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Learning Contracts

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What is a Learning Contract?

  • An individualized or group study plan developed with a mentor or tutor which states what is to be learned during a specific period of time;
  • Contracts may describe independent study, tutorials, group study, and/or other learning activities.

The learning contract, which suggests a two-way transaction between student and mentor, involves initial dialogue between mentor and student regarding goals, possible alternatives, aspects of design, and methods of implementation and evaluation. Through such a process, students and mentors develop new ideas for studies and call upon an array of resources and modes of study that take into account a student's background, skills, interests, schedule, and degree goals.

Education Philosophy

Relating Educational Philosophy to the Learning Contract

Empire State College has always been committed to the idea that effective learning derives from purposes, needs, activities and study forms that are important to the individual, that learning occurs in varied ways and places, and that styles of learning may differ significantly from person to person and from one setting to another. Even in special programs where students from similar situations or the same organizations are grouped together, or in study groups where a number of students work together with the same mentor, or in studies designed to be carried out online, mentors quickly discover wide variations in the learning needs and purposes of individual students. The learning contract reflects the college's commitment to individualization since it allows for the possibility of, and encourages, active student involvement in the development of its content.

Involving the Student

Working with students in a contract mode invites us to shift gears from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning, and from a position of sole authority in the student-teacher relationship to a position of cooperation and shared decision-making between student and mentor. Such a refocusing is a complex and sometimes difficult task.

Mentors need to actively involve the student in the articulation of goals, the identification of learning resources, and the naming of activities. Mentors need to guide students in this process (in helping them know where or how to look, in providing them with solid starting points, and in structuring touchstones along the way), and in evaluating the appropriateness of a student's suggestions. But it is the student's active engagement that fosters the acquisition of skills which will be strengthened from contract to contract, and that will serve the student well even beyond Empire State College.

Generic Contracts

In larger group settings such as formal group studies or residency-based programs or in circumstances where mentors are asked to repeatedly guide the same study with many individual students.

Contracts created without the direct participation of students can still accommodate student differences by being only a sketch of what might be required (to be filled out as the student progresses), or by providing a good number of options to meet the various needs and interests of the individual student -- options to be worked out as the study progresses.

Center for Distance Learning courses are like extensive generic contracts in that they structure and time the student's learning activities but provide a good number of options in the individual assignments to meet the various needs and interests of the individual student. CDL course guides provide the same information that is provided in a learning contract: purpose-goals-objectives of the study, learning activities, criteria for evaluation.

The Student's First Contract

Attributes: The very first contract undertaken at the college by a student, whether academically experienced or not, should be very carefully considered. In almost every case the studies on that contract should be:

  • Clearly interesting
  • Well defined and completable
  • Maximally useful

Therefore, studies ought to be avoided that are:

  • Considered only because they are requirements or thought to be “good” for the student
  • Overly-ambitious or poorly structured
  • Narrowly connected to a single concentration to study

A special contract for new students: Mentors are strongly encouraged to create at least one study for first contracts that they can tutor themselves and that meets the above criteria. Such an early connection with the student gives the mentor a easy way to become acquainted with the student's academic interests, background, and purposes, and it also provides the mentor with a means of assessing the student's various strengths and weaknesses. To make the best use of this unique opportunity and to minimize the chances of failure, here are some specific suggestions for this first study:

  • Immediately involve the student in the selection of courses.
  • Create many (e.g., weekly) small assignments. Avoid one or two major papers upon which everything rests.
  • Vary the assignments.
    You may:Thus, you can assess the student’s reading and writing skills, their ability to analyze, integrate, and synthesize, and their critical skills. At the same time you can provide the student with a review of many basic academic skills: note-taking, reflection, data collection, library research, methods of inquiry, and so forth.
    • ask students to summarize articles (and vary the difficulty of the articles);
    • require them to think of questions about what they are reading;
    • provide them with analytical exercises;
    • ask them to collect empirical data and show them how to present them in written form;
    • include opportunities for interviews
    • ask them to find information in the library or on the Internet and show them how to describe and cite what they found;
    • create assignments that require them to apply what they have read to their experiences;
    • ask them to integrate the different readings in answering particular questions;
    • provide them with opportunities to evaluate and critically reflect upon issues important within the area under study;
    • and ask them to synthesize different readings and their experience on an appropriate question or concern.
  • Make the assignments particular to the student. Rather than assigning obvious or generic topics to write about that can easily be found in reference or textbooks, try to create assignments that are unique to the student and his/her experiences and responsive to his/her interests.