Are Learning Contracts Common?
I have earned over 169 undergraduate credit hours and earned a Masters degree from decent state schools (in Florida). I have also taught at some small business schools in NYC. I have never seen learning contracts in practice. I would venture to guess that they are uncommon, although one may find reference to them in academic literature. I would also venture to guess that the reason that they are uncommon is that they would require a great deal of individual attention per student from the institution offering them.
Legal contracts while having set components have many possibilities of variation, and I would expect learning contracts to be no different. For example, legal contracts require competent parties, legal subject matter, meeting of the minds, offer and acceptance, consideration, etc...
Some relevant aspects of legal contracts:
Legal Subject Matter
The subject of the learning would have to be restricted to the scope of the institution's design for offering the contract. It is important that the contract should be as specific as possible in this regard
Offer and Acceptance
One party should propose the terms, likely the student, and another party would have to accept, likely an advisor on behalf of the institution. When one party accepts the other's terms, we then have a contract.
The terms should be clearly stated. For example:
- Deadline, degree of flexibility allowed
- If keeping a journal and/or writing a paper, Quantity of Content
- If keeping a time-sheet, degree of completeness, terms for making up missed times
- Subject Matter, scope boundaries
- The institutional representative who will determine completeness
There is consideration, i.e., compensation, for the one obliged to complete the contract (the student), if considered to have performed, as meeting one of the terms of completion of perhaps a series of hurdles towards earning a certificate or degree.
On the question of Modification, if the original agreed-upon terms allow for future modification, then so be it. There would likely be an expected period after which the two parties would assess the progress, and then determine if the terms of the agreement should be adjusted. If no agreement can be reached, the original agreement will remain in place.
Enforcement of Performance
If the terms of the agreement are reached, then the contract can be fulfilled. That is, when the student delivers evidence of their learning, likely contingent on an assessment agreeing that it is good delivery, the institution can deliver their consideration.
These contracts do not appear to be common (if we exclude academic codes of conduct). They can be modified by agreement, but terms for their modification should be clearly stated prior to the performance period to properly manage expectations. Enforcement is managed by the terms of the contract, likely that the institution has to agree that the student's evidence of learning is sufficient to merit verification that they have performed.
My impression, although unevidenced, is that students with learning contracts tailored to their educational goals would be more likely motivated to focus more on the objective of learning than those checking off boxes in a standardized curriculum.