Comparing Humanistic Teaching Styles: Nondirective, Learning Contracts, and Autonomy Support

 I have experimented with four primary methods of teaching at the college level:

  1. Didactic lecture/test method: This is the most familiar instructional method where the professor stands in front and talks for 50 minutes while students take notes. Later, students are given tests of recall and understanding to see how much they learned.
  2. Nondirective: This is the method popularized by Carl Rogers, who called it person-centered learning, since, for Rogers, the goal was not mastering learning objectives but becoming a more complete person.
  3. Contracted learning: This is a method popularized by Malcolm Knowles in which students design their own individual syllabi for the course. The professor is there as a resource (and to provide recommendations, advice, and resources if asked). Once agreed upon, students work on their own to satisfy their learning contracts. At the end, they will be evaluated using their own determined criteria. It is also supported by Educational Transactional Analysis.
  4. Autonomy-supportive method: This isn't an instructional method per se, but more of a style of employing one of the above methods. AST professors typically design the courses themselves, but do so with their students in mind. Students are invited to take ownership, but they don't have to. The professor can design the whole thing if that what they (or the students) want.
Despite trying each of the above, writing detailed assessments about three of them (and entire books about two of them), I'm still not sure which method is best for me. In an attempt to clarify their key differences and similarities, I have created a table.

Table 1: Comparing Nondirective, Contracted, and Autonomy-supportive Teaching


Nondirective Teaching

Learning Contract 

Traditional AST


Adult – Adult, NP – Child, FC - FC

A – A, NP - C

A – A, P - C


Build course together

Build course together

Professor designs course with students in mind


Professor and student

Professor and student

Professor alone


Whatever students feel led to do on that day, which might be nothing. 

Follow contract. 

Professor led using AST practices.

Structure/ Nurture Continuum

Marshmallow: Grants freedom without demanding responsibility in return

Negotiable and non-Negotiable rules.

Non-negotiable rules.

Outcomes beyond learning goals

Students free to grow/ learn in their own way, even if that means doing nothing. Self-actualization, emotional intelligence/awareness.

Students commit to learning goals with encouragement and support from professor

Improved self-esteem, autonomy, and psychological well-being.

A few of these categories need further discussion to make them more clear.

Relationship: The first row describes the sort of relationship the method invites professors to take with their students. I have described these relationships using structural analytic language (from transactional analysis). The relationships are as follows:
  • Adult - Adult: Here the professor plays the role of inquisitive, objective, rational, and thoughtful human person. Think of them as donning lab coat and safety goggles. They are left-brain dominated and not easily pushed/pulled by emotions. The student is invited to investigate biology (or sociology or education or business management) the same way. There are obvious benefits here, such as training students how to master academic and scientific skills.
  • NP - Child: (Nurturing Parent to Child) Here the professor plays the role of compassionate parent (or aunt/uncle) who supports a frightened, worried, or distressed child. The student feels safe, but they also don't get to practice problem solving or thinking for themselves. NP - Child relationships should be limited or used sparingly. "I can see that you're frustrated by this problem. It's okay to be frustrated, but it also won't help us solve the problem. Do you think you are ready to give it another shot?"
  • FC - FC: (Free Child to Free Child) Here the professor is like an inquisitive five-year-old who asks a lot of neat and interesting questions, such as, "I wonder what would happen if we dumped this liquid into that liquid?" This is an important part of most academic disciplines (therapists are not successful when they follow therapeutic procedure, but when they follow their intuition).
  • P - C: (Parent to Child) This is common learning relationship where the professor is in control and students have to do as they're told. If done exclusively (students are never allowed to think for themselves) this tends to build dependence and inhibits self-direction and psychological well-being.
Structure - Nurture Continuum: The S - N continuum was designed by transactional analysts, notably  Jean Illsley Clarke, to describe how parents support their children. The continuum runs between Rigidity and Abandonment. 
  • Rigidity is rule-bound, no exceptions, no discussion, do it my way or else. "You didn't include a running header? Sorry. Minus 2 points."
  • Critical means that rules are no longer enforced with consequences, but they are enforced with criticisms instead. "You didn't include a running header? You'll never amount to anything if you don't learn to follow directions."
  • Nonnegotiable rules means that rules are decided in advance (with or without student input), and the instructor enforces those rules as a means of holding to classroom integrity. "You didn't include a running header? Oh no! The running header is helpful in the event that your coversheet is misplaced or your paper is being subjected to a blind peer review. I'm going to have to reduce your grade by 2 points."
  • Negotiable rules are like nonnegotiable rules, except that there is some wiggle room for change. "You didn't include a running header? Oh no! The running header is helpful in the event that your coversheet is misplaced or your paper is being subjected to a blind peer review. Since the review is not blinded, I'm not sure why I'm making you use a running header. Seems kind of pointless. Maybe we should reconsider."
  • Marshmallow courses have guidelines, but they aren't set in stone. The professor is eminently understanding. Anything can happen. The problem with these courses is that, while everyone is safe, nobody really understands what is going on. It would be like learning to play basketball when the referee says things like, "That's out of bounds, but not for you. Play on."
  • Abandonment is when the professor disappears for days or weeks at a time. Students are free to do something or nothing, it doesn't matter and nobody will follow up with them.
Analysis: Learning Contracts
Looking at the chart, I don't think I can continue nondirective teaching in good conscience. Lack of clarity in structure means that students' self-direction is impaired. Maybe half of the students develop self-knowledge and interpersonal skills, but the other half are effectively casualties of the process. Perhaps this works out for them in the end (e.g., they learn that it is okay to choose for themselves not to participate), but the professor denies any responsibility to the university to support learning outcomes.

At the same time, I don't want to take back full control of the course where I dictate everything. I'm confident that, in face-to-face classes, I can work with students to choose learning goals and then develop a structure for accountability. This will be a contracted learning process, where the class designs one common contract.

Therefore, in order to organize online courses this way, I will have to give a handful of deadlines along with information about how to plan a learning contract. Maybe a short-term deadline would be "Identify 5 personal learning goals for the course. Think: What would I like to be able to do by the end of the semester? How will I know I have satisfied this goal?" And so on. I will have a week to give everyone feedback, then they can submit a revised one (if necessary). I can give examples along with explanations of what each does well/poorly.


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