Negotiating Instruction In Courses With No Syllabus In A Military Setting

Learning Contracts To Promote Learners’ Autonomy
Golden Sikorka/
Summary: This article discusses the effective use of learning contracts (LC) as a tool to promote learners’ autonomy while gathering their learning needs to negotiate instruction during a 4-week Spanish language familiarization course that had no predetermined syllabus.

Learning Contracts To Promote Learners' Autonomy

The premise of the study shared in this article was that a learning contract (LC) would allow students to share their learning goals in a systematic and well-defined way, consequently allowing the instructor to tailor instruction based on their needs. Another assumption that encouraged the use of contracts was that when adults learn something naturally, they are highly self-directing (Knowles et al., 1998).

The particular course discussed in this article took place in a military base, and the students were part of a military unit that was going to deploy to a Spanish speaking country and had a determined number of weeks to familiarize themselves with the language and culture of the country. The instructor had no prior information about the students’ language proficiency or their knowledge of the culture and traditions of the country. The course had no pre-established curricula or syllabi.

On their exploration, the instructor discovered that contracts promote a degree of independence and self-direction. The contracts also required little or no teacher involvement for the sake of transforming the learners and the educator into equal partners.

Literature Review

A literature review about the use of learning contracts in different teaching settings, especially in foreign and second language (L2) acquisition, provided meaningful insight. Normah and Masdinah (2012) offered significant evidence about the use of LC as an option for promoting autonomy in language learning, and described them as a formal agreement, negotiated with the learner about what and how that learning will be measured (p. 473). Promoting autonomy in the learning process is highly desired, especially when students are adults who know what they need to learn, which was the case in this study. Due to the fact that the students involved in this process already had a mission and learning goals, it was necessary to reconcile their expectations and needs. Knowles et al. (1998) provided necessary information about managing the students' expectations and the needs of the organizations. The authors stipulated that "learning contracts provide a means for negotiating reconciliation between the learner’s external needs and expectations and their needs and interests (p. 211)." Sidhu et al. (2011) identified several benefits of using LC. They stated that "Through learning agreements, learners not only experience increased levels of autonomy, empowerment, and control, but personal growth and increased self-esteem, especially when they have succeeded in the learning process" (p. 219).

The literature review revealed evidence of the use of LC in other areas of L2 acquisition, for example, with ESL learners (Sidhu, Kaur, and Fook, 2011; Ismail and Yusof, 2012), with low-English-proficiency rural learners (Juin, 2016), as well as with undergraduate (Frank and Scharf, 2013) and graduate students (Lemieux, 2001). Sidhu et al. (2011) focused on using LC to promote learner autonomy while Lemieux (2001) utilized LC as a tool for empowerment and accountability.

As far as the perceived disadvantages, Sidhu, Kaur, and Fook (2011) argued the following:

Learners are not always in the best position to judge what they need to learn, as many learners simply do not know what they do not know, some learners may experience problems with their advisors, some learners and staff members may oppose this new method of assessment, and the whole process is often time-consuming and the academic standards could fall if learners choose their own assessment.

The perceived disadvantages that Sidhu et al. (2011) expressed above can be prevented, according to the experience of this study, if the educator is aware of them and addresses them in an efficient and prompt manner. Let’s look at them one at a time. Learners that do not know what they do not know can explore their needs with their instructor through the use of coaching-style questions. When learners experience problems with their advisors, a different faculty member could take the lead as a facilitator in the course, as problems of this nature may not only affect the LC but the entire course. If staff members oppose the use of LC, the instructor could evaluate the reasons for this and provide examples of effective LC usage, as well as a literature review. Based on my experience, using LC could be time-consuming; however, it might prove more beneficial to invest time in the LC process at the beginning of a course to assess the learners' needs rather than jumping into instruction without a clear guide. Finally, if there is indeed an assumption that academic standards could fall if learners choose their own assessment, the development of tests and quizzes does not have to involve the learner at all.

A review of the literature also shed light on the use of LC in several other settings. LC have been used in an RN-to-BSN leadership course (Waddell, D. L., and Stephens, S., 2000); in an office-based primary care clerkship (McDermott, M. M., Curry, R. H., Stille, F. C., and Martin, G. J., 1999); to guide clinical education in respiratory care students (Rye, K. J.-B., 2008); in an Italian university setting (Fedeli, M., Giampaolo, M., and Coryell, J. E., 2013); and to promote student success in online doctoral programs (Shaw, M., Blyler, D., Bradley, J., Burrus, S., and Rodríguez, R., 2015).

One study that explored learning contract templates resulted in several noteworthy findings. Rogne (2012) from the University of Missouri-St. Louis suggests the student state 3 goals, a method to accomplish each of them, and a way to self-evaluate the accomplishment of these goals.

To ensure student involvement and continuous participation in the process, Rogne (2012) includes the following conditions at the bottom of the contract: "The student will participate in an online or face-to-face discussion 2-3 times during the internship and complete a final 3-page paper summarizing and evaluating their internship experience in terms of the sociological learning goals established in this contract (p. 1)."

In an article titled "Self-Directed Learning: Learning Contracts (n.d.)," the University of Waterloo suggests a sample that includes the learning objectives, resources strategies, and target date of completion, stating, "It is important to document expectations related to policies, including late submissions and requests for extensions (Sample Learning Contract section, para. 8)." The University of Waterloo also mentions the importance of an evidence section that states how the student will know they are learning, the verification of that process through some type of assessment, and getting feedback from faculty (Student Instructions section, table. 2).

Adapted Learning Contract

The author of this article adapted Knowles et al. (1998) learning contract. The adaptation had a cover page with a breakdown of all the parts of the contract to help the students understand it. The contract was in the form of a table with 5 columns that the students populated with their information.

The contract focused on the following areas:

  1. Learning goals in order to know what they wanted or needed to be able to do with the language by the end of the course.
  2. Where am I right now? An area for the learner to diagnose their learning needs in regard to the previous goals.
  3. Learning objectives. Each of the learning goals diagnosed in step 1 is translated into a learning objective to help select proper learning resources, strategies, and assessments.
  4. Learning resources and strategies, which is where the learner and the instructor get together and discuss what they will use and do to achieve the learning objectives.
  5. What can the instructor do to facilitate my learning process? Here the instructor is seen as a human resource.


The learners received and discussed the details of their learning contracts the first day and filled them out after an open discussion. The teacher emphasized that they were going to use the contract to design the class, that the focus was on what they wanted or needed to learn, and how that focus would transform them into autonomous learners in control of the course content.

After filling out the contract, the students took an oral assessment to evaluate their speaking proficiency and a diagnostic assessment to evaluate their reading and listening comprehension proficiency. The results, which were discussed individually with the students as well as in class, revealed that all students demonstrated elementary proficiency with the target language up to an ILR level of 1 or 1+ in speaking, listening, and reading comprehension. Considering these results, the first week of instruction was therefore focused on reviewing the basics of the language, including phonology, the alphabet, and numbers—as agreed upon by all students and the instructor.

The contract surfaced the information that the teacher needed to produce a syllabus with a scope and sequence of 4 weeks of instruction and to find appropriate content.

The contracts revealed 2 main instructional goals. The students needed to learn how to:

  1. informally interact with civilians to establish a positive rapport
  2. learn operational vocabulary to be able to teach specific military skills to their military counterparts in the target language country

Based on the identified instructional goals, the instructor created a website using the free website design platform to help the students gain socio-linguistic competence in order to interact with civilians in a courteous way. The website was used as a Learning Management System (LMS) to compile and organize readings, videos, songs with lyrics, vocabulary lists with popular expressions, and comprehension activities. The content was synced to the syllabus, and the students could access it from anywhere.

To support the need to learn the operational language, the teacher took a twofold approach. First, they identified the operational language that the students needed to produce in the target language and then created a lesson to teach formal imperative verbs. Since the students would be deployed to teach, they divided the operational language topics amongst themselves. They researched materials, such as handbooks, with the help of the teacher, who had a library of operational language materials in Spanish at the language center. The students translated into Spanish some essential parts of the handbooks that were in English. This task was done as a flipped classroom activity with guidance from the teacher to identify which areas were essential for translation. The students used a web-based translator and verified the accuracy with their classmates and the teacher.

To teach the grammatical structures that were needed, the instructor designed an accelerated lesson on formal imperative verbs that covered the last two weeks of the course. During this time, the students took turns participating in role-plays and scenarios that gave them opportunities to practice giving instructions and directions using appropriate vocabulary and grammatical structures at a paragraph level. These activities were audio recorded by the students so they could review them while in the field.

The contracts facilitated the teaching and preparation process. The teacher was able to design the course during the first few days of the course and could then focus on classroom facilitation thereafter. The students arrived prepared for class every day having done the flipped homework activities the night before, which included studying operational vocabulary in Spanish. Afterward, the learning contract process was successfully repeated for other courses.


Learning contracts could be useful to encourage a more flexible and agile curriculum. Teachers or teaching teams could create their own contracts based on their needs, the length of the course, and the learning goals of the students to tailor the instruction to their needs and challenges.

The contracts could also be useful for academic counseling meetings. During counseling sessions, instructors traditionally tell students how to improve; however, if they use a contract, both parties are actively involved in designing the course and negotiating instruction. The responsibility to comply with the counseling recommendations would also fall on the students more effectively due to their direct involvement in its creation.


Frank, T., and Scharf, 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, no. 4. 36–53.

Fedeli, M., Giampaolo, M., and Coryell, J. E. 2013. "The Use of Learning Contracts in an Italian University Setting." Adult Learning 24, no. 3. 104–111.

Interagency Language Roundtable. 2017. Language Skill Level Descriptions.

Ismail, N., and Yusof, M.A.M. 2012. "Leading the proverbial thirsty horse to water: ESL learners’ experience with language learning contracts." Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal 3, no. 4. 452-464.

Juin, J. K. 2016. "Exploring the Use of Learning Contracts among Low English Proficiency Rural Learners." English Teacher 45, no. 3. 114–125.

Knowles, M. S., Holton E. F., and Swanson R. A. 1998. Some Guidelines for the Use of Learning Contracts: The Adult Learner (5th ed., pp. 211-216). Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing Company.

Lemieux, C. M. 2001. "Learning contracts in the classroom: tools for empowerment and accountability." Social Work Education 20, no. 2. 263–276.

McDermott, M. M., Curry, R. H., Stille, F. C., and Martin, G. J. 1999. "Use of learning contracts in an office-based primary care clerkship." Medical Education 33, no. 5. 374.

Rogne L. 2012. Internship Learning Contract: University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Rye, K. J. 2008. "Perceived Benefits of the Use of Learning Contracts to Guide Clinical Education in Respiratory Care Students." Respiratory Care 53, no. 11. 1475.

Shaw, M., Blyler, D., Bradley, J., Burrus, S., and Rodríguez, R. 2015. "The Use of Learning Contracts to Promote Student Success in Online Doctoral Programs." Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration 18, no. 3. 1–10.

Waddell, D. L., and Stephens, S. 2000. "Use of Learning Contracts in a RN-to-BSN Leadership Course." The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing 31, no. 4. 179-184. doi:10.3928/0022-0124-20000701-11.