A learning contract is a negotiated agreement in which a student develops an individualized learning plan with their instructor’s support. Learning contracts provide students with choice about how to complete class assignments within the framework of the course learning objectives (Knowles, 1986). There are five key elements of a learning contract (Knowles, 1987):
Learning contracts allow students to relate course assignments to their interests and real-world experiences, promoting internal motivation. This is especially important for adult learners who seek to make connections between what they are learning and personal and professional advancement (Knowles, 1986).
While an instructor could build student choice of assignment into a course without learning contracts, the contracts provide a level of self-direction that initiates a cycle of positive behaviors that Frank and Scharff (2013) call the “self-direction cycle” (p. 48). In this cycle, following the learning contract causes students to have greater levels of motivation and engagement with the course, leading to improvements in academic performance that foster greater self-efficacy, spurring the cycle to repeat itself, making learners more self-directed. In this way, learning contracts help students develop both internal motivation and self-direction, skills that benefit students academically and will help them succeed in their careers.
While Knowles (1986) provides a model for robust learning contracts that address all aspects of the course, I have found that restricting them to specific assignments is more practical in my classes. I might provide a choice of topic or deadline for a particular assignment or let each student choose between writing a paper and preparing a presentation (to demonstrate mastery). The learning contract may offer specific selections among which the student may choose as well as let the student propose another option of their own.
At the outset of the term, I provide students with the learning contract template. In the first week or two of class, students review the course topics and indicate their selections on their individual learning contracts. As a result, the process of completing the learning contract requires students to look ahead at assignments and due dates, an activity that promotes self-direction but that many would otherwise skip.
Students submit their completed learning contracts to me for review. Most are fine and quickly approved. A few propose organizations or topics outside the scope of the course; I provide feedback, and the student submits a revised learning contract. Students then use the completed learning contract as their guideline for the assignments throughout the term. The instructor should develop a plan for outreach to any students who do not submit a proposed learning contract. Ways to incentivize timely submission include making the proposed learning contract itself a (small) graded assignment, delaying grading associated assignments until the learning contract is complete, or both.
Depending on the course, the learning contract may cover some or all major assignments. It may provide flexibility with assignment deadlines or may not, again depending on the course. In a six-week class, for example, there is less time for flexible deadlines than in a 12-week class. You can download an example of a template for a learning contract here.
First, put yourself in your students’ shoes. Which types of choices would be most interesting or useful to them? For example, a class comprised largely of working professionals will appreciate being able to apply what they are learning to situations that they face in their careers. They also will appreciate flexibility with due dates. How might you provide options in at least one of these areas in a way that is consistent with achieving the course learning objectives?
Also consider students’ prior knowledge on the subject. Early in the term, students in an introductory-level course may not be able to make meaningful choices about their learning paths. Asking them to do so may increase their cognitive load—already high if they are new to online classes—and actually impair learning. By contrast, students who have completed at least a few courses in a degree program should have the ability—and likely also the desire—to take some control over their learning paths.
Finally, be honest about your own commitment to this approach. Learning contracts can be time-consuming to initiate and review. To at least partially address this concern, allowing flexibility within limits can benefit students while still maintaining consistency in grading. For instance, students might have the choice of writing a paper or creating a web page for a particular assignment. The grading rubric for both assignments can be the same, addressing substance, research, and verbal proficiency (or the criteria that are most relevant to your course). An added bonus of allowing students to, for example, write about an organization of their choosing is a reduction in the ability to plagiarize. I have dealt with fewer academic integrity issues since implementing learning contracts. Allowing flexibility with respect to due dates also spreads out the grading burden, reducing the crunch of receiving every student’s paper at the same time.
Start small. Both you and your students will need to adjust to this new way of approaching the course, so begin with simple choices. For example, allow students to choose from a list of options (rather than create their own) or provide a case study assignment and allow each student to select the organization that they will analyze.
Consider using a name other than “contract.” While the literature I reviewed in my doctoral study employed that terminology, some students may be taken aback by the serious-sounding nomenclature. At the same time, we do want students to take the learning plan seriously, so there is an argument to be made for asking them to enter into a contract. Again, you decide what you think would work best for your students and in your course.
Reflect and adapt. As with anything new that you try in the classroom, reflect at the end of the term on how things went. Did students seem to appreciate taking control of their learning? Did the level of choice seem appropriate? What one thing might you adjust to improve the experience for your students, yourself, or both next term?
The feedback my students have provided on learning contracts has been nearly uniformly positive. Students report being more motivated to complete assignments when they are able to have some level of control over their learning path. Being able to relate what they are learning to the “real world” and their individual lives increases engagement with the course material and leads to deeper learning. In sum, using learning contracts is a student-centered teaching approach that has the potential to increase student motivation and engagement in online classes.
Frank, T., & Scharff, L. F. V. (2013). Learning contracts in undergraduate courses: Impacts on student behaviors and academic performance. Journal of The Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 13(4), 36–53. https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/josotl/article/view/3453
Knowles, M. S. (1986). Using learning contracts. Jossey-Bass.
Knowles, M. S. (1987). Enhancing HRD with contract learning. Training & Development Journal, 41(3), 62–63.
Lynn McNamara, EdD, is an adjunct professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University.