I’ve been tweaking the concept of learning contracts for a number of semesters now. Thanks to some tremendous feedback from scholars must smarter than I, I think I’m almost where I want to be with it.
Education the Right Way: Learning Contracts
My take on learning contracts is that they are a contract the student makes with himself/herself. It takes me completely out of the picture in terms of grading/assessment. That’s a powerful statement if you think of it – to tell the student that the assessment of their learning is completely up to them. And that it’s contractual. It really does work (trust me!) I’ve had students fail themselves and show up next semester. I’ve had students give themselves a D or a C when they richly deserved it. I have yet to need to adjust a student’s grade down. Did you read that? I HAVE YET TO ADJUST A STUDENT’S GRADE DOWN!! I have occasionally had to adjust grades up because students are too hard on themselves.
The Best Education Gift
Giving students this sense of ownership is, in my opinion, the best gift an educator can give a student. Control. Autonomy. So, how do I do it?
I outline the A-B-F grading plan that they must abide by. I think the C and D grades are bullshit. I mean, really, what is a D? Sort of failing? Nonsense, either you failed or you didn’t. That’s like sort of drowning or a sort of heart attack. And a C? That’s mediocre. And mediocre should not be rewarded. It won’t be in my class. I explain that an F means failure (they did not meet the obligations in their learning contract). I explain that B means competency (they met a minimum bar). I explain that A means mastery. This, to me, means their body of work can be used by me and others as an example of the goal that should be achieved. I want them to understand it is not just going through the motions (to me, that’s a failure), but that it is the best business experience – one that I want to share with subsequent classes as an example of what an A looks like. Something that sets them apart, something that job interviewers want to know more about. Something that is contagious, infectious, deliberate, and glorious.
I then provide them this form: Learning Contract Winkel. I walk them through it:
1. the objectives are some general objectives I have set for the course.
2. They need to develop some strategies to achieve the objective, and some resources they need to be able to achieve the objective (I will give them a generic choice or two)
3. They need to decide what to assess (this takes the place of the traditional assignments). Let them choose!!! I promise it won’t hurt to give up this control (in fact, it’s liberating). Again, I will give them a generic choice or two.
4. They have to figure out how to assess the work they complete. Maybe they want me to assess it. Maybe they want peers to assess it. Could be objective, or subjective. Lots of different ways to assess things! But part of the process is they have to deliberately think about what assessment means and how to enact it – because that results in much more impactful “assignments”. And much more tailored to the individual student, so the impact increases geometrically!
After explaining the learning contract, I have them work in small groups to fill out a learning contract. Then the small groups share with the class what they came up with. This way, the students are working together to give each other ideas of assignments, of assessment techniques. They know what to do, they are capable, and they love the ownership! Honest – let go and let them have at it. It’s brilliant. They listen to each other so much more than to me.
After sharing from groups, I tell them that each one of them must fill out a learning contract by the end of the first class. I collect them, and deliver feedback to them by the 2nd class. My feedback consists of pushing them further – they generally come up with vague assessment techniques, bogus assignments, etc. so I push them to think deeper, to push themselves to set the bar higher, etc. It’s motivation I provide, really. And permission. They turn in a final draft in the 3rd class. They sign it, and I keep one copy and they keep one copy.
At the end of the semester, I ask them to write a one-pager stating what grade they give themselves according to what they agreed to in their learning contract and justifying it. I tell them they can turn in as much material as they need to for justification (but all they ever turn in is the one-pager because all throughout the semester they are basically keeping me updated so I know what’s up).
It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. At the very beginning, we work hard to understand and put together learning contracts. Then grading, assessment and all that interference is off the table. They don’t think about it. I don’t think about it. We all focus on learning. And doing. And isn’t that the point?
So why don’t you give up control? Try it one semester. See what happens. I promise you’ll feel better. And so will your students.