Learning Contracts

Learning contracts are agreements between a teacher (or teaching team) and a learner (or occasionally a group of learners). They normally concern issues of assessment, and provide a useful mechanism for reassuring both parties about whether a planned piece of work will meet the requirements of a course or module: this is particularly valuable when the assessment is not in the form of a set essay title, or an examination.

This page concentrates on the commonest application, relating to assessment. Obviously, there are occasions on which the contract is much wider, specifying what the client/learner wants to learn; these are more common in consultancy agreements and go beyond the purview of this site, which is principally concerned with the institutional delivery of learning.

However, there is more to the principle of the learning contract than a convenient administrative device. It is based on the principle of the learners being active partners in the teaching-learning system, rather than passive recipients of whatever it is that the teacher thinks is good for them. It is about their ownership of the process.

Merely using the technique, however, does not automatically bring about this ownership and involvement. As Collins (1991) has pointed out, the contractual bargain is often one-sided, with all the obligations being on the side of the student, and none on the part of the teacher. The teacher does not even undertake unequivocally to award a pass mark to the resultant work: she will do so only if in her judgement it meets the required criteria.

After all, all assessments are based on a contract, which usually remains implicit. It is of the order of:

"The teacher undertakes that:
if the student produces such work as the teacher specifies,
to a standard which the teacher will determine (whether or not that standard is based on fixed criteria or personal whim, and regardless of whether the standard is known to the student),
the teacher will award a mark to that work.
The student indicates acceptance of this 'agreement' by producing the work"

That is a slightly unfair version, but only slightly. Matters can be improved by being explicit and transparent about the marking scheme. Learning contracts seek to make explicit this implicit deal, which should at least expose any one-sidedness, and ideally provide a basis for addressing it.

Note that since the introduction of university tuition fees in the UK, there is some concern—and debate—about the alleged rise of consumerism and an "entitlement culture" among students, much of which centres around a changed understanding of the wider implicit contract between the student and the university; this provides another reason for clarification.

Initially, there may be considerable student resistance to learning contracts: they are not part of the rules of the educational game they are familiar with. The common cry is, "Just tell me what to do!" Nevertheless, if their negotiation is taken seriously (by the teacher as well as the student, and recognising the time which has to be put into tutorial consultations about them), they are very valuable ways of focusing attention on things which matter.

Form of the Contract

There are many forms which the contract can take (See Anderson, Boud and Sampson, 1996 for a guide), but the following represents a general example:

Student name and details

This is pretty obvious

Course name and level

So is this, but the course level is important, because that sets the expectations of the piece of work: the level criteria should be set out clearly somewhere—perhaps in the handbook.

Outcomes to be addressed

They may not be expressed as outcomes, but this is where the student puts the course requirements about the piece of work.

Form of submission

It could be a project, a portfolio, a video of practice, an object the student has made, a computer program ... If the tutor signs the form, she is agreeing that a submission of this type will be acceptable.

Outline of submission

This is the crunchy bit: this is where the student sets out her intentions for the submission. Much of the rest of the form may be governed by course regulations, but this has to be original. It is a statement of the student's solution to the problem, "How am I going to produce evidence that I can meet these outcomes?"

Resources and assistance

So far, the contract has been one-sided, as Collins comments. This is where the student can request input from the tutor, such as looking over a draft, or providing copies of some material not in the library, or an introduction to an interviewee.

This section is also the place to clarify complicating issues, such as collaborative work in a small group, and how marks are to be apportioned.

Signatures

These are what make the magic work: the contract is not worth anything until it has been agreed and signed by both student and tutor. Usually the student keeps the main copy to submit with the completed work, but the tutor can keep one on file for security purposes if necessary.

The tutor's signature makes explicit the implicit bargain above. She is agreeing that if the student delivers what is promised, credit will be awarded.

Practically, then, the contract allows for considerable variation in the form of submission, and clarifies in advance such thorny problems as collaborative working and how much help the student can expect from the tutor.

At the level of principle, however, it changes the student from being merely reactive, in the sense of responding to set demands to produce a 4,000-word assignment on this or that, to being proactive in taking the initiative in proposing work to meet the requirements.

Or that is the way it ought to work. In further education in particular, there has been a rise in recent years of the use of a version of the learning contract as simply another stick to beat the student with. There is no sense in which it acts then as a channel for the student to communicate preferences, needs, or special interests—instead it is transformed into a list of demands from the college and or the course to which the student is obliged to sign up. While this was once a way of making explicit the institution's expectations about behaviour for disruptive or recalcitrant students, it has drifted into a routine measure to put into practice Freire's "banking" model of education.

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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