How do you deal with disruptive students? Consider learning contracts.

Posted July 12, 2016

By Louise Chim

It may look like a simple backpack to some, but instructors recognize this as one of the greatest noise-makers ever invented. [Image: TaylorB90, flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/7827616674, CC BY-NC 2.0, creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/]

In my first year as a professor, I was tasked with teaching introductory psychology. I felt a lot of pressure to make this an enjoyable course for my students because when I was a freshman taking this course was a life-altering experience. It changed the trajectory of my undergraduate major and led me to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology. However, one thing that I struggled with during this first year was the constant chatter in the classroom and the noise from 300 students packing up 5 minutes before the end of class. What disappointed me the most about these “student incivilities” (Nilson & Jackson, 2004) was when students would come up after class and tell me they were really enjoying the course but had a hard time paying attention because their classmates talked throughout the entire class period.

My fellow introductory psychology colleague, Dr. Martin Smith, and I used student learning contracts the following semester as a way to address incivilities. Student learning contracts can take on different forms. For example, they can be used to set expectations about the completion of activities outside of the classroom, class or office hours attendance, or to set goals for self-directed learning (e.g., Barlow, 1974; Frank & Scharff, 2013; Chan & Wai-tong, 2000). In this post, I focus on using student learning contracts to set expectations for behavior in the classroom.

How to create learning contracts

The basic premise of a learning contract is to create a set of guidelines for students and instructors to adhere to. Rather than preparing a contract in advance for students to sign, we work with our students to create a set of guidelines. Our approach is similar to one described by Nilson and Jackson (2004) as a “student-generated code-of-conduct contract.” Here are the steps we used to implement student learning contracts in our classrooms:

1.  Create a student contract template. In the example below, we have three sections: (1) inappropriate behaviors, (2) appropriate behaviors, and (3) how to decrease inappropriate and increase appropriate behaviors.

2.  Discuss. Organize students into small groups (2-4 students) and ask them to discuss what behaviors bother them or impede their learning in the classroom and what behaviors help facilitate their learning in the classroom.

3.  Decide on the content of contract. Ask the class to share what they discussed in their smaller groups, write their suggestions on the board, and decide which behaviors should be included in the contract. In our experience, there is generally agreement on the appropriate and inappropriate behaviors (from both the students and instructors) so we decide informally what goes into the contract. However, you could also use a personal response system (e.g., iClickers) to have students vote on which items to include in the contract.

4.  Complete and sign the contract. Each student fills out the contract with the agreed upon bullet points, signs it, and the instructor collects the contracts. In our experience, we have not had students refuse to sign the contract. However, if this is a concern, see Nilson and Jackson (2004) for a suggestion on how to deal with this.

5.  Post the completed contract on the course website. Make the contract easily accessible for students to review. Here’s an example of a completed contract:

Why implement student-generated learning contracts?

While a syllabus outlines the expectations instructors have for their students, many students fail to read it (see Raymark & Connor-Greene, 2002 for how to administer a syllabus quiz). Students might also not want to adhere to a set of rules imposed on them (Nilson & Jackson, 2004). By using a student-generated learning contract, students are directly involved in the process of creating classroom guidelines.

There are several reasons why student-generated contracts can help create a positive classroom environment:

  • Discussing and generating ideas with their peers in small groups can enhance cognitive elaboration of appropriate and inappropriate classroom behaviors (Cooper & Robinson, 2000).
  • Students may realize that they are not anonymous in class and that their behaviors impede learning in others.
  • Students realize that the things that bother them in class also bother other students.
  • Students have control of the content of the contract thereby increasing motivation to adhere and enforce the contract (Barlow, 1974; Frank & Scharff, 2013).
  • It may allow for deeper processing of the content of the contract.

I have outlined reasons why student learning contracts may be beneficial but they may not be necessary for all types of classes. As with any teaching tool, it really depends on the context. For example, while I use student contracts in my introductory level psychology course I have not used them in my upper-level courses. As I mentioned previously, my introductory psychology course has over 300 students and the majority of them are freshmen. In contrast, my upper level courses are much smaller (60-70 students) and are comprised of juniors and seniors with more experience in the college environment. Previous research suggests that students feel more anonymous and engage in more disruptive classroom behaviors in larger classes (Alberts, Hazen, & Theobald, 2010; Carbone, 1999; Elder, Seaton, & Swinney, 2010). Therefore, it could be especially beneficial in these larger classes to spend time creating a contract about classroom behaviors and expectations. Moreover, in classes that are predominantly freshman, using student contracts can help establish insight into the appropriate behaviors for future courses.

I hope that by sharing one of my challenges as a first-year instructor and what my colleague and I did to address it with learning contracts can help you decide whether you would want to implement student-generated learning contracts in your class and give you the tools to create your own.

Bio

Louise Chim received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University where she studied how cultural context shapes the affective states people want to feel. She is currently an Assistant Teaching Professor in psychology at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., Canada where she teaches introduction to psychology, statistical methods, and cultural psychology.

References

Alberts, H.C., Hazen, H.D., & Theobald, R.B. (2010). Classroom incivilities: The challenge of interactions between college students and instructors in the US. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 34, 439-462. doi:10.1080/03098260903502679

Barlow, R.M. (1974). An experiment with learning contracts. The Journal of Higher Education, 45, 441-449.

Carbone, E. (1999). Students behaving badly in large classes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 77, 35-43. doi: 10.1002/tl.7704

Chan, S.W., & Wai-tong, C. (2000). Implementing contract learning in a clinical context: Report on a study. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 31, 298-305. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.2000.01297.x

Cooper, J. & Robinson, P. (2000). The argument for making large classes seem small. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 81, 5-16. doi: 10.1002/tl.8101

Elder, B., Seaton, L.P. & Swinney, L.S. (2010). Lost in a crowd: Anonymity and incivility in the accounting classroom. The Accounting Educators’ Journal, 20, 91-107.

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, 36-53.

Nilson, L.B., & Jackson, N.S. (2004, June). Combating classroom misconduct (incivility) with bill of rights. Paper presented at the 4th Conference of the International Consortium for Educational Development, Ottawa, Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.umfk.edu/pdfs/facultystaff/combatingmis...

Raymark, P.H., & Connor-Greene, P.A. (2002). The syllabus quiz, Teaching of Psychology, 29, 286-288. doi: 10.1207/S15328023TOP2904_05