Using Learning Contracts in College Courses (Applying Malcolm Knowles to the Classroom)

Malcolm Knowles (1913-1997) was an American educator who developed a theory of teaching and learning for adults, which he called andragogy (which he distinguished from pedagogy, the theory of development and learning in children). Knowles believed that adult learning needed to be self-initiated, self-guided, and self-evaluated. This belief culminated in the development of learning contracts, which were guides that helped students organize their own learning objectives. Learning contracts are like syllabi that students design for themselves.  

I used learning contracts for three consecutive semesters in my psychology courses, which included General Psychology, Human Development, Social Psychology, and so on. My experience with learning contracts was mixed. In the end I decided to discontinue using them, even though I had spent a lot of time developing learning contract resources. 

This post is to share some of what I learned, the resources I developed, and my recommendations for improving on the mistakes that I made.

My Rationale for Using Learning Contracts

With conventional teaching, information is passed to students, and students get better at collecting and organizing this information. Learning, by comparison, is learner-centered. With learning, students become better learners. Learning cannot be generalized or objectified into bits of information the way transmitting information (teaching) can.

To examine the facilitation of learning, the latter must first be distinguished from teaching. Teaching is about the teacher and learning is about the learner. A century of critics of modern education have argued that learning is not simply the byproduct of teaching, but a dynamic process that must be initiated by the learner.


Teaching is subject-focused, and the model is one of a teacher making knowledge-deposits into the empty banks of students’ minds. This is the model of teaching as banking (Freire, 2018). Students are told to hold onto the knowledge-deposits and reproduce them on exam day. The metaphor continues aptly into college where successful students are awarded credits towards a college degree which is subsequently leveraged for a well-paying job, and so on. The banking model of education is centered around the teacher-as-expert who shares knowledge with the student who plays the role of passive recipient. Early 20th century adult educator Eduard Lindeman (1926) observed that students who have 

“completed” a standardized regimen of education promptly turn their faces in the opposite direction […]. For him, this life for which he has suffered the affliction of learning will come to be a series of dull, uninteresting, degrading capitulations to the stereotyped pattern of his “set.” (p. 4)

English philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1929) has described this kind of teacher-centered education as “the most useless bore on God’s earth” (p. 1). 

Like the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1997), radical Brazilian educator Paolo Freire (2018) has described education as a political and democratizing act. In order for this to occur, the learner must be active in his or her education, participating in the process and thereby recognizing the inherent power in doing so. 

Perhaps the most damning criticism of teacher-centered education comes from American humanistic psychologist and therapist Carl Rogers (1969) who explained, to a room full of educators at Harvard University, that there is nothing you can teach another person that is worth learning. When teaching is the main goal, the student must submit to the subject. Lindeman’s metaphor (capitulate) is an appropriate one for this; it is as though the student must raise the flag of surrender to her learning.

The teacher-centered model can be contrasted with the learner-centered model, seen in the philosophy of education described by Dewey, Lindeman, Whitehead, Rogers, and Freire. In the learner-centered model, the learner is in control of the process. It is only in this manner that learning is life and life is learning.

A learner-centered model of education was described by Rogers (1969), later inspiring Malcolm Knowles (through Art Shedlin, a colleague of Rogers at University of Chicago). Knowles experienced the philosophizing of Whitehead while at Harvard; he was mentored by Lindeman while working in adult education at the YMCA of Chicago; and he learned from Rogerian-style facilitators as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Throughout his career, Knowles emphasized as many as seven key components to adult learning (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson). In his memoir (1988), Knowles describes the six he found most important at that time: 

1)    Students need to know why they are learning;

2)    Learning must be self-directed;

3)    Learning must build upon the skills and knowledge students bring with them;

4)    Students must be ready to apply learning to real-life situations;

5)    Learning must be-life centered (not subject-centered); and

6)    Students must be intrinsically motivated to learn. (adapted from Knowles, 1988, pp. 83-85)

For Knowles, these components must be present for learning to occur. Structured this way, there is no gap between education and life. It is as Lindeman (1926) emphatically claimed: “education is life—not a mere preparation for an unknown kind of future living. […] The whole of life is learning, therefore education can have no endings” (p. 6).



With learning contracts, students design their own learning outcomes and evaluate their progress. This is unusual for them, so doing so requires much preliminary work. Knowles estimated that as much as a quarter of the total time in a class or workshop could be devoted to developing the learning contracts. I learned that lots of examples are helfpul. I share a few down below.

A poor learning contract is vague—“I’ll learn about autism.” A good learning contract identifies actionable strategies—“I’ll read Autism Today by Dr. So and So, and keep a journal of my thoughts.” An excellent learning contract is clear and actionable, and it identifies an objective. “I’ll read Autism Today, summarize my understanding of A) how autism is diagnosed and B) how it is treated in two 500 word essays, and give a short presentation scheduled for March 20.”

Students were asked to complete a basic learning plan designed by instructor, which included attending lectures and taking quizzes. Completion of basic plans merited a C. Additional learning plans could be proposed for B and A grades (see samples linked below).

(NOTE: I replaced "contract" with the word "plan," which seemed like less of a legal performance and more of a clarification of learning goals).

My Initial Thoughts

Excerpts taken from personal journal:

January 16

  •  This is a lot of work—particularly with preparation. Students are confused about the same aspects I am confused with. 
  •  Making changes to documents is time-consuming because I have to update them in every course.
  •  I’ve had more interaction with students over the last three days than in an entire semester.
    •  I’ve learned more about their personal interests in psychology and related disciplines than I get when covering my general topics. Previously, I judged the popularity of topics off of student interest during lectures—I would say “a lively bunch today” and conclude that they liked Jungian typology or whatever I was talking about that day.

January 28

  • The initial overwhelming feeling has passed. I have interacted personally with more than half of my students.
  • I regret some of the structural decisions that I made about the degree of liberty, particularly with the higher level courses. General psychology and developmental psychology are so broad that students had no trouble developing objectives that fall within those parameters. For my advanced courses (research methods; health psychology), I should have done a brainstorming session about what sorts of learning objectives might guide students in each course. “What,” for example, “do I want to get out of a methods course?”
  • It would have been nice to have resources available from the beginning. This would have helped avoid the many student learning strategies that go something like “I will read an article about x. There could be a different set of readings/videos/articles for each course with some overlap.
  • It may have also been more helpful to schedule 1:1 meetings in lieu of classtime during the second week. This ended up happening anyhow.
  •  It takes a lot of time checking learning plans and offering advice—particularly for 200 students. (I was teaching five classes of 35-70 students/each.) I really feel the volume of students.
  •  I notice already a sharp difference between student participating in compulsory assignments and participation out of personal interest. E.g., if I have required that students attend two out of a possible ten workshops, then the ones who attend out of obligation are aloof and disinterested, asking questions such as “what do you need from me?” “Did you mark me present?” “How long do I have to stay?”
  • There has been considerable disbelief among students about the liberty I have extended to them. Students ask,

a.     “How do you know that I attended?”

b.     “When is my first assignment due?”

c.     “When will you be checking our work?”

What I have found is that roughly one third of my students seem to have taken advantage of the freedom they’ve been given, organizing neat learning objectives—many doing far more than I have ever expected of an undergraduate student. The rest remain vague with their goals—almost as if the have never before thought this way about their learning. I find some relief in the statistic that only 1/3 of my students will make it to graduation. This number now carries a new meaning for me—they are the minority for whom learning is the goal, and not the means to the goal. I wonder of the remaining 2/3 who view courses as arbitrary hurdles, what can be done?

When facilitating class periods, I find it much easier to be the resident guru. I don’t trust the critical thinking of the students, and give them my insights instead (circumventing the very process I hope to achieve). I must practice being quiet and patient.

My Analysis

I interacted with more students during the first five weeks than I had in five years. I learned more about individual interests in psychology than ever before. I also learned that students are deeply insecure about drawing inferences, making decisions, and making choices at all that impact their learning. This is something that has always been handled for them.

Because of the insecurity, even more time would be necessary for preparing students to begin taking responsibility for their learning. I gave two weeks, but many students didn’t know what to do with that time, even in class with clear activities and examples. 

With the shift online (COVID-necessitated shift to online classes), I’m unable to get a clear indication of how the learning contracts worked. I suspect, however, that they were not going well even before Spring Break. Students had difficulty identifying interests, objectives, resources, or evaluations. They wanted my instruction at each step. Many said flatly: just tell me what to do so I can do it. I’m beginning to suspect that more than half are only interested in the degree, and have no desire to learn or grow. These students would be decidedly inconvenienced in a class where they are asked to take much of the responsibility.

Will I Do It Again?

It is unlikely that I will use learning contracts again for an undergraduate course, unless it was clear that the students were highly motivated and had a clear idea of what their goals were for the class. 

I think the learning contract approach would make more sense for psychotherapy (where an individual or group enters with an idea of the ways in which they would like to grow) or a professional development seminar (where participants enter with a specific goal, such as “increase the number of manuscript pages I write each week”). Intrinsic motivation is essential. 

I think Autonomy Supportive Teaching is superior to learning contracts for students with low academic preparation. If a professor can get rid of learning objectives entirely, then I think building courses around professor-student relationships could also be a solution.


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