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
“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)
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)
My Initial Thoughts
Excerpts taken from personal journal:
- 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.
- 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?”
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.