Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Contracted Learning: How does it really work?

Perhaps it’s just my temperament, but I love learning contracts.  To me there are few greater ways to chart out learning with students (be it in an organization, on your staff, or in a classroom) that to give them a format to decide what they want to, and are committed to working towards, learning this year.  Now, I’m the first to admit that not all of my students get quite as enthused about this process as I do, and some required downright wheedling at the beginning, but I’ve never interacted with a student who made the commitment to try a learning contract on the front end that didn’t value the experience in the end.

The Process

In my experience, the first step to effectively integrating learning contracts into your process is to consider how you can use them as the framework for learning in your group, rather than as an additional to-do list item.  If you have never used any sort of intentional learning tools or measurements before, think about what you want to achieve and/or measure with your students, and modify the template to suit your needs.  If you already have an outline of the leadership and personal development learning that you conduct with your groups, plan to incorporate this as one week’s assignment, or be intentional in how you present the rest of the semester’s leadership moments to highlight or build upon what’s already planned.  Again, I can’t emphasize this enough: incorporating learning contracts with your group really should not be something you add on, but rather something integrated into your plan.

What’s In a Name?

If, like I did, you have students who totally balk at the sound/idea/concept of a learning contract, have hope…there are a few tactical options you can explore.  The first and probably the most basic but in my experience the most successful is to consider changing the name.  Some groups call them Leadership Learning Contracts.  Others call them just plan Learning Contracts.  My groups hated the term contract, so I represented the same material under the new moniker: Intentional Learning Plan.  It was the exact same content, and really all I did was go through the guidelines template and replace LLC with ILP, but there was so much angst and push back against the idea of students having to enter into a contract about learning with me, and for some reason designing a learning plan just wasn’t as scary.  And, to be sure, I’m not mocking my students with this story.  The history of Higher Education is riddled with examples of ideas that when first presented were shot down unilaterally.  However, when the same idea came back with a new set of words describing exceedingly similar behavioral requirements, people jumped on the band wagon without looking back.

Another option you can consider if groups are really resistant is to use one meeting to write a contract for the whole exec team, or for the organization, rather than for any individuals.  Then, you’re really using it as more of a guide to strategic learning throughout the year, rather than anyone feeling any singular pressure.  If you can make that sell and help students see how beneficial and user-friendly the learning contracts can be, then you’ll be in a much better position to consider moving the team to accepting the option of completing them as individuals in the following year.

A Cautionary Tale

One final warning and one I learned the hard way:  Remember that if you actually do succeed in motivating the individuals in your group to write up learning contracts, you have now created the responsibility for yourself to read, edit, and help them rewrite their contracts into actual working plans.  Much like the teacher who approaches her first classroom with the belief that students just don’t write enough in school to develop those skills and thus plans to assign weekly papers, that seems like a great approach until the mountains of grading block out the sun.  This caution shouldn’t deter you from encouraging your groups to do them, but I would strongly suggest having a deadline for each draft, and blocking out sections on your calendar ahead of time to reserve for reading and editing.  It’s not required, but you’ll thank me if you do :-)

Written by: Sarah Edwards