There is no doubt that most academics have an overarching goal that is to develop their students into self-directed and autonomous learners. Evidence from the literature on contract learning suggests that learning contracts (LCs) are effective in developing students into self-directed learners (Abdullah & Yih, 2014; McNamara, 2019; Lamiri et al., 2022). In general, a learning contract is an agreement between the instructor and student that establishes the nature of the relationship, the objectives of the learning experience, the activities to accomplish the learning objectives, and the means by which the educational effort will be evaluated. In what follows, I discuss my experience with using LCs in teaching Economics to a large class of first-year (level 4) Business Management students at Queen Mary University of London.
Students gain access to course materials on a dedicated Moodle course page that initially shows basic course information (such as syllabus, assessments, office hours, and so on) and a learning contract. Students do not have access to weekly learning resources until after they sign up to the LC. The LC states ‘terms and conditions’ of taking the course, and sets transparent expectations for students:
The LC might appear generic and rigid in nature, and students may perceive it as yet another bureaucratic hurdle to jump through, yet recent evidence from Lamiri et al. (2022) suggests that students perceive the use of LCs as a positive learning strategy (not as a hurdle in their learning path). The LC implicitly aims to promote independence and self-directing behaviours among students; it also explicitly encourages students to engage with learning resources, complete required readings, and develop self-learning skills.
‘The learning contract implicitly aims to promote independence and self-directing behaviours among students; it also explicitly encourages students to engage with learning resources, complete required readings, and develop self-learning skills.’
How effective is the LC?
At the end of the semester, students filled out a short survey questionnaire about the course. Among other items, it contained nine LC-specific response items. Of the 469 students on the first-year Economics course, 279 students participated in the survey. Responses are measured in a five-point Likert scale.
The analysis of the data shows that the use of LC had positive impacts on students’ learning behaviours. Almost all LC items received a score of 3.5 and above. This supports my expectation that LCs encourage students to maintain high academic standards. In particular, response item ‘I committed to the learning contract fully’ received the highest score, 4; while response item ‘I studied and put effort into the module’ registered the next highest score of 3.9. This is consistent with the behaviour that is expected of self-directed learners (Frank & Shariff, 2013).
I expected that commitment to the LC would stimulate self-motivation. After all, not fulfilling the contract requirements would break a self-promise, and the promise to the lecturer. However, the LC did not appear to have boosted some students’ motivation, as the response item ‘Learning contract motivated me to study harder’ received a relatively lower score of 3.3. This somewhat contradicts the findings of the existing research that LCs boost self-motivation (Frank & Shariff, 2013; McNamara, 2019; Lamiri et al., 2022).
The response item for reaching out to the lecturer when in need of assistance received the lowest score of 2.8; it is low for such a large class size. Nevertheless, the majority of LC questionnaire items received high scores which indicates that the LC helped foster committed and responsible (for own learning) students.
The results demonstrate that using LC in large-group teaching can be an effective way to develop students into self-directed and committed students. Going forward, motivated by my preliminary findings and evidence from the literature, I will extend my research on contract learning using an individualised LC that allows students a degree of control over the design of the contract. The primary objective will be to assess whether a more individualised LC boosts students’ self-motivation in large-group teaching.
Abdullah, A., & Yih, T. (2014). Implementing Learning Contracts in a computer science course as a tool to develop and sustain student motivation to learn. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 123, 256–265. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.1422
Frank, T., & Scharff, L. (2013). Learning contracts in undergraduate courses: Impacts on student behaviors and academic performance. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(4) 36–53. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270581082_Learning_Contracts_in_Undergraduate_Courses_Impacts_on_Student_Behaviors_and_Academic_Performance
Lamiri, A., Lhbibani, A., Qaisar, R., Khoaja, D., Abidi, O., Khyati, A., & Hind, B. (2022). The Learning Contract and its impact on scholarship among Moroccan nursing students. Open Nursing Journal, 16(4). https://doi.org/10.2174/18744346-v16-e2206270
McNamara, L. (2019). A study of adult learners’ self-reported levels of motivation, self-direction, and metacognitive behaviours in online graduate courses [Unpublished thesis]. Northeastern University.