Looking for a great way to encourage students to accept responsibility for their learning? Learning contracts may accomplish that goal more effectively than almost any other instructional strategy. True, they aren’t viable when classes are large, and they aren’t likely to work well when students are very dependent learners. But for independent study projects, in small seminars and for more mature learners, they can effectively demonstrate what it means to take charge of one’s learning.
Ginsberg and Wlodkowski write that learning contracts “personalize the learning process and provide maximum flexibility for content, pace, process and outcome. They usually detail in writing what will be learned, how the learning will be accomplished, the period of time involved, and frequently the evaluation criteria for assessing the learning.” (Diversity and Motivation: Culturally Responsive Teaching in College, 2nd ed., p. 154)
Students benefit the most when they construct the contract, but if students have never done so, teachers should expect that doing so will require considerable guidance and feedback. Creating them involves a process of revision and refinement.
Typically the learning contract is divided into five sections: 1) the learning goal or objective, which articulates what is going to be learned; 2) the resources, strategies, and activities that will be used to accomplish the learning, or how the student proposes to learn what has been spelled out in the goal; 3) when the learning will be accomplished; 4) what evidence will be presented to demonstrate that the learning has occurred; and 5) the criteria for evaluating the learning. Showing students sample contracts can also be very instructive. Some appear in the book mentioned above on pages 155-8.
Students become independent learners incrementally. That process is expedited when students are given the opportunity to assume some of the responsibility for what they will learn and how. If students aren’t ready for learning contracts or if the instructional setting precludes their use, assignments and activities that contribute to the process can still be used. Teachers might provide students with a learning goal and ask them to propose the methods they might use to accomplish the learning prescribed by the goal. Or, students might be given the goal and approaches and then be asked to generate appropriate assessment criteria.
However, if students are ready and there’s a way learning contracts can be used, what students learn by creating and then using them can contribute much to making them independent, autonomous and self-directed learners.