Education In The Hands of Students: The Learning Contract

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.


8 thoughts on “Education In The Hands of Students: The Learning Contract

    1. Ralph –

      It’s not that I’ve thought it through as much as I’ve been trying it and tinkering with it for many semesters. Trial and failure and learning from it (just like I ask my students to do!) Also have had some wonderful minds from the educational psychology field help me figure this out (one in particular – Dr. Julie Ann McFann from our Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology – she’s a marvel and I hope every school has someone available like her to help faculty be better faculty).

      1. I like the fact that you are not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. So many posts that are about what should be done to make learning more personal and fulfilling are purely academic. You and your students,on the other hand, are living it. What classes do you teach and what grade levels? How is it that you have the autonomy to use such creative pedagogy?

        1. Yes, it’s critical to also walk the walk. I teach undergrads (juniors and seniors) at Illinois State University. I basically have the autonomy because I don’t ask permission, but apologize afterwards if necessary. Although I don’t really apologize, but justify with a good dose of irreverence 🙂

          Honestly, though, I think part of why it works is because it is authentic to who I am, and because the students love it and anyone who touches my classes feels that passion (from me and them), so they don’t challenge it. I am certainly breaking all sorts of “rules” in almost every class, but in the end I don’t care because I know it’s what’s right.

          And let me add that I do not have tenure yet, so I am not “protected” – I’m risking just like I’m asking my students to do. I do not hide what I do, but I also don’t publicize it loudly around campus – it’s a political game after all!

          1. Aboslutely. It’s something lots of students use to find out about classes before registering. I particularly like the one on mine that calls me “confidently ignorant” – I wear that as a badge of honor. I prefer this feedback to the end-of-semester bubble test bullshit – this is much more transparent and honest from students. I encourage all my students to post their thoughts here, although not enough do

  1. I love the idea, especially for junior and senior students, but what do you think about special education students with learning disabilities. Would you still let them do all the work of creating the assessments?

    1. Carolina – that is an interesting question. I honestly have no experience with or exposure to students in that population so I hesitate to answer. I would give them as much control as is comfortable. Part of my role is support, so that balance of autonomy and support could be adjusted accordingly. What woukd you do?

      Great question – thanks for weighing in.

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