Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts | Centre for Teaching Excellence (2023)

Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts | Centre for Teaching Excellence (1)

Independent study experiences can be extremely rewarding both for students and their advising instructors. As ourTeaching Tip,Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process, explains, independent study gives students the opportunity to explore not only a giventopic but also their own learning strategies and goals, andlearning contractscan play acritical role in ensuring that this process is a successful one. Learning contractsgive ownership to students overtheir learning at the outset of a project or class,they prompt students to reflect on how they learn, and they establish clear goals and project timelines. For instructors, learning contracts serveas an outline forindependent study units and as tools to aid evaluation.

To maximize these benefits, students should develop their own learning contracts, whichthe advising instructor reviews to provideconstructive feedback and suggestions for modification. Because the contract is an agreement between instructor and student, both should sign the final contract and, if modifications become necessary as the learning experience progresses, both should approve and sign the modified contract.

(Video) The Skills Needed for Self-directed Learning

This Teaching Tip reviews the benefits and limitations of learning contracts, outlines both student and instructor responsibilities in creating learning contracts, and concludes with a sample learning contract you can draw on when designing independent study experiences for your students.


Learning contracts...

  • Requirestudents to be intimately involved in the process of developing their unit of study.
  • Requirestudents to explore their readiness to learn and their self-directed learning skills.
  • Maximizestudents’ motivation to learn because they have chosen the agenda.
  • Helpto keep less independent learners on course with specific and concrete goals and deadlines.
  • May include a schedule of regular meetings with the advising instructor.
  • Encourageindependence of students, which can result in fewerdemands made on instructors’ time.
  • Providea formal way to structure learning goals and activities as well as the evaluation of learning goals, whichhelps to minimize misunderstandings and poorly communicated expectations.
  • Schedule and enable the continual feedback about student progress.
  • Enableadvising faculty instructors to encourage use of a wide variety of resources (e.g., peers, library, community, experiences).


Learning contracts...

  • May be challenging to create for students who are used to lecture/exam types of courses.
  • May not be suitable for content with which students aretotally unfamiliar— some initial guidance may be required.
  • May require modification as the unit progresses — careful thought is needed for how much modification is acceptable, whichcould be defined at the outset of each unit.
  • Requirethat instructors redefine their traditional roles and make the transition from teacher to advisor.

Responsibilities for the learning contract

Student responsibilities

  1. Propose a written learning contract of what you want to learn and how you plan to learn it.
  2. Develop a detailed schedule that has you working on contract activities each week.
  3. Take the initiative to contact your advising instructor immediately to get the assistance you need (with, for example, motivation, resources, feedback, problems).
  4. Meet with your advising instructor regularly to review progress and discuss material.

Instructor responsibilities

  1. Assist in developing learning contract and ensure its completion and good quality.
  2. Recommend learning resources, such as books, journals, people, agencies, library materials.
  3. Be available as a resource for information, but allow the studentto take initiative in asking for assistance with learning.
  4. Meet regularly with the student to review progress, share ideas, and encourage learning.
  5. Evaluate the student’s work as described in the learning contract.

Sample learning contract

The following learning contract — presented first as a template with student instructions and second as a completed sample — isadapted from Knowles (1986).In addition to the planned activities and evaluation shown in the table below, it is important to document expectations related to policies, including late submissions and requests for extensions.

Student instructions

Learner: ________________________

(Video) Student Centered Learning: Why, How, & What

Learning Experience: ______________________________

What are you going to learn? (Objectives)How are you going to learn it? (Resources and Strategies)Target date for completion
Itemize what you want to be able to do or know when completed.What do you have to do in order to meet each of the objectives defined?When do you plan to complete each task?
How are you going to know that you learned it? (Evidence)How are you going to prove that you learned it? (Verification)Advising faculty member feedback (Evaluation)
What is the specific task that you are to complete to demonstrate learning?Who will receive the product of your learning and how will they evaluate it?How well was the task completed? Provide an assessment decision.

I have reviewed and find acceptable the above learning contract.

Date: __________


Advising instructor:________________________

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Completed learning contract

Learner:_Iwana Knowmore_

Learning Experience: ___Adult education theory__

What are you going to learn? (Objectives)How are you going to learn it? (Resources and Strategies)Target date for completion
To evaluate my readiness to learn and my learning needs for the unit Adult education theory.
  1. Complete the self evaluation diagnostic guide.
  2. Use the planning your unit decision guide to set up a tentative unit agenda.
  3. Review several self directed learning resources for advice and tips to prepare me for the independentstudies unit.
September 12
To gain a better understanding of the differences between andragogical and pedagogical concepts.Locate and read as many of the reference articles from unit 1 as available (with a minimum of 10 separate references). Emphasis will be on the information regarding the differences between youth and adult educational concepts.October 17
To increase my understanding of methods or formats for planning learning experiences.Read available references for Unit 2 and other TRACE tips sheets and articles on methods or formats for learning.November 21
To create (film and edit) videotapes of the self-directed learning student orientation class to be used for distance education students.Videotapes would allow distance education students access to the resources available for on campus self-directed learning students. The tapes would allow me hands on experience in developing an adult education tool.December 5
How are you going to know that you learned it? (Evidence)How are you going to prove that you learned it? (Verification)Advising faculty member feedback (Evaluation)
Creation of a satisfactory learning contract.The competencies and the learning contract will be presented to the advising faculty member. The contract will be rated with regards to depth and practicality of the selected goals and activities. Comments for modification of the contract will be requested and the contract revised until all agree on its validity.Advising faculty member: The learning contract is valid. The student has set challenging, yet attainable goals and has clearly defined what will be learned, when it will be learned, what activities are involved, and how it will be assessed. Objective complete. Very good.
A 10-15 page research paper on the differences between youth and adult education will be written.The paper will be critiqued for comprehensiveness and usefulness by the advising faculty member. An annotated bibliography of the reference material will be submitted with the paper.Specific feedback appears on the research paper. Marker decides that it was well done, with some more elaboration needed in the area of andragogical concepts. Objective complete. Satisfactory.
Make a list of methods or formats for organizing learning experiences with a brief description of each item. Try to include at least 2 novel methods.The list will be submitted to the advising faculty member. An annotated bibliography of reference material will be submitted with the list. Each will be evaluated for thoroughness and creativity.Specific feedback appears on the list. Marker decides that it was extremely well done and presented some new and creative methods. Objective complete. Outstanding.
Videotape the three one hour sessions of the night student orientation class. Develop a student workbook to accompany the videotapes.The videotape and workbook will be evaluated by the distance education office consultant and the advising faculty member for effectiveness, practicality, applicability, and depth. Particular attention will be paid to evidence of applying knowledge gained about andragogical concepts.The videotape was completed on time. All evaluators agreed that the tape is of poor quality. Until editing is complete, tape will not be useful. The workbook was not handed in for evaluation. Objective incomplete. Unsatisfactory.

I have reviewed and find acceptable the above learning contract.

Date: __________


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Advising instructor:________________________


  • Knowles, M. S. (1986). Using learning contracts: Practical approaches to individualizing and structuring learning. London: Jossey-Bass Publications.


CTE teaching tips

  • Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process
  • Independent Studies: Unit Planning Decision Guide

  • Independent Studies: Readiness to Learn
  • Making Group Contracts

Other resources

Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts | Centre for Teaching Excellence (2)This Creative Commons licenselets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us andindicate if changes were made. Use this citation format:Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts.Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.


How can teachers promote self-directed learning? ›

In order to promote a self-directed classroom where students are self-reliant then you must teach them how to manage their own goals. You can begin by helping students set small, achievable goals that can be achieved fairly quickly. This will help them understand the process of setting and achieving a goal.

What are the four major components of the learning contract? ›

Learning contracts, no matter what kind, have at least four elements, four sections; learning objectives, learning resource, the final product – evidence that the objectives have been met and assessment criteria.

Is self-directed learning a teaching strategy? ›

Self-directed learning (SDL) is an instructional strategy where the students, with guidance from the teacher, decide what and how they will learn. It can be done individually or with group learning, but the overall concept is that students take ownership of their learning.

What are some examples of self-directed learning? ›

learning and peer tutoring are good examples that capture the essence of self- directed learning. A learning contract is commonly used as a tool to assist students in planning for their learning goals and learning actions.

How do I create a self-directed learning plan? ›

5 Steps to Creating a Personal Learning Plan
  1. Identify a Learning Objective. Before creating a personal learning plan, you need to identify your objective. ...
  2. Break Your Objective into Smaller Goals. ...
  3. Develop Your Plan. ...
  4. Take Advantage of Available Resources. ...
  5. Hold Yourself Accountable.
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