contract-icon.png What is a learning contract and what is it good for? When liberal arts education works, it transforms the student. Or, more accurately, students transform themselves. How do we facilitate that process?

One place it happens is in academic advising when the student and faculty advisor reflect together on the student's progress and program. A tool for advising that I have found helpful for implementing the idea that in the final analysis students are responsible for their own transformation is the LEARNING CONTRACT.

The contract has four parts: goals, academic activities, other activities, and criteria for evaluation.

Students fill out a contract at the start of each semester. They discuss its content with their advisor and then both sign off on it. It becomes the basis for their conversations throughout the semester and for the student's optional self evaluation at semester's end.

In the goals section the student records the current state of long and short term goals. By long term goals we mean "what do you want to be when you grow up?" and by short term we mean this semester: Why these courses and activities? How do you want to be different as a result of this work?

The academic activities section is just the list of courses being taken for credit.

In the "other activities section" the student lists what else is going on in their life this semester. Where and how much are they working? What are they doing for fun and stress relief? What are they doing that's a source of stress?

I take pains to make very explicit the idea that the point of this section is for us both to acknowledge that education and the transformation we aspire to does not happen in a vacuum. Some students use this section mainly as a listing of extra curricular activities; others use it to answer the more personal question: "what do you wish your teachers and advisors knew about you?"

Finally, the last section is "criteria for evaluation." I describe this quite simply: by what criteria will we judge this semester to have been a success?" Sometimes it's mundane: "3 As and a B." Other times more about personal development, "make demonstrated progress on conquering my procrastination problem," or moving plans along: "deciding on a major." Sometimes, during a first semester at Mills it's just "get used to being here and figuring out whether it's for me."

How do we use the contract? At the start of the semester the student brings a completed contract to our first 20 minute or so meeting. Sometimes we'll negotiate over some parts. I might suggest that the grade expectations are not ambitious enough or even that they might not be realistic given a particular set of courses. Or, based on our conversation I might wonder whether these really are the right criteria for THIS semester.

Then, during the semester we see each other two or three time and the contract provides a framework for our subsequent conversations. How are the near term goals working out? How is each course? Are the other activities adding or subtracting stress? Do we look to be on target to meet our criteria?

In my experience - both as a student and an advisor - the learning contract provides students with a reflective structure oriented toward taking responsibility for one's own education and for constructing that education AS transformation rather than mere accumulation of credits. It promotes meaningful and systematic advisor-advisee communication. It allows me to to advise both more effectively and more efficiently. With first years it helps me orient them toward taking their education seriously and thinking beyond ticking off requirements. For transfers, it signals a definitive shift from the drive-by advising they may have known - and become cynical about - at previous institutions.

And it makes me a better advisor ensuring that I cover the same ground with advisees regardless of how talkative or reticent they are; it keeps us focused on their long term educational trajectory rather than getting bogged down in rules and credits and thereby it makes advising more fun and rewarding than it is when we allow record keeping and clerical aspects of advising to dominate.

Learning by Contract: good for the advisee, good for the advisor.