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Learning contracts: A fundamental component to worthwhile adult learning experiences

In modern multicultural communities there are abundant lifelong learning opportunities that many adults willingly exploit despite their busy daily routines. In fact, there are multiple reasons why adults take up foreign language learning nowadays. For instance, many of them long for job satisfaction or pursue increased employment opportunities so the acquisition of skills is regarded as an essential prerequisite. In addition, a significant number of adult learners have an inner thirst for socialization and new connections so their decision to enroll in a foreign language class often comes naturally.


By Chara Kourlessi, M.A. in Applied Linguistics 


In other words, since learning motives and incentives vary, there needs to be a unique and personalized learning sequence reflecting participants’ diverse aspirations and desires. Unfortunately, various instructors organize their adult courses underestimating participants’ current beliefs and attitudes. This simply means that unless course goals and objectives relate to participants’ individual strengths and weaknesses, learners may lose their interest or give up their efforts. Therefore, instructors and participants have to reach a consensus on how to proceed, recording individual expectations and learning preferences.

 What is a learning contract?


In fact, each learning contract encompasses a planned course of action that will take place within a certain temporal frame so as to minimize potential misconceptions and facilitate the learning process. As Berger et al. (1990) successfully put it, a learning contract is defined as “a formal agreement written by a learner, which details what will be learned, how the learning will be accomplished, the period of time involved, and the specific evaluation criteria to be used in judging the completion of learning”. Essentially, arranged goals, content and assessment methods encourage optimal learning, promoting individual productivity and efficiency (Ambrose et al., 2010). Therefore, it is essential instructors devote the first session(s) to negotiate the course content, teaching methods and techniques to be employed with a view to ensuring that the designed course addresses participants’ individual weaknesses and demands.


How do learning contracts shape successful adult learning?


By and large, adults are autonomous, self-driven learners, willing to engage in cooperative contexts. In fact, they are usually intrinsically motivated and determined to achieve a certain goal so this is mainly why they behave more responsibly than children and teenagers. This means that commitment levels are higher in adults and therefore the vast possibilities that a learning contract promises would definitely affect participation and engagement. That is to say, participants who have negotiated classroom behaviors and policies beforehand, are more likely to be satisfied throughout the process so it seems that a contract can lead to deep and profound learning enhancing student motivation (Knowles, 1986).


Needless to say that, as McKenzie-Mohr (2011) highlighted, individual engagement is particularly strengthened when practices and activities are openly agreed and documented. Admittedly, recorded approval on behalf of learners can boost positive attitudes to learning as individuals feel committed and willing to engage in the learning process (Ambrose et al., 2010). Besides that, not only does this learner-centered approach aim to encourage active involvement and participation but it can also help learners build a stable relationship with their instructor. Specifically, composing a personalized contract which is unique for each class of adults reinforces solidarity and promotes the development of growing respect among the relevant parties.


Should learning contracts be made in written form?


According to the renowned Latin proverb ‘scripta manent’, whatever is written can serve as a standard point of reference so, when it comes to adult learning, a written learning contract may typically come in handy when there is potential discomfort or when disagreements arise. In essence, even though it is not mandatory to draw up a written learning contract, the latter can offer credibility to the entire process and provide participants with comfort and security. Actually, such a written document may not have a formal and legal foundation but it encompasses the significance of efforts that the relevant parties are eager to make towards generally approved goals, objectives and activities (Boak, 1998; Knowles, 1986).


Are learning contracts absolutely necessary in adult learning practices?


It goes without saying that detecting learners’ needs and preferences during the first session(s) can determine the effectiveness of a learning programme whereas the development of such a contract would undeniably provide adult participants with confidence and stability. Besides that, consulting with learners before coming up with a personalized plan of action would definitely relieve instructors from redundant stress and help them establish intimacy and mutual respect with the participants. •



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K.(2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles For Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Berger N., Caffarella R. S. & O’Donnell J. M. (1990). Learning Contracts. In M. W. Galbraith (ed.) Adult Learning Methods: A Guide for Effective Instruction (pp.133-160). Malabar, FL: Robert E Krieger Publishing Company.

Boak, G. (1998). A Complete Guide to Learning Contracts. Hampshire, England: Gower Publishing Limited.

Knowles M. (1986). Using Learning Contracts: Practical Approaches to Individualizing and Structuring Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (2011). Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community Based Social Marketing (3rd ed). Canada: New Society Publishers.



Chara Kourlessi holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Since 2015 she has been a certified Trainer for Adults as well. Her academic interests are in materials design, foreign language testing and use of new technologies in the EFL classroom.E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.