Journal of Nursing Education

Syllabus Selections: Innovative Learning Activities Free

Promoting Academic and Clinical Success Through Learning Contracts

Martha K. Swartz, PhD, CPNP-PC, FAAN

Essentially, contract learning is a method whereby students become active participants in structuring their own educational plan by providing input into a written agreement that specifies what is to be learned, how it is to be learned, and how that learning is then assessed or verified. Through this process, learning becomes an active rather than a passive process for students and allows them to become more independent and responsible for their own learning. Such an approach is often used in independent study projects or in tutorial interactions with faculty. Rather than being motivated by the possibility of achieving a high grade, students have the option of selecting their own learning strategies to achieve their specific objectives based on their own individual interests and goals, while also progressing within the context of the plan of study for the course or clinical experience.

Implementing a contract learning approach is consistent with a self-directed learning model for students, rather than a teacher-centered Socratic style of learning. By helping to develop a written learning agreement, students have a voice and a choice as to what knowledge or skills they wish to attain, and how these objectives will be accomplished and validated.

In education, contract learning approaches have been implemented for undergraduate and health professional students. Frank and Scharff (2013) observed that learning contracts led to an increase in student commitment and self-direction. Robles (2015) attested that learning contracts in pharmacy education enhance a collaborative approach between faculty and students.

In clinical settings, students may bring with them unique sets of background knowledge and skills. Learning contracts can then be applied to work with the student to identify those individualized areas where additional skills or competencies are needed. This approach fosters a collaborative learning environment with the preceptor or faculty, and the learning process is individualized to the student's learning needs in relation to the specific clinical setting. Contract learning can also be implemented in the classroom setting by initially allowing students to decide what grade they would like to achieve for the course, and to select the types of learning activities and content areas in which to focus to achieve that grade.

We chose to implement a contract learning approach for a didactic, theoretical course on primary care of the newborn, a course taught to nurse practitioner students. Our rationale for implementing this approach was to ensure that students met the basic requirements for competency in this knowledge area while also being given options to pursue content areas of interest to them through individualized learning activities.

Traditionally, students' grades for this course were based on their performance on two multiple choice examinations; they received grades of either honors (92% to 100%), high pass (83% to 91%), pass (74% to 82%), or fail (< 74%). At the beginning of the course, students were given the opportunity to contract for a grade and were instructed to submit a copy of their learning contract within the first 2 weeks of the course. (Students also had the opportunity to amend their contract at the mid-term of the course.) To achieve a passing grade, students were expected to pass the midterm and final examinations on the course content. Additionally, to achieve a high pass, students were also expected to submit a substantive case study (with criteria given), based on a mother and infant dyad whom they cared for in a parallel clinical rotation. To attain an honors grade, students needed to meet the criteria for a high pass, and complete and pass (according to criteria given) one of the following: an evidenced-based narrative review or annotated bibliography on a relevant clinical topic, a critique of professional and lay websites related to a clinical area, a patient education handout, or a learning activity of the student's choice that had received prior approval from the instructor. Although presentations were not required, student projects were then posted to the online course management website so that students were able to share their work with each other. Examples of student honors projects included an annotated bibliography on challenges in breastfeeding, a narrative review on newborn metabolic screening, and a parent educational handout on bronchopulmonary dysplasia, which was reviewed and accepted for use by the nursing staff in a newborn special care unit.

Thus, through the contractual approach, students were given the chance to structure their own learning activities according to their needs and interests. With approximately 70% of students opting for an honors grade, they responded favorably to this method, noting the opportunity to be more independent and responsible for their own learning. Students were evaluated based on their demonstrated competency, as well as the breadth and quality of their work. Although contractual learning may be more time intensive for faculty teaching large courses, this approach mitigates the challenges of dealing with broad differences among a group of learners and moves the focus away from transmitting knowledge in a classroom to generating knowledge through a collaborative and learner-centered approach.

Martha K. Swartz, PhD, CPNP-PC, FAAN
Yale University School of Nursing


  • Frank, T. & Scharff, L.F.V. (2013). Learning contracts in undergraduate courses: Impacts on student behaviors and academic performance. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(4), 36–53.
  • Robles, J. (2015). Student learning contracts: Considerations for implementation in pharmacy experiential experiences. Journal of Pharmaceutical Care & Health Systems, 2(3), 1–9.

The author has disclosed no potential conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise.


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