Learning contracts are agreements between you and your students that outline specific learning goals, expectations, and steps necessary in order to achieve those goals. This activity is often used as a tool for promoting student ownership and self-directed learning among other benefits for you and your class.
In this article we’ll take you through the process of creating your first learning contract, how to implement this learning tactic in your classroom, and how to overcome challenges associated with learning contracts. Let’s get started!
Understanding Learning Contracts
Benefits of Learning Contracts
Learning contracts have a number of benefits for your student that make them a great addition to the classroom. Here are a few of the benefits you can expect from using learning contracts in elementary school:
- Student ownership and engagement: Learning contracts empower students to take more ownership of their learning. By involving them in setting their own goals and determining how they will achieve them, student engagement and motivation increases.
- Goal setting and reflection: With your help, learning contracts encourage students to set specific and measurable goals. Through the process of reflecting on their progress, students can develop valuable self-regulation and metacognitive skills from this experience.
- Autonomy and independence: Learning contracts can help foster a sense of autonomy and independence in your students. They have the opportunity to make decisions, choose strategies, and take ownership of their learning process, building confidence and self-efficacy along the way.
While the student benefits are great, you also can expect to see a number of benefits from using learning contracts including:
- Individualized instruction: Learning contracts help you incorporate personalized and differentiated instruction in your classroom. This means you can tailor the content, pace, and activities to match students' unique learning needs, styles, and interests to promote a more meaningful and relevant learning experience for every student.
- Collaboration and communication: Learning contracts provide a platform for collaboration and communication between you and your students.. By opening the door for ongoing conversation, feedback, and support, you are enhancing the teacher-student relationship which will help many other aspects of your classroom.
- Classroom Management: Learning contracts promote a positive classroom environment by setting clear expectations and fostering student responsibility. When your students understand and take ownership of their learning goals and behaviors, it can reduce disruptive behavior and create a more focused and productive learning atmosphere.
- Parent engagement: Learning contracts also facilitate communication and involvement with parents. They provide a transparent view of the learning goals, expectations, and progress, enabling parents to support their child's learning journey effectively as well.
When to Use Learning Contracts
Learning contracts can be used in a number of different instances depending on the needs of your students. Here are some of the most common times you could use a learning contract:
- Project-Based Learning: Learning contracts can be used in project-based learning (PBL) situations. In PBL, students engage in extended, in-depth investigations of real-world problems. Learning contracts can outline project goals, tasks, and timelines, empowering your students to manage their own learning within the project framework you agree on.
- Individualized Learning Plans: Learning contracts are beneficial when working with students who have Individualized Education Programs or Individualized Learning Plans. They can help specify the goals, accommodations, and modifications for each student, ensuring that their unique learning needs are being met.
- Behavior Management: Learning contracts can also be used as part of a behavior management plan. When students struggle with behavior issues, a contract can outline expected behaviors, rewards, and consequences, providing your student a clear structure for promoting positive behaviors and self-regulation.
- Academic Support and Interventions: Learning contracts can be implemented when providing academic support or interventions to students who require additional assistance. They can outline targeted goals, strategies, and progress monitoring, providing a framework for individualized intervention plans.
Elements of a Learning Contract
A learning contract typically includes several key elements that outline the expectations, goals, and strategies for student learning. While the specific elements may vary based on the grade level and context, here’s what you should typically include in a learning contract:
- Learning Goals and Objectives: Clearly state the specific learning goals or objectives that students are expected to achieve. These goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
- Activities: Describe the activities or tasks that students will engage in to achieve the learning goals. These activities should align with your overall learning objectives.
- Timelines: Set a timeline or schedule for completing the tasks and activities outlined. This helps students manage their time and ensure they make progress towards the learning goals within a designated time frame.
- Evaluation Criteria: Specify how student learning will be assessed and evaluated. This gives your students clarity on how they will be assessed and promotes transparency in the process.
- Signature or Commitment: Require both the student and yourself to sign the learning contract as a commitment to fulfill the expectations and responsibilities outlined. This formalizes the agreement and reinforces the importance of shared accountability.
Example Learning Contract
Let’s imagine you want to create a learning contract with your students for them to use a programming game like Kodable on an iPad or chromebook.
Kodable learning goals include creating and solving programming problems, explaining programming concepts, and testing and debugging their own code. Other learning goals include building problem solving and logical thinking skills.
There are a number of self-paced coding lessons and unlimited creative opportunities! You can specify which types of activities in the app that you want students to use if you’d like.
Students can access Kodable during designated classroom times, when it is an activity option to pick from, or as an anchor activity after finishing their other assigned tasks.
Students will be evaluated based on treating their tech devices with care and respect, as well as the digital property of their fellow students.
Signature or Commitment
Have your students sign and acknowledge!
Steps for Implementing Learning Contracts
When it comes to putting your learning contracts into practice here’s a quick three step process you can follow.
- Plan and Prepare: In this step, you’ll use your knowledge of your student to determine specific learning goals or objectives that you want to achieve through this process.
- Contract Creation: Next, you’ll use your information from step one to create a contract template for you and your student to collaborate on to fill in specific details.
- Implement and Monitor: Finally sign and have your student sign the contract to implement it. After signing be sure to monitor how your student is doing with the plan and if there are any other interventions that are needed.
Tips for Effective Learning Contracts
No two learning contracts may be the same but there are still some helpful hints to make this process easier for both new and returning teachers.
- Make sure your learning goals are aligned with your curriculum standards
- Provide students with ample opportunities to contribute their ideas
- Break down the tasks into manageable steps
- Offer students choice and flexibility in activities
- Provide ongoing support and feedback
- Celebrate student achievements, both big and small
Now that we’ve covered the elements of a learning contract and how to roll them out in your classroom, let’s look at how to overcome common challenges teachers face when using this tactic.
Addressing Common Challenges in Learning Contracts
While the benefits of learning contracts are great, there are also some challenges you may face when bringing these into your classroom. Here are the most common challenges associated with learning contracts and how you can work around them.
Some students may struggle with taking ownership of their learning and completing tasks independently. To address this, provide regular check-ins, offer support and guidance, and monitor students' progress closely. Celebrate their successes and help them develop self-monitoring skills to stay on track.
Managing multiple learning contracts and providing ongoing support to students can quickly become time-consuming. It can help to establish a routine and schedule dedicated time for students to work on their learning contracts. Use classroom management strategies to promote independent work and encourage students to seek assistance from peers before approaching you when appropriate.
Engaging parents in understanding and supporting your learning contract approach can be a challenge when everyone isn’t on the same side. Communicate the purpose, benefits, and expectations of learning contracts to parents through newsletters, parent-teacher conferences, or dedicated information sessions to help establish the reason for your approach. Share examples of student work and success stories to showcase the effectiveness of the approach.
Learning contracts are a great way to help get your students more engaged in their own education. However, like anything you do in your classroom, the process needs to work for both you and your students to be an effective classroom strategy. Using the strategies outlined in this post you can effectively bring this new method of learning into your classroom while avoiding the common pitfalls along the way. Happy teaching!
Learning contracts are just one example of a differentiated instruction strategy to help tailor your teaching to meet the needs of all of your students. Check out our guide on this topic to see more examples to pair with learning contracts.