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The Benefits of Learning Contracts, and How to Design One

"Allowing students to decide which grade they wish to strive for, which activities they will engage in, and how they will demonstrate that they have satisfactorily completed their studies permits a teacher to seize upon powerful motivating forces within individual students ... This notion shifts responsibility for learning from the teacher to the student, but at the same time offers an incentive by insuring success under known conditions. Students are challenged without being threatened." (Frymier, 1965)

A learning contract is a collaboratively written agreement between a student and a faculty member that delineates what is to be learned, how it will be learned, and how that learning will be evaluated.

There are many different ways to design a learning contract, incorporating as many or as few elements as you wish. Despite this flexibility, there is a general format which the majority of learning contracts follow:

The extent to which a faculty member is involved in this process is largely where variations arise in the format. Some faculty members like to provide lists of objectives, activities and assignments which students are to choose from, taking a more active hand in the direction a student is heading. Others prefer to take a more hands-off approach, allowing students to define almost the entire contract from some thematic focus the instructor has provided.

View a sample learning contract (PDF).

Learning contracts may even be collaboratively developed between students, often facilitated through the Group and Discussion Board features of myWPI. And though the above examples are both in table format, many learning contracts take a simple narrative format, making both Excel and Word appropriate choices for their design.

Benefits of Addressing

Benefits derived from using learning contracts Why is this the case?
The use of learning contracts leads students to become more self-directing and more responsible for their own learning.

Learners are more apt to be involved and motivated in projects that they help to select, plan, design, and evaluate.

Consequently, they take more responsibility for their learning, place less emphasis on competition with other students in the class, and become more personally involved with the material because of their personal commitment to its completion.

Students, especially adult learners, learn material more deeply and permanently if they learn it through projects of their own choosing instead of being taught it.

When students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, which includes what is being learned and how it is being learned, that learning takes place more deeply, and at a more personal level.

To that end, learning that takes place under the auspices of a learning contract has been shown to transfer more completely to the workplace because of the relevance the in-class work took on when it was first completed.

Learning contracts, more so than any other type of instructional method, create the conditions for individualized instruction.

Because learning contracts are individually developed, they are by their very nature focused on the content-specific needs, interests, and wants of each learner in a class.

Furthermore, students are not burdened with learning material of little consequence to them; rather, they are able to focus their energy and efforts on addressing content and practical situations of direct relevance to them. This adds to the already motivating nature of the learning contract, and allows for an immediate transfer of learning.

Lastly, learning contracts are especially effective for online learners whose relative isolation from other students often leads to unenthusiastic group work when it is assigned. If the student has a choice in how that group work is conducted, and what the topic will be, research indicates that the work completed meets expectations more regularly. (Twigg, 2003).


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Brockett, R. G., & Hiemstra, R. (1991). Self-direction in adult learning: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice. New York: Routledge.

Caffarella, R. S. (1983) Fostering self-directed learning in post-secondary education: The use of learning contracts. Lifelong Learning: An Omnibus of Practice and Research, 7(3), 7-10, 25, 26.

Chickering. A. W. (1977). Evaluation in the context of contract learning. Journal of Personalized Instruction, 2(2), 96-100.

Cross, K.P. (1981). Adults as Learners. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass.

Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1972). Practical approaches to individualizing instruction: Contracts and other effective teaching strategies. West Nyack, NY: Parker.

Frymier, J.R. (1965). The nature of educational method. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Garrison, D.R. (1997). Self-directed learning: Toward a comprehensive model. Adult Education Quarterly, (48)1, 18-33.

Hiemstra, R., & Sisco, B. (1990). Individualizing instruction: Making learning personal, empowering, and successful. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hom, H.L., Jr., & Murphy, M.D. (1983). Low achiever's performance: The positive impact of a self- directed goal. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 11, 275-285.

Knowles, M. S. (1986). Using learning contracts. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taylor, B. (1995). Self-directed learning. Paper presented at the Combined Meeting of the Great Lakes and Southeast International Reading Association, Nashville, TN [ED 395 287].

Tough, A. (1979). The adult's learning projects. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Twigg, C.A. (2003, September/October). Improving learning and reducing costs: New models of online learning. EDUCAUSE Review, 28-38.

Wald, R. (1978). Confronting the learning contract. Alternative Higher Education, 2(3), 223-231.

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Last modified: May 07, 2008, 14:07 EDT
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