condition. In the complicated inter-relations with his surroundings his organization is being differentiated and refined; his hand and his brain assume definite shapes, a series of complicated methods of conduct are being evolved, with the aid of which man adapts himself more perfectly to the surrounding world.

No development—that of the child included—in the condition of modern civilized society can be reduced merely to the development of natural inborn processes and the morphological changes conditioned by the same; it includes, moreover, that social change of civilized forms and methods which help the child in adapting itself to the conditions of the surrounding civilized community.” (Luria, 1994, p. 46)

Bandura also descried environmental influences as “partly [determining] which forms of behavior are developed and activated” (Bandura, 1989, p. 5). He also found that moral judgments are influenced by context:

Self-directed influences are not governed solely by moral standards. Actions give rise to self-reactions through a process of moral reasoning in which conduct is evaluated in relation to environmental circumstances as well as personal standards. Situations with moral implications contain many decisional ingredients that not only vary in importance but may be given lesser or greater weight depending upon the particular constellation of events in a given moral predicament. Thus, for example, judgments of the reprehensibility of conduct will vary depending upon the nature of the transgression; the degree of norm violation; the contexts in which it is performed; the perceived situational and personal motivators for it; the immediate and long-range consequences of the action; whether it produces personal injury or property damage; and the characteristics of those toward whom the action is directed and their perceived blameworthiness. (p. 52)

Given the contextual relativity of moral judgments, an important contribution Bandura has made toward the preservation of values in society is an understanding of the role that media play in creating a symbolic environment:

The video system has become the dominant vehicle for disseminating symbolic environments both within and across societies. Whereas previously, modeling influences were largely confined to the behavior patterns exhibited in one’s immediate environment, television has vastly expanded the range of models to which members of society are exposed day in and day out. By drawing on these modeled patterns of thought and behavior, observers can transcend the bounds of their immediate environment. New ideas and social practices are now being rapidly diffused by symbolic modeling within a society and from one society to another. Whether it be thought patterns, values, attitudes, or styles of behavior, life increasingly models the media (Bandura,1986; Pearl, Bouthilet, & Lazar, 1982). (Bandura, 1989, p. 22)

The focus of situated learning is on legitimate peripheral participation, contextualized in communities of practice in which “activities, tasks, functions, and understandings do not exist in isolation [but are] part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 53):

These systems of relations arise out of and are reproduced and developed within social communities, which are in part systems of relations among persons. The person is defined by as well as defines these relations. Learning thus implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations.” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 53)

These same relations are true in activity theory, in which expansive learning (Engestrom, 1987) takes place in an everyday, real-world context, such as the workplace (Engestrom, 2001).

The position of cognitive apprenticeship theory regarding context is made clear in its name. “The term apprenticeship helps to emphasize the centrality of activity in learning and knowledge and highlights the inherently context-dependent, situated, and enculturating nature of learning” (J. S. Brown et al., 1989, p. 39). In considering the context provided by school classrooms, proponents of cognitive apprenticeship raise two concerns: (a) that classroom tasks do not supply necessary contextual features of authentic activity, and (b) that students come to rely on features in the classroom context that is foreign to the authentic activity:

Classroom tasks, therefore, can completely fail to provide the contextual features that allow authentic activity. At the same time, students may come to rely, in important but little noticed ways, on features of the classroom context, in which the task is now embedded, that are wholly absent from and alien to authentic activity. (J. S. Brown et al., 1989, p. 34)

Similar to Vygotsky’s description of using external objects to solve inner problems (Vygotsky, 1994b, p. 60), cognitive apprenticeship theory describes how a portion of the cognitive task can be offloaded to the environment by manipulating available external objects (J. S. Brown et al., 1989, pp. 35-36). Two other key characteristics of cognitive apprenticeship are the social context in which learning takes place and the situated learning of tasks. Benefits of the social context are (from A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 2) (a) learners have access to models of expertise, often more than one; (b) learners understand from observing these models that tasks may be carried out in more than one way; and (c) learners are able to observe other learners with varying levels of skill and set benchmarks for their own progress. Benefits of the situated learning of tasks are (from A. Collins et al., 1991, p. 16) (a) the situated environment reflects multiple uses of knowledge being learned, (b) learners understand the purposes or uses of knowledge being learned, (c) learners actively use knowledge while learning, (d) learners learn the conditions of application, and (e) learners are able to abstract knowledge through multiple contexts. Table 9 summarizes the local principles from the theories reviewed that are subsumed by the universal principle context.


Table 9

Principles of Learning Subsumed by the Universal Principle of Context

Theory Group   Local principles




Law of contiguity (things experienced together become associated)



Features of a situation

Assimilation: analogous elements between stimulus situations

Bonds contracted with the total situation



All surroundings and properties of objects come to stimulate an anticipatory salivary reflex



Break down in habit with change of conditions (e.g., removal to another room)



The law of the discrimination of the stimulus in type R



Functional dynamics of compound conditioned stimuli



Practice is necessary to the extent that the response must be elicitable from a variety of situations



Effective sample of stimulus elements on a given learning trial


Cognitive   Ebbinghaus:

Mental states are brought about through the instrumentality of other, immediately present mental images



Active selection of significant stimuli

Use of contextual cues to navigate a modified maze



Situational value of a tool


Cognitive Information Processing:

Effect of context on pattern recognition

Probability of later recall depends on the similarity of context during initial learning and the context during later recall

Vocabulary best learned in context

Positive transfer is difficult to achieve because learning is situated

Advanced knowledge acquisition requires revisiting the same material at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives



The defining attributes of a concept are learned most readily when the concept is encountered in a large number of different contexts

Multicontextual learning facilitates the abstraction of commonality and strengthens the generality and transferability a concept

Balance between heterogeneity and consolidation

Transferability depends on application of a principle to as many specific contexts as possible during learning

Learning is enhanced when the conditions of practice closely resemble the conductions under which the skill or knowledge will be used


Schema Theory:

Some information in memory is particular to the situation it represents, other information is more general

Particular information is encoded with constant values substitute for variables of a general scheme

Variables in a schema are constrained

Default variable values



Constructive   General:

Environmental factors, culture, technology, and instructional practices

One way of creating student-centered learning environments is by presenting content in several contexts

Real-world context (accepting complexity)

Learning free of artificial context

Prior experience and context affect how we encode memories



Generalizing assimilation

Contact with the environment is necessary for the preservation, development, and coordination of reflexes

Utilization of external objects in the development of the reflexes

Signals developed through physical and visual contact with objects in the environment



Child’s manipulable model of the environment and going beyond the information present

Structure of a subject

Language provides a release from immediacy

Recurrent features of complex environments



Human   Attribution Theory:

Otherwise impossible interpretation becomes possible through additional data

The world outside the person



Independent mastery in varied context promotes authentic personal efficacy






Cultural improvement of psychological functions

Solving inner problems by means of exterior objects

The organism masters the means of cultural behavior supplied by the environment

Cultural mnemonics (the ABX triangle)

Development is conditioned by outward influences

The psychogenesis of cultural forms of behavior

Human beings are created by the society in which they live and it represents the determining factor in the formation of their personalities

Situational constraints of the young child

Freedom from external things through learning to act in the cognitive realm

Use of tools

The child produces relations with the environment through speech and tool use

Role of object and social environment in development



Environmental influences on behavior

Symbolic environment created by media (e.g., video games, TV, etc.)

Judgments of conduct influenced, in part, by context


Situated learning:

Legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice

Systems of relations


Activity theory:

Every day, real-world context


Cognitive apprenticeship:

Reliance on classroom v. authentic context features

Off-loading part of the cognitive task to the environment

Learner’s reliance on whatever context is available

“Indexicalized” representations

Context-dependent nature of learning

Social context of learning

Situated environment reflects multiple uses of knowledge being learned

Students understand the purposes or uses of knowledge being learned

Active use of knowledge while learning

Students learn conditions of application

Abstraction of knowledge through multiple contexts


[1] I have taken to calling this the ABX triangle, which depicts the association between A and B as being mediated by a cultural mnemonic X. This same triangle—later labeled by Vygotsky (1978, p. 40) as SRX to represent a mediated act in place of a simple stimulus-response association—is the same triangle that Engestrom (1987, p. 22) used as a precursor to his triangular model of human activity.

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