This article discusses two different versions of contract learning used by teachers to foster independent decision making and individual responsibility for learning. Discussion focuses on the basics of traditional learning contracts and the reasons teachers use such contracts to meet curriculum objectives. The article further explores differentiation of learning contracts, assessment of student work, and general student reactions to learning via the contract method. The focus then switches to the use of behavior contracts to address problem behaviors and to reinforce desired behaviors. Practical suggestions are provided for implementing behavior contracts in the classroom.
Keywords Anchor Activity; Behavior Contract; Exemplar; Learning Contract; Learning Profile; Negotiable Contract; Non-Negotiable Contract; Readiness; Rubrics
Teaching Methods: Contract Learning
A learning contract is a negotiated agreement between a teacher and a student to work on a given task independently or cooperatively that is related to specific curriculum objectives. Learning contracts often provide for student choice and allow students to determine appropriate means to demonstrate knowledge. Thus, contract learning provides for a balance between teacher direction and student initiative (Greenwood, 2002). When developing contracts, teachers determine what is important for students to know, understand and be able to do. Specific options are articulated for students to choose from in order to demonstrate their understanding. Alternatively, sometimes teachers leave the decision entirely up to students to determine how they feel most comfortable demonstrating their knowledge.
Knowles (1986) discusses the application of learning contracts in educational settings geared toward adults. Learning contracts are used with adults primarily because they require individual responsibility and initiative. However, Greenwood (2002) asserts that many teachers find learning contracts most useful when working with young students from elementary through high school. Learning contracts provide students with the opportunity and freedom to acquire skills and understandings that are deemed important by the teacher, on their own (Tomlinson, 1999).
Tomlinson (2003) further illuminates that learning contracts create optimal conditions for teachers to effectively manage time in the classroom because contracts work well as anchor activities (meaningful and purposeful activities that engage students while the teacher works with other students). Teachers often struggle with how to effectively balance small group, large group and individualized instruction. Greenwood (2002) asserts that when using contracts, teachers can group and regroup students for individual and small group instruction with ease without having to manage the entire class.
Once clearly outlined and agreed upon by both the teacher and student, a learning contract often keeps students engaged in meaningful work while teachers have an opportunity to meet with students who might need extra assistance or challenge. Since learning contracts are often based on individual or partner work, they lend themselves easily to minimal teacher direction while students work on completing the assigned tasks. According to Tomlinson (2003), once students start working on their contracts, teachers observe, provide feedback and coach students when necessary to help them achieve optimal results. However, most of the process involves individual work without ongoing teacher direction.
Reasons for Using Learning Contracts
Teachers use learning contracts for a variety of reasons because they provide an appropriate balance between student centeredness and teacher direction. One compelling reason that teachers use learning contracts concerns the need for a strong balance between small group, large group and individualized instruction. Greenwood (2002) indicates that often it is very difficult for teachers to find the time necessary to meet with a small group of students while the rest of the class works productively on a meaningful task related to the curriculum. Learning contracts provide the perfect opportunity for teachers to keep students engaged in purposeful work while they meet with specific groups of students who may need extra attention or simply check in with students regarding individual progress.
A second compelling reason concerns the diverse student population teachers are expected to work with to reach academic objectives. Students differ with regard to how they learn, what they are interested in learning about, how quickly they are able to acquire skills, etc. Learning contracts greatly contribute to the variety of approaches teachers can choose from to meet the needs of their students (Kilgore et al., 2002). They allow teachers to reach a diverse group of learners as they provide a variety of different choices designed to appeal to different interests and learning profiles.
A third reason concerns the level of independence and individual responsibility for learning that contracts encourage as students work independently to achieve specific learning outcomes. Greenwood (2002) highlights the fact that learning contracts provide a strong balance between independent and cooperative work as well as a learning environment that helps students develop the related skill sets for each learning goal (Sutton, Ezell & Sankar, 2013). Furthermore, contracts motivate students to take the initiative to direct their own learning and to choose their own paths to reach specific learning objectives.
Finally, learning contracts are a viable alternative to searching for something meaningful for students to work on as they wait for other students to finish given assignments or tasks. In a classroom, students rarely finish their work at the same time and often some students find that they have nothing to do while they wait for others to finish their work. Learning contracts significantly cut down on the waste of large amounts of time as students can work on their contract while they wait thus keeping them engaged and connected to the learning process (Greenwood, 2002).
Differentiating Learning Contracts
Learning contracts are often used as a means to differentiate curriculum and instruction because they provide an appropriate balance between student choice and teacher direction. Contracts can be designed with multiple learning objectives and given to different groups of students within one classroom to appropriately challenge students at levels commensurate with their abilities. Often, teachers develop two or three different versions of a learning contract focused on the same learning objective, but different with regard to level of difficulty and expectations (Tomlinson, 1999).
Teachers can differentiate learning contracts by altering content, process or product. Content refers to the actual material studied (i.e. addition and subtraction, classic literature, the American Revolution, etc.). Process refers to the steps the student takes to complete the actual assignment or task. Product refers to the actual form of the final assignment. Examples of different products include essays, skits, musical performances, 3-D models, etc. Teachers differentiate each of these components according to readiness levels, learning profiles and interest. Readiness level simply refers to whether or not a student is ready to learn a particular concept. Learning profile refers to how a student learns best (i.e. while listening to music, working alone, working with others, etc.) and interest refers to what a student is interested in learning about (Tomlinson, 1999).
For example, when developing a learning contract regarding literature from a specific genre, a teacher may differentiate the content of the contract by choosing two or three different books ranging in difficulty for students to analyze. A teacher may differentiate the process for completing the contract by varying the instructions in two or three different versions of the same contract. Alternatively, a teacher may differentiate the product required by providing a list of possible final products and allowing students to choose which one works best for their objective.
Moreover, contracts can be differentiated according to interest by providing multiple options and allowing students to choose which one most appeals to them. They can also be differentiated according to learning profile as students can make decisions about where, how and when to work on completing the contract. Learning contracts lend themselves easily to differentiation as there are multiple ways in which contracts can be modified to meet the learning needs of different students (Tomlinson, 1999).
Student Reactions to Learning Contracts
Williams & Williams (1999) conducted a study focused on the use of learning contracts at the college level, specifically in technology courses. Their findings illuminate student feedback regarding the use of learning contracts and the effects of contracts on student learning. Although the study was conducted with college students, the findings speak generally to the benefits of learning contracts at all education levels.
At the conclusion of a course designed specifically around learning contracts, students commented positively regarding the...
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