Using Student-Centered Learning Contracts to Promote Motivation and Self-Direction in Online Courses

Concurrent Session 5
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Brief Abstract

The presenter’s doctoral study found that students who use learning contracts perceive a positive change in aspects of both their internal motivation and self-directed learning behaviors.  This session will share key findings from the research and provide participants with practical guidance on using learning contracts to engage online students.

Presenters

After earning her JD/MPH from George Washington University, Lynn worked as a healthcare consultant before transitioning to practicing white-collar criminal defense law. While practicing law, she had the opportunity to teach a class at George Washington and enjoyed teaching so much that she made a career change. Currently, Lynn teaches online courses at Northeastern University in the graduate Communications and Criminal Justice Leadership programs. She recently graduated from the Doctor of Education program at Northeastern, where her doctoral thesis focused on student-centered learning in online higher education.

Extended Abstract

As an instructor of online courses, the presenter observed that students seem more engaged when they have a greater degree of control over their learning experience.  Delving more deeply into that idea, the presenter’s doctoral study sought to address the disconnect between widely articulated goals of higher education, which include helping students develop motivation and self-direction skills, and the teaching methods commonly used in online courses, which often do not further those goals.  Andragogy, the study’s theoretical framework, provides a possible solution in the teaching intervention of learning contracts, through which students exercise choice in the method of achieving course objectives.  As literature addressing learning contracts in the online setting is scant, and what exists does not provide a robust understanding of the student’s perspective on learning contracts, the purpose of this study was to examine how students interpret and respond to their experience of studying under learning contracts in online graduate courses. 

Accordingly, the study’s primary research question was: How do students interpret and respond to their experiences with learning contracts in online graduate courses at a large, private university in the Northeast United States?  The researcher conducted eight in-depth, semi-structured interviews with graduate students who studied under learning contracts in online courses.  The data revealed themes relating to the empowerment that students felt as a result of being given a choice about their course activities as well as the tension some experienced when seeking to reconcile the freedom that the learning contract’s choices provided with the commitment required to follow through on those choices throughout the term.

The study suggests that students who use learning contracts perceive a positive change in their internal motivation, largely as a result of their ability to choose deadlines and assignment topics that are consistent with their own interests and real-world experiences.  The study also suggests that students who use learning contracts perceive a positive change in some aspects of their self-directed learning behaviors, primarily due to the requirement that they take more control of their learning activities than a conventional course would require.  In addition, the study suggests, to a slight extent, that students who study under learning contracts perceive a positive change in their metacognitive behaviors. 

This study adds to the existing literature by confirming, in the online setting, findings from prior studies regarding the positive impact of learning contracts on student motivation and self-direction.  It also highlights areas of andragogy that, when students struggle with certain aspects of studying under learning contracts, are better explained through other lenses such as cognitive load theory.  Finally, it identifies the nuanced and individual student responses to studying under learning contracts that can guide future professional practice and research in this area.

To that end, this session will share key findings from the research and provide participants with practical guidance on using learning contracts to engage online students.  While this study focused on online-only graduate courses, the general principles are applicable across classroom settings and age ranges.  Handouts will include a learning contract template and ideas for adapting the template in different types of classroom settings.