Joseph R. Codde, Ph.D., Professor


Copyright 1996, 2006 Joseph R. Codde, Ph.D. All rights reserved


This article explores the use of learning contracts and the benefits they offer students. Education has to be an active rather than passive process. To be active, students must participate in the process of education and become more independent and responsible for their own learning. They must develop the skills of self-directed inquiry. The use of learning contracts allows the student to structure their own learning; to be an active participant in the process of education.


"Contract learning is, in essence, an alternative way of structuring a learning experience: It replaces a content plan with a process plan." Malcolm S Knowles (1991, p.39).

As college instructors, our challenge is to provide an academic environment that encourages learning and active participation by students. To achieve that goal, we have numerous tools at our disposal including learning contracts. Learning contracts, which are often used in self-directed study, independent learning, and the classroom, allow students to be more involved in their learning -- to become active participants in the creation of knowledge rather than passive recipients.

Traditionally, we as faculty determine the semester assignments and assessment tools without input from students. We give assignments, quizzes, mid-terms, finals, and have students write papers. In turn, we reward the student with a grade for completing the work. Newcomb & Warmbrod (1974) note that, "While current grading practices provide a grade as a motivator, these same practices cause anxiety, frustration, and drive some students to cheat. It is not uncommon for students to study rigorously in hopes of getting a 4.0 only to find that no matter how well they perform, only a predetermined percentage of the class can achieve a 4.0. Consider the effect grades have on students when they score so low on the first test that there is no hope (or incentive) for them to achieve excellence in the course. In essence, the motivational effect of the final grade is greatly reduced once the student realizes it will be impossible to reach his or her goal" (p.2).

Contract learning is an alternative way of structuring a learning experience: It replaces a content plan with a process plan (Knowles, 1986). According to Knowles (1980), contract learning solves, or at least reduces, the problem of dealing with wide differences within any group of adult learners. Characteristically, in our field we get people with widely varying backgrounds, previous experience, interests, learning styles, life patterns, outside commitments, and learning speeds. Didactic teachers usually cope with this situation by "aiming at the middle," with the hope that those at the lower end will not get too far behind and that those at the upper end will not get too bored (Knowles, 1980). The solution is to help students structure their own learning. We can meet the needs of these widely varied students by the use of learning contracts.


Webster (1991) defines contract as, "an agreement between one or more parties for the doing or not doing of something specified" (p. 295-296). Webster (1991) also defines learning as, "knowledge acquired by systematic study in any field of scholarly application" (p. 772). By combining these two definitions we can define contract learning as an agreement between a student and institution or faculty member to acquire knowledge systematically either in the classroom or independently. The problem with this definition is that it has very legalistic connotations. Many people object or rebel to this and, therefore, many users of learning contracts call them "learning plans", "learning commitments", "study plans", "learning agreements", or "self-development plans" (Knowles, 1986).

Simply stated, the learning contract specifies what is to be learned, how it is to be learned and how learning will be verified (Fox , 1983). Neal R. Berte (1975) posits that learning contracts, though not binding legal documents in the strictly legal sense of contract, are written agreements or commitments reached between a student and a faculty member regarding a particular amount of student work or learning on the one hand and the amount of institutional reward or credit for this work on the other. A more detailed statement of what a learning contract specifies is needed, however, if we as faculty members are going to use them. I found that Malcolm Knowles provides the best information. According to Knowles (1986) a learning contract typically specifies:

1. the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values to be acquired by the learner (learning objectives);

2. how these objectives are to be accomplished (learning resources and strategies);

3. the target date for their accomplishment;

4. what evidence will be presented to demonstrate that the objectives have been accomplished; and

5. how this evidence will be judged or validated. In academic settings the contract also specifies how much credit is to be awarded and what grade is to be given (p.38).

Thompson and Poppen (1972, p.118) propose that contract grading allows the instructor to incorporate a number of learning principles into grade contracts. They suggest that the following principles are manifested through contract grading (Newcomb & Warmbrod, 1974, p. 3):

1. the learner has both choice and voice in selecting alternatives for meeting learning objectives (the learner is more apt to become totally involved in a project which he or she has helped select and plan);

2. the learner is given opportunities to exercise responsibility through making commitments to complete personal learning goals;

3. personal involvement in learning is stressed through individualized and independent learning activities;

4. the teacher refrains from giving excessive directions (too much direction from the teacher usually results in apathetic conformity, defiance, scapegoating, or withdrawal);

5. the differential learning styles of students are considered in providing alternatives to learning;

6. competition with self is stressed over competition with others, and cooperation with others becomes an acceptable peer learning activity;

7. the learner feels a sense of freedom from the threat of failure;

8. the learning task falls within the learner's range of challenge -- that area where the task is neither too easy nor too difficult and the probability for success is good, but not certain;

9. there are opportunities for novel and stimulating learning experiences;

10. at least some of the purposes, objectives, and expectations of the course are defined in behavioral terms which clarify the learning task;

11. progress is learning depends to a considerable extent on how the learner perceives (through reinforcement or encouragement) the appropriateness of his or her efforts to accomplish the learning objectives, rewarded behaviors are naturally more likely to be repeated;

12. the learner receives feedback on the appropriateness of his or her efforts through the facility he has gained in self-evaluation;

13. learning is generalized to other life situations (generalization is most likely to occur when the learner has achieved the intrinsic reward of feeling a sense of self-satisfaction in achieving his or her objectives).

Contract grading can be particularly useful in a classroom setting. According to Frymier (1965), "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. No one has to try for an "A." Likewise, anyone can try. 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. Students are almost never dissatisfied with grades, whatever they may be" (pp. 263, 264).


Between the seventh and twelfth centuries educational theory evolved in the monastic schools of Europe and towards the end of the twelfth century in universities in Bologna and Paris. This theory or model of education was called "Pedagogy". The term was derived from the Greek words paid (child) and agogus (leading). Pedagogy, therefore, means quite literally the art and science of teaching children. Throughout the centuries this model was very effective in teaching. However, in the 1920s, educators found that there were problems with teaching adults in a pedagogical fashion.

Pedagogy is based upon the premise that the purpose of education is to transmit knowledge and skills. The student is dependent upon the teacher. However, adults today want more than this. For the adult, education is a lifelong process of continuing inquiry and the development of skills needed for self-directed inquiry. Between 1929 and 1948 the Journal of Adult Education carried articles by successful teachers of adults describing ways in which they were teaching adults that deviated from the pedagogical model (Knowles, 1980). In 1968 Malcolm Knowles coined a new word which was to contrast the word pedagogy. The new word, "Andragogy" was being used in Europe and Knowles defined it as the art and science of teaching adults. Andragogy is derived from combining andr of the Greek word aner (meaning "man") and agogus (meaning "leader") (Knowles, 1975).

Contract learning is an approach to education that is most congruent with the assumptions about learners on which the andragogical model is based (Knowles, 1986). One premise of andragogy is that as a person matures his or her self-concept moves from one of being a dependent personality toward one of being a self-directing human being (Cross, 1988). Knowles posits that this self-directed learner has the following needs (1986, p. 41):

1. The need to know. Learners need to understand the need to learn something -- how it will benefit them if they learn it or what the consequences will be if they do not -- before they are willing to invest time and energy in learning it. In the process of drafting a learning contract, learners are subtly challenged to think through why they are undertaking to learn something.

2. The need to be self-directing. The psychological definition of adult is "one who has achieved a self-concept of being responsible for himself or herself -- whose self-perception is that of a self-directing person." And when a person has arrived at self-concept, he or she experiences a deep psychological need to be seen by others and treated by others as being capable of being self-directing. Contract learning at its best involves the learners in making decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, when it will be learned, and whether it has been learned, usually with the help of a facilitator or resource person.

3. The need to have the learners' unique experiences taken into account. It is predictable that in a group of adults the range of experience, both in quantity and in quality, will be greater than in a group of children. Because of their experience, adults have developed different styles of learning, different levels of operation, different needs and interests, different speeds of learning, and different patterns of thought. Hence the importance, particularly with adults, of providing for highly individualized plans for learning. Learning contracts are almost always individualized plans for learning. Five individuals may have the same objective in their contracts and go about accomplishing that objective in five different ways.

4. The need to gear learning to the learners' readiness to learn. Adults become ready to learn something when they experience in their life situation a need to learn it. Since the life situations of any group of adults are different, they become ready to learn different things at different times. Learning contracts provide the flexibility to enable different learners to time their learning according to their readiness to learn.

5. The need to organize learning around life tasks or life problems. Adults have a task-centered or problem-centered orientation to learning, rather than the subject-centered orientation that is characteristic of children. Learning contracts enable learners to state their objectives in terms of tasks or problems that are related to their life situations.

6. The need to tap into intrinsic motivations. Children and youth have been conditioned by their school experience to rely on extrinsic motivators -- pressure from parents, teachers, and the grading system. Although adults respond to some extent to extrinsic motivators (wage increases, job promotions), their deepest motivation comes from such intrinsic motivators as increases in self-esteem, responsibility, creativity, and self-fulfillment. Learning contracts challenge learners to tap into the intrinsic motivators.


In summary, learning contracts are useful tools that encourage students to become active participants in their learning. Education has to be an active rather than passive process. To be active, students must participate in the process of education and become more independent and responsible for their own learning.

There are many benefits to the use of learning contracts. They provide a way to deal with the wide differences among any group of learners, increase student motivation for learning, facilitate the development of mutual respect between the educator and participants, provide for more individualized mode of instruction, and foster the skills of self-directedness (Knowles, 1986).

Our traditional methods of teaching allow students to be passive in their education. They attend classes and the knowledge is presented to them by the instructor. To be active, students must participate in the process of education and become more independent and responsible for their own learning. They must develop the skills of inquiry. The use of learning contracts allows the student to structure their own learning; to be an active participant in the process of education.


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Dr. Joseph Codde, Professor and Director, Educational Technology Certificate Program
Counseling, Educational Psychology, and Special Education Department
440 Erickson Hall
East Lansing, MI 48824
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