Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts

Independent study experiences can be extremely rewarding both for students and their advising instructors. As our Teaching Tip, Self-Directed Learning: A Four-Step Process, explains, independent study gives students the opportunity to explore not only a given topic but also their own learning strategies and goals, and learning contracts can play a critical role in ensuring that this process is a successful one. Learning contracts give ownership to students over their 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 serve as an outline for independent study units and as tools to aid evaluation.

To maximize these benefits, students should develop their own learning contracts, which the advising instructor reviews to provide constructive 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.

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... 

  • Require students to be intimately involved in the process of developing their unit of study.
  • Require students to explore their readiness to learn and their self-directed learning skills.
  • Maximize students’ motivation to learn because they have chosen the agenda.
  • Help to keep less independent learners on course with specific and concrete goals and deadlines.
  • May include a schedule of regular meetings with the advising instructor.
  • Encourage independence of students, which can result in fewer demands made on instructors’ time.
  • Provide a formal way to structure learning goals and activities as well as the evaluation of learning goals, which helps to minimize misunderstandings and poorly communicated expectations.
  • Schedule and enable the continual feedback about student progress.
  • Enable advising 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 are totally unfamiliar — some initial guidance may be required.
  • May require modification as the unit progresses — careful thought is needed for how much modification is acceptable, which could be defined at the outset of each unit.
  • Require that 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 student to 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 — is adapted 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: ________________________

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:________________________

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 independent studies 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: __________ 


Advising instructor:________________________


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 


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


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