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Learning contracts

A learning contract is a structured method whereby each student, in consultation with a staff advisor, designs and implements manageable learning activities. The emphasis is on making each activity relevant to those professional and personal needs of the student which are consistent with the aims of the course and/or subject.


The principal advantages of the learning contract method are: It provides a mechanism for responding to individual needs as they emerge in the course/subject. It promotes the development of the capacity to initiate and implement projects, which is an essential feature of professional practice. It fosters an understanding of the nature of learning by focusing attention on learning strategies and processes. It places students in a better position to help others learn and to plan and conduct their own lifelong learning.


A learning contract is an agreement between a student and a staff adviser that the student will undertake a specified activity and produce evidence that the activity was successfully completed.

The role of the adviser is to negotiate the contract, monitor progress and to participate in the final assessment. Normally guidelines are developed explaining how to set out the contract, the parameters within which the contract should be negotiated, and any generic assessment criteria.

Typically a "Learning Contract Proposal' is developed which comprises the following elements (see the examples at the end of the section):


What is required here is a clear statement of the purpose of the contract. This may be stated as an objective, a problem, an issue etc. The purpose will need to be appropriate to the subject or course and be sufficiently challenging to warrant inclusion in a degree level program.

Strategies and resources

Here is indicated the references students intend to consult, people they will arrange to interview, research they conduct, material they prepare to gather data (e.g. evaluation form), places they will visit etc.

What will be produced

Mostly students produce written work of some kind, e.g. a report, an essay, a journal, a book review etc. But other forms of presentation are also acceptable, e.g. video-recording, audio-recording, charts and diagrams, models, etc.

Adviser comments

Here the adviser will make comments and suggestions on the contract proposal. The adviser will draw attention to any weaknesses in the proposal, note any special conditions, and set out the assessment criteria.

Some issues

  1. The learning contract method may be linked to a particular subject or it can be a subject in its own right (e.g. referred to as Individualised Projects). In the latter case, students have more degrees of freedom in developing their contracts, but the expertise of advisers is stretched. Both approaches have merit and may be used concurrently in a given course, but they need to be administered differently.
  2. The learning contract can be thought of as an assessment device or a learning device. This has implications for staffing allocations. If it is merely an assessment device connected with a particular subject, then the lecturer will receive no additional teaching hours beyond the face-to-face hours allocated. If it is seen as a learning device, with the adviser playing a crucial and on-going role, then teaching hours need to be allocated to the activity. In this way it can be seen as an alternative to learning in a large group. Instead, there is face-to-face, one-on-one or small group contact with an adviser.
  3. The assessment criteria may be generic or individually negotiated. In the latter case, different criteria may be applied to the same subject, which certainly raises equity considerations. These may be overcome by having a generic standard which is applied to the criteria developed for individual contracts.
  4. It is necessary to ensure that learning contract work has not been submitted elsewhere for credit. Some kind of statement on the cover of the contract may be required, but there is always the marginal case where some other work has been adapted or edited. It is normal practice to keep records of contracts completed.
  5. The learning contract, when completed, may deviate significantly from the proposal, but is otherwise satisfactory. Ideally, contract proposals should be re-negotiated; notwithstanding this, if the final product fits within the parameters it should be assessed in the normal way.
  6. Some contracts may be negotiated which are not within the adviser's area of expertise. This will invariably occur with learning contracts. The problem is that the level of advice which can be given is less than would normally be the case. Also the adviser is not in a good position to assess the final product. Instances such as these can be handled by re-allocating advisers for a given contract, or using a back-up marker, or even using a panel of advisers to check on marking procedures.


Caffarella, R. and Caffarella, E. (1986). Self-directness and learning contracts in adult education. Adult Education Quarterly, 36, 226-234

Hiemstra, R and Sisco, B. (1990). Individualising instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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

O'Donnell, J. and Caffarella, R. (1991). Learning contracts. In Michael Goldsmith (Ed.) Adult learning methods. Malabar: Krieger. (pp133-160)

Tompkins, C and McGraw, M.J. (1988). The negotiated learning contract. In David Boud (Ed.) Developing Student Autonomy in Learning. London: Kogan Page.

(Originally published in Trigwell, K. (1992). Information for UTS staff on Assessment. Sydney: UTS Working Party on Assessment).