Contract learning is a form of learning (and teaching) that involves the student or mentee far more than usual in the formulation of assignments and curriculum. The teacher and student work together to come up with a series of assignments that the student agrees to complete, thus tailoring the course to their specific needs while giving them more motivation to complete the assigned tasks. Like any (relatively) recent development in education, contract learning has its supporters and detractors, and is likely not useful in every situation. However, contract learning has been successfully deployed in the nursing field, because it allows nurses and nurses-in-training to organize their own learning regimens and tailor their experience to their own learning needs. By examining critical literature regarding the function and success of contract learning, especially as it relates to nursing, it will become clear that contract learning is a highly effective form of learning and teaching, and as the nursing profession in particular attracts members from a wide variety of demographic and educational backgrounds, contract learning offers the ideal structure for any student or mentee, regardless of previous experience, to get the most out of his or her education and work experience.
Before critically reflecting on the effectiveness of contract learning on nursing in particular, it will be useful to define the general concept in more detail, and the easiest way to do this is to compare it with the learning paradigm it has begun to replace. According to Hiller and Hietapelto (2001, p. 661) contract learning is "an elemental structural component of postmodern pedagogy," because it represents "a shift from a performance paradigm in which the teacher's central role is to provide instruction to a learning paradigm in which his or her role is to facilitate learning." Although Hiller and Hietapelto's study focuses on contract learning in a traditional classroom environment, their work is a useful introduction to the theory as a whole and will serve as a basis for understanding the use of contract learning in nursing. Thus, the first step in understanding the effectiveness of contract learning is addressing the paradigm it has replaced, namely, the performance paradigm mentioned by Hiller and Hietapelto.
The performance paradigm brings with it the attendant problems now stereotypical of bad classroom environments: "the relationships between teachers and students are hierarchical and distant, with sharp power differences. Classroom culture tends to be competitive, individualistic, and results oriented," so that students work to "demonstrate that they have "gotten it"-met the teacher's expectations for reproducing what is already known" instead of generating new knowledge and opinions of their own (Hiller & Hietapelto, pp. 661-662). In contrast, contract learning "begins with the assumption that knowledge exists not out there but rather in each person's mind [and that] knowledge is emergent, constructed, and shaped by individual experience," which requires a fundamentally different approach to the obtaining of knowledge than that offered by the performance paradigm. In short, contract learning requires a reorientation of the student-teacher, mentee-mentor relationship.
With contract learning, the relationship between teacher and student (or mentor and mentee) is transformed from a hierarchy to a partnership, and the learning environment becomes cooperative, instead of competitive. "Because knowledge is emergent under the postmodern paradigm, an individual's learning experience will be highly dependent on the particular group of individuals involved" and so contract learning involves not only the contract between teacher and student but also the larger classroom community of which the student is a part when not working individually with the teacher (Hiller & Hietapelto, p. 662). (This detail also applies directly to the experience of the newly qualified nurse but will be addressed later, following further description of contract learning in general). These considerations inform the creation of course syllabi, and a look at how assignments work in the classes taught by Hiller and Hietapelto will give the reader a better idea as to how this teaching theory functions in general before reflecting on contract learning in nursing in particular.
For each course, Hiller and Hietapelto created a "menu of learning assignments customized to the course, from which students can build their individual course contracts," with an emphasis on assignments that "encourage students to work collaboratively, to introspect, to reflect on both their in-class and out-of-class experiences, to apply course theories and concepts to those experiences, to think both critically and open mindedly," and to use those critical thinking skills to draw connections between the disparate viewpoints generated by collaboration (Hiller & Hietapelto, p. 667). The planning and evaluation of these assignments is conducted in conjunction with the student, who is given options because "some assignments are required of all students, with student choice coming only in how much weight to give the assignment. Other assignments are optional, such that students can choose both what to do and the assignments' weights," and in some cases the teachers would provide "minimally and/or maximally acceptable weights" while the student chooses something within that range (Hiller & Hietapelto, p. 667). The details of Hiller and Hietapelto's learning contracts are worth mentioning here, because they demonstrate the dramatic difference between contract learning and traditional modes of instruction.
One major facet of contract learning is the emphasis on different learning styles depending on the student's individual needs, because "by providing a menu of learning options in conjunction with diverse classroom pedagogy, students can select assignments and experience instructional techniques that match with their learning styles" (Hiller & Hietapelto, p. 663). The efficacy of contract learning in the classroom is attested to by Hiller and Hietapelto in their study, because according to them, "one of the most compelling arguments for using contract grading is our own student feedback," because "despite their inexperience with contract grading, an overwhelming 94% of [their] students preferred it to traditional grading systems, and 96.5% recommended that [they] continue to use contract grading" in the future (Hiller & Hietapelto, 2001, pp. 663-664). Hiller and Hietapelto note that their students reported that "contract grading increased their motivation, learning, and satisfaction with the course and created a trusting learning environment," as well as the fact that "engaging in the contract grading process was itself a learning experience that taught them management concepts" (Hiller & Hietapelto, p. 664). Having addressed the most salient points regarding contract learning in general and demonstrated it effectiveness in a traditional classroom environment, it will now be possible to examine the use of contract learning in nursing in particular and demonstrate its effectiveness in ensuring nursing students and mentees are able to meet their educational and professional goals.
Although the traditional classroom environment and a nurse's work environment likely could not be more different, the value of contract learning applies equally in both contexts, because the benefits of contract learning for both the nursing mentor and mentee are the same as those for the teacher and student, albeit translated for a different environment. The sense of empowerment, motivation, and personal investment benefits the nursing mentee just as much as the traditional student, and the cooperative relationship fostered by contract learning is ideal for stressful or intense work environments. As Waddell and Stephens (2000, p. 179) note in their study "Use of learning contracts in a RN-to-BSN leadership course," teaching and mentoring nurses and nursing students can present difficulties for instructors or mentors, because "some students have practiced nursing for more years than the faculty and developed considerable clinical expertise in certain nursing situations, and, therefore, resent being put into the traditional role of student," or, "on the other hand, some students may be newly licensed as RNs, have very little experience in the profession and be very comfortable as a dependent learner." Although Waddell and Stephens' study is limited to the academic setting of Bachelor of Science in nursing programs, the difficulties they note are present at every stage of the nursing profession, and can be even worse for nursing mentees who must adjust to the realities of the healthcare profession while putting their education to work for what might be the first time. Thus, simultaneous feelings of resentment and being overwhelmed can make this transition difficult, and contract learning is precisely designed to alleviate these problems by giving the mentee a feeling of agency and control even in the face of daunting professional goals and obligations. To understand the extent of these difficulties, and how contract learning can overcome them, it will be useful to examine further instances of contract learning's successful deployment in the field of nursing.
In their essay "Opinions of Adult Learners about Negotiating Syllabi Rules in a Baccalaureate Nursing Program," Schrader and Davis (2008) address the utility of negotiating learning contracts and syllabi for nursing students and adult students in particular. The results of their study are especially relevant to the use of a learning contract by a newly qualified nurse, because they focus on how learning contracts can be adapted to suit the needs of adult learners, who have many of same social and professional obligations as nursing mentees. This is especially…