Using a contract to get your students to commit to learning

When you put your heart and soul into teaching, you want students who pay attention and do the exercises you assign. To minimize the number of people who skip class or snooze through the lessons, try this trick.

Why is it some students think that as long as they sit in your class, they will learn through osmosis? For many, training is just a “day off “ from work. Getting those people to do their part and complete “mandatory” exercises is like pulling teeth.

So what can a good trainer do? One way to help get class participants involved in their own learning is through a learning contract. This contract is an agreement, either verbal or written, in which the student commits to achieving specific learning goals.

Why bother with the contract?
The main benefit of a learning contract is that it compels people to think about what they are going to learn. In addition, a contract gives them a more active role in determining the outcome of their training.

Another major benefit of learning contracts is that they boost your evaluations at the end of a course. Sometimes students’ expectations can change during a course. Students will think of questions during the training, but if they fail to bring those questions to the attention of the instructor, they may leave the class feeling as if the objectives weren’t met.

At the end of a session, I always run a PowerPoint slide show that displays the agreed objectives one last time. I review those objectives with the students to “make sure” we covered everything we committed to covering in the beginning. I give the students one more chance to ask questions, and then I hand out the class evaluations. When you follow this practice, students are more likely to rate the class as, “All objectives have been met.”

Writing the learning contract
How should you structure your learning contract? Just type up a basic business letter and include items such as:
  • Detailed learning objectives. Use phrases like, “At the end of training, students will know how to….”
  • Dates and times. Include the training’s start and end times, right down to the times when breaks are planned.
  • Resources to be used. Will there be handouts? Do the students need to bring anything to class with them?
  • Expected exercises and dates they are to be completed. Emphasize that the training can ONLY be successful if students stay for the entire session(s) and complete all of the exercises.

At the beginning of the training, involve the learners in this process by inviting them to comment on the learning objectives. Ask questions like:
  • What are your expectations of this course?
  • Is there anything you would like to add or delete on our learning objectives?

Show your students that you are committed to their involvement in this process by writing down their suggestions. Make sure to acknowledge all input, and be honest with them if you don’t think there will be time to cover a particular suggestion for a learning objective.

Once you’ve adjusted the objectives based on student input, go ahead and make copies for everyone scheduled for training. Ask everyone to sign his or her individual copies—and you sign each one, too.

After your students have expressed their commitment to learning in writing, move on with the course. (You could try using a verbal learning contract, but the written method is more valuable in cases where you have “problem” students.)
Suppose two people fail to show up for sessions, and one doesn’t complete any of the exercises. If the client or your manager confronts you and alleges that “nobody learned anything,” the learning contract is your backup. It shows that there were agreed-upon terms. If students don’t show up, leave early, or don’t complete the exercises—key provisions of the learning contract—the contract shows that those folks didn’t hold up their end of the deal.
Getting the commitment in advance
Some of your clients may want to create the learning contract before the first training session. In those cases, you should still make sure your students see the contract and get their opinions about it before the training begins.

I am still waiting for the day when technology is so advanced that we can hook up wires to a person’s brain, and they will learn the complete content of the course in a matter of minutes. Until that day comes, try using a learning contract to get your students’ commitment to the learning process. Without that commitment, some students will let your valuable lessons go in one ear and out the other.
If you’d like to share your favorite technique for generating interest and commitment in your students, please post a comment below or follow this link to write to Susanne.

Susanne E. Krivanek is a training coordinator/analyst for Systems & Computer Technology Corp., Education Solutions Division, which specializes in the development of software product training and certification programs. She has a training background in brokerage software, office applications, and business entrepreneurship, and she speaks on maximizing training effectiveness.

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