I'm starting a new program in the spring and one of the first things that we will be tasked with is the creation of a 'XYZ Learning Contract'. After a bit of digging in the search engines I see that there is a pretty broad spectrum of thought on the value and composition of learning contracts. Having never dealt with them before I find myself wondering:

  • How common are they?
  • If the contracts can be, and some sources say - should be, modified then how is obligation and adherence managed?
  • Following on to the last question, how are they enforced?

I understand that every department is going to be different and that an advisor's milage may vary but I'm also curious if there is some general consensus on learning contracts among those that have had to deal with them.


3 Answers 3


I've seen learning contracts been suggested for two types of situations:

1) As a motivational tool, to make students realize that there are things that they want to learn to accomplish their career goals. The idea is that once the student realizes that what (s)he is being taught in particular course is important for them, (s)he should be more motivated to make an effort in learning the material because it is really in his/her best interest to do so. In this type of situations, it seems to be that the enforcement is very soft/flexible.

2) To ensure fair, non-subjective grading of students in independent studies, research programs and internship programs. Departments undergoing accreditation programs (like ABET) tend to do this because they need to prove/show that there is consistent grading, that the students know what is expected of them, and that they know their grading criteria. These learning contracts are obviously more strictly enforced, but it is up to any individual department implementing this to decide whether they can be modified on-the-go to adjust to unexpected challenges that may arise during the semester.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter if they are "typically" very strictly enforced or not, because you should not care about the general/average case; you should care about your particular institution and we cannot know what their policy on learning contracts is. Just ask them. I am sure they'll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

  • 1
    cabad, you get the win here. Your point about not worrying about the 'typical' situation is a very good one. I can get a little too wound around the decomposition/generalization axel and you are correct that all that matters to me is my situation. However, there is real value to having a grasp on the socialized understanding of the concept.
    – grauwulf
    Commented Jan 26, 2014 at 19:43

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.

About Contracts

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.

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    I just noticed that the link in your post contains a reference to the book that I think has really answered my questions, 'Using Learning Contracts in Higher Education'*. * Stephenson, Laycock; 1993
    – grauwulf
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 16:41

Started to think on our concept of "learning plan", which sounds bit light-weight version of the learning contract of the original question(?)

Commonality: In our universities everyone has the opportunity & obligation to do a (short) personal study plan (and this applies to all student levels). One example here: http://www.helsinki.fi/socialsciences/studying/new/HOPS.html . Each university/department/professor might had some small differences of the content, but basically it was a self-made "project plan" for year(s)/goal ahead.

Obligation & Adherence: Personally, I think making the plan was really useful as it helped to outline the schedule and requirements, and helped to think how to get all done. However, main drive was assumed to come from student herself - the desire to advance in timely manner.

Enforce: (?) One enforcer is/was to obtain a certain minimum quantity of credits that had to be done per year to get the student benefits. Anyhow, I think our system relies mostly on the students' personal drive. It's relatively hard to get to desired faculty, so most of those who get in won't waste the opportunity.

Anyhow it's bit tricky - one can has "perfect" study plan, but still studying can get stuck, for one reason or another...

  • This is excellent information, Tuula. I did not realize that this concept was such a fundamental component of so many programs.
    – grauwulf
    Commented Jan 2, 2014 at 16:00

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