Background: There is increasing interest in the role of context in medical education, with the conjecture that learning in a clinical context may be helpful for later recall of knowledge. Although this may be true in a general sense, at a closer look it appears that the notion of context is not well substantiated in the medical education literature and that the concept is not clearly defined. Effects of context on learning appear to depend on type of learning task, the relationship or interaction between the context and the learning material, and motivational features of the context. Context is often implicitly regarded as a uniform concept but conceptual analysis shows that a distinction can be made in several dimensions.
Results: In this paper, we identify 3 different dimensions of context: a physical dimension, representing the environmental characteristics; a semantic dimension, reflecting how well the context contributes to the learning task, and a commitment dimension, representing the amount of commitment (in terms of motivation and responsibility) that is generated by the context. On these dimensions, context can be ordered from reduced (providing few cues, little meaning, little commitment) to enriched (many cues, much meaning, high commitment).
Conclusion: This model can serve a dual purpose: first, to disentangle several aspects of educational contexts (e.g. as high in meaning but low in commitment), and second, to provide a theoretical framework to generate research on the influence of different contexts in education on students' learning.