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Unit Contracts


Unit Contracts

“You cannot put the same shoe on every foot.”  — Syrus Publilius

“Any system which cannot or will not adjust to and meet the needs of every individual becomes a destructive system”.  — David Aspy and Flora Roebuck

“Can't nothin' make your life work if you ain't the architect.”  — Terry McMillan

Many courses are organized into a sequence of units of study.  These units are typically taught as discrete “chunks” of curriculum, generally culminating in a test or other assessment, and are followed immediately by the next unit.  Each unit generally has a specific set of learning goals to be mastered in that time frame.

Given this course structure, a unit contract is simply one that extends the ideas explored in the last chapter to their logical conclusion—a contract that encompasses and organizes all the learning goals and activities in a given unit.  Unlike the learning contracts described in the last chapter, with their intentionally limited scopes and purposes, this new structure can serve to organizing an entire course, unit by unit, into a coherent set of contracts.


7.1 The Benefits of Unit Contracts

7.1 The Benefits of Unit Contracts

"I loved the feeling of independence that came with this class because I didn’t feel cramped.  I honestly felt like all the work I was doing and the progress I was making were for the first time coming intrinsically, and I found that that’s by far the most rewarding way to learn."        —Meredith C., student

The increased scope of a unit contract provides a number of significant benefits beyond those for smaller learning contracts, as described in the previous chapter.  Here are some of the advantages in using contracts at this level:

Unit contracts provide a consistent structure for learning

Consistency helps students to feel comfortable with the learning process.  It provides a stable structure within which they can have freedom to steer their learning.  When a student comes to trust the regularity of the patterns created in contracts, it provides a scaffolding that allows him to grow into his role as a responsible, proactive agent in the classroom.

Unit contracts teach students to manage time

Within the structure of unit contracts, students are repeatedly required to choose not only what they do but when they do it.  For many students, teachers have determined the deadline for every piece of work they have done, and they have little or no experience managing their own time.  Training them in this skill is an overt goal of contracts, one which is continuously reinforced. Good time management is an essential aspect of self-directedness, and is, of course, useful in life outside of school.

Unit contracts provide a practical structure for remediation

Since a contract desynchronizes the learning process, it allows individual students to continue working on material from a previous unit that they have not yet mastered.  If a student did badly on a unit test, for instance, the questions she got wrong can serve as feedback about what she needs to continue practicing. The next contract can be designed to allow that work to continue, even as the class moves on to the next topic.  By making such review work as valuable as activities in the current unit, contracts provide a way of giving a student “credit” for doing remediation.

Unit contracts provide complete documentation for the entire learning process

Unit contracts list all the possible work a student can do.  Since every student can complete a different subset of that list, contracts must include a mechanism to record which items were accomplished.  This provides a detailed record of all the work done within each unit.

Unit contracts can simplify a teacher’s bookkeeping

Differentiated learning can, of course, complicate a teacher’s grade book.  However, contracts provide a concise way to assess and record the learning process.  Because students record what work they did on the contract as well as how it was evaluated, the teacher is freed from having to record every piece of work in her grade book.  Instead, she can summarize and enter a single grade for the whole contract, dramatically simplifying bookkeeping.  Having students take responsibility for documenting  their own learning process also provides them with a greater sense of ownership.

Unit contracts give teachers a means of organizing the learning goals for an entire course

By working backwards from the overarching goals of the course, a teacher (or better still, a group of teachers), can prioritize the most important learning goals and organize them into units.  The basic scope of every unit contract is created through this process.

Unit contracts provide teacher and student an overview of the learning process and a tool for authentic assessment

A collection of contracts at the end of a marking period gives a clear overview of a student’s work.  This can be invaluable in critiquing how well she is doing and how she might improve. In particular, unit contracts can be one of the central mechanisms used in grade conferences or other discussions with students about how well they are learning.  A sequence of unit contracts offers both student and teacher a long-term perspective on the student’s progress that might otherwise be hard to grasp.

Contracts can be used to teach students self-evaluation

Self-assessment is an essential aspect of self-directed learning.  It is important for a student to evaluate the contract items she has completed, as well as determining what she thinks is a fair grade for the whole contract.  Any differences that may arise between a student’s and teacher’s assessment can lead to important conversations about what excellence looks like. This is particularly true at the start of the year.  A well-designed contract supports self-evaluation, and self-evaluation gives students ownership over the learning process. The advantages of self-evaluation are described more fully in “Grades Reconsidered ".

Unit contracts can help transform the grading process into an exercise in metacognition

When students learn to evaluate their own work, teachers can observe how honest and accurate they are being and can give them feedback accordingly.  This provides a window into a broader understanding of how well they are steering their learning process. In addition, the contract gives an overview of not just how well a student did her work, but also how well she decided what work to do.  This can provide another opportunity to reflect on and cultivate the student’s decision-making skills.

The creation of unit contracts can serve as a basis for collaboration with colleagues  

Clarifying and prioritizing learning goals, creating meaningful categories for contract work, and sharing and sorting contract items with others is more productive than doing it alone, particularly among teachers who are teaching the same course.  Designing contracts is also an excellent task for a professional learning community (PLC).

Unit contracts can help liberate the curriculum from the structure and the content of textbook chapters

All too often, the syllabus of a course is aligned, or even identical, to the table of contents of the textbook.  Chapters become units, and, because there are always more chapters in a textbook than can be feasibly covered in a school year, the linkage between curriculum and texts adds pressure to expand the content that must be “covered”.  Academic rigor can be defined as the pace at which the class marches through the chapters—the more rigorous, the faster. Unfortunately, this pressure only exacerbates the already ubiquitous problem of the bell curve and students at the bottom being left behind.  

Using unit contracts helps teachers regain control over the definition of essential learning goals.  It also frees up the more successful students to explore further, possibly even beyond what is in the textbook.  There will be any number of directions students can pursue, such as diving into more sophisticated work or investigating areas of interest that are not covered in the textbook.

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7.2 The Building Blocks of a Contract

7.2 The Building Blocks of a Contract

Teachers first integrating contracts into their classes may choose to keep the form simple initially.  This makes planning easier and lets students acclimate to this new way of working. The following functions are the basic elements teachers will need.  However, most, if not all of these functions will be found in a mature, well-designed unit contract.

  • A definition of learning goals. What students should know and be able to do by the end of the unit is clearly stated. These goals serve as the basis of assessment at the end of the contract.

  • A complete list of all available work. All the activities that students can do to master the learning goals of the contract are listed.  They fall into two broad categories:

1)  Essential work items that all students are required to complete.  Of all the work listed in a contract, some items serve as the foundation for mastering the learning goals of the unit.  These items are fundamental and required of all students, regardless of how quickly they master the material.

2)  Differentiated work items that will individualize each student’s learning process.  When a student has completed the essential work in a contract, he may or may not have mastered that material.  Contracts provide remedial work designed to allow a student who is struggling to continue working as needed. Contracts also contain enrichment items to allow a student who has already mastered the material to continue to work at an appropriate level of challenge.  In addition, contracts can provide work that is differentiated around various learning styles, so that students can approach learning in ways that are most effective for them.

  • A calendar of due dates for homework and assessments. While it is not unusual for a teacher to give students a list of homework deadlines, the contract structure makes a calendar more important because students now have to make choices about what work to do and when to do it.  The calendar gives every student the necessary information to manage his time well.

  • A mechanism to record what work each student completed. Once the work in a class is differentiated, contracts can be used to document the path every student took in mastering the learning goals.  A simple checkbox next to every contract item will often suffice for this purpose.

  • A mechanism for the evaluation of every item on the contract as well as for the contract as a whole. If student work is being evaluated, contracts provide a means of assessing the learning process.  This requires a complete rubric for evaluating every type of contract item, along with a means of deriving a grade for the whole contract.

  • A mechanism for student self-evaluation. In addition to (or instead of) a teacher evaluation, contracts provide a practical means of documenting student self-assessment.  



7.3 Protocontracts: A Steppingstone

7.3 Protocontracts: A Steppingstone

When a teacher is first contemplating the use of unit contracts, the process can seem daunting, particularly if she is doing it alone.  A good first step is to create a structure called a protocontract, which is simply a format for recording the student work that is made available during the unit.  By filling this form out as the unit progresses, a record is created for both you and your students of all the work items in the unit. Once students check off the work they completed, the form can be used as a cover sheet and a summary of the learning process for each student.  It can, if you and they are ready, also preview the idea of students self-evaluating their work. Most importantly for you, it provides a solid basis for creating full-fledged unit contracts next year.

Here is a sample protocontract developed by Jim Behling of Niles North High School.  This form is handed out to students at the start of the unit and is updated periodically to fill in all the assignments. While it is not necessary in a protocontract, this one gives students the opportunity to evaluate both how well they did the learning process (was it on time?, was it complete?) and their understanding of the material (thumbs up or down).


7.4 Other Considerations

7.4 Other Considerations

Evolving towards unit contracts

For a teacher who is first implementing unit contracts in her classroom, the scale of this task may be daunting.  It is a serious undertaking, which can take several years to accomplish. A practical approach is to spend a year or more working with protocontracts, as described above, and minicontracts, as described in the previous chapter.  Having experience with these forms leads quite naturally towards the development of unit contracts; when you are ready, these smaller, simpler forms can be absorbed into the creation of a unit contract.

Single versus continuous contracts

The first time a teacher introduces unit contracts, she may want to limit their use to several contracts scattered throughout the year.  In this way, the form of the contract can be tried out, and there is time to assess how well it has worked before creating another. Paying attention to student responses to these initial contracts is essential.  Time should be given to serious discussions on how the contract form can be improved for the next iteration.

Even after a teacher is comfortable with the scope of unit contracts, their use may be most appropriate for a subset of the units covered in a year, rather than continuous use over the entire year.  Depending on the discipline and the topics being covered, some units may call for more differentiated learning and will be the best candidates for unit contracts. For those aspects of the course where a full unit contract may not be appropriate, minicontracts can, of course, still be used for any circumstances where differentiation is called for.

There are, however, distinct benefits to organizing a course into a coherent set of continuous unit contracts.  Most of the benefits described above will only be realized through such an approach. Once this powerful tool is experienced, both teachers and students are likely to want to use it consistently.


7.5 A Sample Unit Contract

7.5 A Sample Unit Contract

Here is an example of the type of contract that I used in my physics class.  It is a tool that evolved over many years, and utilizes all of the building blocks described above.

The major components found in this contract include:

Learning Goals 

The learning goals listed on the second page of this contract are its heart, since they provide the purpose of all the activities listed on the front.  I found it useful to divide learning goals into concepts that students should know and skills that they should be able to do.  These categories functioned well in this class, but are by no means the only way to organize learning goals.  

The conceptual goals are posed as “Essential Questions”, with a set of subquestions to define the goal more specifically.  The skills-based learning goals are defined as “Essential Skills”, in this case a set of equations students need to master.  The specific types of problems to be solved with those equations are defined in the required problem sets found in the contract.

Clearly defined learning goals serve the important function of informing students what they are responsible for at the end of the contract.  If, for instance, a student can answer the essential questions in detail by then, he will have mastered the conceptual basis of this unit. If a student can independently use the listed equations to solve all the problems in the required contract items, he will be prepared to take a test on those skills.

Contract Items 

On the front page of this contract is a list of all the activities students might do to master the learning goals.  No student will do all of them, but they are all available for every student. The check box in front of each item is there for the student to indicate what work she has completed.  

The activities are grouped into classwork/homework and labs.  In my physics classes, this division reflected the fact that classwork and homework tended to be abstract (reading assignments, problem sets, etc), and the labs, of course, were hands on experiences (station labs and other lab activities, projects, and so forth).

Required work

The bold items on the contract are essential work that is required of every student.  All other items found in regular text are differentiated work, described below. Required items are generally work that has a hard deadline, so that all students are ready to review it together on the same day.  On this contract, the required work includes:

Reading homework.  HW7A (the first homework of chapter 7) entails reading and taking notes on sections 7.2 through 7.4 in the textbook.

Required Problem sets. 

On the energy contract, there are three required problem sets.  The first, Energy Set-up I, is designed to practice only the beginning step of energy problems.  For many students, this skill is the most difficult hurdle and needs to be practiced separately.    

Energy I and Energy II build to a desired level of complexity and represent the most sophisticated level of skill required in this unit.  

Required labs. The Stairway Activity and the two station labs were sufficient hands-on experience for most students to master the real world applications of the learning goals.

Current Events. This is a work a student can do at any time in which he reads an article of his choosing and writes a summary of what he learned and how he reacted to the article.

Concept Map. This is an in-class activity that I used for reviewing all the concepts of the unit and discussing how they are all connected.  Examples of both current events and concept maps can be found in Tools for Teachers”.

Class Notes. This item consists of everything the student writes or draws in a journal during introductions, demonstrations and lectures.  The ability to take good, well-organized, informative notes is a useful skill, and not just in school. Defining excellent class notes and evaluating them on the contract helps teach students how to take effective notes.

Review/remediation items

Students who don’t master a learning goal while doing the required items need to be able to continue working until they do.  For instance, Energy Set-up II is a problem set that provides more practice on the skill introduced in Energy Set-up I.

Another need for remediation occurs when students don’t do well on a unit assessment.  They need to be able to continue working on it, even when the class has moved on to the next unit.

For example, the Work Retest Problem Set is designed for students who didn’t do well on the unit that preceded energy.  

Finally, Algebra Review Problems is designed to let students practice the basic mathematical skill of rearranging equations using the formulas found in this unit.  A version of this kind of basic algebra review was included in every contract to build confidence in students who were struggling mathematically.

Above and Beyond (A&B) items:  Energy Problem Sets IV and V are problem sets that require more complex skills than are going to be assessed at the end of the unit. 

Other differentiated items.  Some items on a contract can allow for students to explore the learning goals in other modes of learning.  Sensei Physics is a computer simulation of various energy-related topics, for instance, to allow for a visual, sequential learning style.  There are two Concept Development (CD) worksheets that allow for paper-and-pencil, visual work.  There are several optional labs that give students a chance to explore the material by tactile-kinesthetic means.

Above and Beyond (A&B) items:

Energy Problem Sets IV and V are problem sets that require more complex skills than are going to be assessed at the end of the unit.

Other differentiated items.  

Some items on a contract can allow for students to explore the learning goals in other modes of learning.  Sensei Physics was a computer simulation of various energy-related topics, for instance, to allow for a visual, sequential learning style.  There are two Concept Development (CD) worksheets that allow for paper-and-pencil, visual work. There are several optional labs that give students a chance to explore the material by tactile-kinesthetic means.

Blank items. In every contract, several spaces were left for the creation of new, unanticipated work.  These items can be generated by the teacher in response to a need that arises during the contract.  They can also be generated by a student, in consultation with the teacher.

Contract Evaluation

One of the most powerful aspects of the contract structure is its ability to make grading, and in particular student self-evaluation, a more authentic and communicative tool.  The evaluation occurs on two levels.

Item evaluation.  The dashes found to the left of the check boxes provide a space for the evaluation of every contract item.  The system I used was for this evaluation was a simple 1 to 5 scale, where 5 meant excellent work, 3 meant mediocre work, and so forth.  Clearly, before a student can evaluate her work, there must be a clear, explicit definition of what is meant by excellent or mediocre. The issue of self-evaluating unit contracts is discussed in depth in the chapter “Grades Reconsidered”.

Contract evaluation.  Of course, beyond the evaluation of every item of work the student did is the assessment of how well the whole contract was completed.  In essence, this is a grade for how well the student did the process of learning during this contract.

Notice at the bottom of the page that there are two spaces, one for the student and one for the teacher.  The purpose here is to make a comparison between the student’s and the teacher’s evaluation of the contract work visible.  A minor discrepancy, (a B+ instead of an A-), is not a problem, but if there is a serious disagreement, it means there is either a misunderstanding about what excellence looks like or an intentional misrepresentation on the part of the student.  In either case, a conversation between teacher and student is called for to deal with the issue. Such conversations can be very meaningful indeed.

A minimum number of items.  Having a required minimum number of items

ensures that every student will do a sufficient number of differentiated items.  For example, the energy contract requires fourteen items, ten of which are required.  Students are therefore required to do at least four additional contract items. Those who have mastered the learning goals quickly will still need to continue working, preferably by completing enrichment items.  Struggling students have a number of ways to continue working. When the desired classroom culture is established, students who need more practice can, and often do, complete more than the minimum.


The calendar shows only hard deadlines, including those for all required homework.  (Energy Set-up Problems I is required, but was done in class.) It also shows the date of a review of the unit.  All differentiated work is due at that time, and the review includes answer keys for every such item. The contracts are turned in on the date of the test to be reviewed by the teacher.





7.6 Other Examples of Unit Contracts

7.6 Other Examples of Unit Contracts

Here is a contract used in an ESL class on the skill of writing effective paragraphs.  It lists the learning goals, both concepts and skills, and then organizes the work into “Whole Group”, “Practice”, and “Above and Beyond”.  Notice that there are blank spaces in each of these categories so that the teacher (or the student) can add items as needed. The final page is a student self-evaluation of both the process and the student’s sense of his work ethic during this contract.  (Thanks to Iris Jun, Jaison Varghese, and Seju Jain of Palatine High School.)

This chemistry unit contract on the gas laws is laid out as a check-list of activities with a focus on when the work was completed.  Learning goals are stated simply at the top of the contract. Contract items are organized around each law separately, and differentiated items are indicated with an asterisk.  A wide variety of modes of learning are offered, both in the required and differentiated items. Some additional prerequisite skills are listed at the end of the contract. (Thanks to Michael Nocella of Niles West High School.)

This contract, used in an algebra class lists concepts and skills, and then organizes the activities in a matrix format, based on the learning goals. (Thanks to Sarina Riley, Jeanette Prusko, and Dennis Zandi of Palatine High School.)


In this astronomy contract, one form of differentiation that is offered is in the way the student’s reading notes are created.  There are also blank lines to offer students the ability to create their own activities, particularly in independent research. (Thanks to Gionmatthias Schelbert and Andy Miner of Evanston Township High School.)

A Spanish contract is, once again, in the list format.  (Thanks to Fernando Campos of Evanston Township High School.)

This contract, for ESL students, serves as a resource contract.  Through a steady use of check-ups, teachers are able to identify recurring problems in grammar.  They then send students to a resource center outside of class to work on the particular issues they are struggling with by assigning specific activities on this contract. (Thanks to Iris Jun, Jaison Varghese, and Seju Jain of Palatine High School.)


7.7 Constructing A Unit Contract

7.7 Constructing A Unit Contract

Define the learning goals first

Building a contract from the ground up offers an opportunity to examine every aspect of the unit you are about to teach.  As always, start the design with this question: “What should students know and be able to do when this contract is completed?”    

Carefully answering this question will force you to be clear and explicit about your curricular priorities.  Once that task is done, plan backwards to create the contents and structure of the contract.

It is important to remember that there is no right way to design a contract;  learning goals can be expressed and organized in any appropriate format. Different disciplines will certainly have unique requirements that will lead to a variety of ways to articulate the learning goals.  Regardless of what you teach, the task of categorizing and articulating the learning goals is an important exercise and leads to clarity for you and for your students.

Define the required work items

When you consider the entire list of possible activities, the required items are those which directly lead to understanding the learning goals.  There should be no redundancy between any of the required items—if a student can master the learning goal by doing a single required work, she should not be required to do that work again.  In other words, the criterion of required work is that it will be sufficient for the most adept and quickest learners in your room to master the learning goals without any of it feeling like busywork.

For complex skills, determine the basic building blocks and the number of steps in the learning process

One of the most challenging aspects of creating contracts is determining how to create the scaffolding that your students will need to master complex skills.  The appropriate number of steps will depend on the complexity of the skill being learned and the abilities of the particular group of students in your classroom.  The more highly motivated and prepared the students are, the fewer the number of steps. Each major level of complexity needs at least one contract item to allow for practice as needed.

Breaking skills down to the appropriate number of subskills serves a number of important functions.  First, it allows every student to be successful in each step before moving on, thus building on a sense of self-confidence.  Second, it allows students to identify what part or parts that they find difficult in particular, so that they can practice those parts specifically.  This trains them in the metacognitive skill of isolating the difficulty. Finally, it affords your students (and you) a sense of clarity about how complex skills are constructed.

Determine the level of critical thinking to be mastered

An important metacognitive learning goal for every student is the cultivation of critical thinking skills and creativity.  In the scaffolding of complex skills, this may well be considered as a final step. Confronting students with unexpected challenges different from those they previously encountered can be one means of practicing creative thinking skills.  This level of creative problem solving may be considered essential for every student and explicitly built into the learning goals. In some circumstances, it may also be considered an enrichment activity for students who master the essential skills quickly.  In any case, this important aspect should be intentionally addressed.

Create both formal and informal assessments for each level of complexity

Both your students and you need feedback on how successfully they are mastering each step.  For the student, this is essential in learning how to accurately assess whether he needs more practice.  This self-awareness is at the heart of effective learning. For you, these regular check-ups are essential in deciding whether to continue to review the material or move on to the next topic. See “The Uses of Feedback” in "Learning Contracts: The Structure of Self-directedness".    

Design the differentiated contract items that will allow students to continue reviewing concepts and practicing skills as needed

A student may need to continue working on a learning goal under at least three distinct situations.  First, if a student has completed a required contract item and still hasn’t mastered the content, there must be other contract items designed for remediation.  Creating these items requires anticipating where students will have the most difficulty and creating contract items that will allow them to practice as needed.  The energy contract allows for a review of the set-up problems and two opportunities to practice the most complex level of problem solving. Several other differentiated items are useful for reviewing the concepts and are described in detail below.    

A second scenario where a student may need to continue working is when he didn’t do well on an assessment at the end of the previous unit.  As an example, on the energy contract, the Work Retest Problem Set is designed to practice the skills from the previous contract. If the unit assessment is formative in nature—highly recommended—it is essential to also offer differentiated work that lets him continue reviewing that material.   That work is an integral part of the test remediation process, which is described in more detail in “Testing Revisited”.

A third scenario occurs when a student is struggling with fundamental skill that is a prerequisite to success in the current contract.  On the energy contract, for instance, the Algebra Review Problems item is designed to let students practice the basic mathematical skill of rearranging equations using the formulas found in this unit.   All too often, a student resigns himself to failure because such fundamental weaknesses remain unexamined and unchallenged. Acknowledging and addressing the problem, rather than ignoring it and moving on, grounds his learning experience and provides the means for greater success.

Choose contract items for enrichment.  

Assume that some students will achieve mastery before others and will therefore be capable of tackling more complex problems.  It is important to provide these students with differentiated contract items that are more sophisticated and challenging than anything that you will hold them accountable for at the end of the unit.  If appropriate, a second, more sophisticated textbook can be issued as needed to provide the appropriate level of challenge.

Choose differentiated work to accommodate different learning styles.  

Since students learn in different modes, they need to be able to choose work in those various styles whenever possible.  The energy contract, for instance, includes hands-on activities, paper and pencil problem solving, working with computer simulations, reading and taking notes, watching demonstrations, working on graphical organizers like concept maps, and discussing the material being learned in small groups.  Thus, whether a student is a dominantly visual, auditory or tactile-kinesthetic learner, there will be activities that will work well for him.

Organize contract items into categories

Constructing a contract is an opportunity to create useful categories of work that are responsive to both student’s needs and the nature of the subject being taught.  The act of creating those categories can be surprisingly challenging. Being clear about how work is organized in a contract, however, is a powerful tool in presenting it to students.

 Some examples of such categories include:

  • Essential (required) work can be separated from remediation and enrichment.  In my contract described above, these categories were distinguished by the use of bold vs plain text.

  • Hands-on activities can be separated from readings or worksheets or problem sets.  In my contact, these were two separate lists.

  • Items can be grouped around the learning goals or subtopics.  

  • Work can be organized along learning styles.  Teachers may consider and include options for visual, auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, or inductive/deductive learning styles, for example.

  • Categories of work may be unique to a given discipline.  For instance, in a foreign language, categories might include speaking/listening, writing/reading, fluency/grammar/vocabulary, and so forth.

  • Conceptual learning goals can be separate from skills-based goals.

  • Groups of contract items can be organized around the calendar, having items grouped within partial deadlines.  This approach is especially useful for students who are not yet adept at time management.

  • If the topic can be broken into relatively independent segments, the contract items can be organized accordingly, with each segment followed by a quiz or other assessment.

  • Contract groupings can be organized by who is doing the work.  Work done by individual students might form one group, work done by study groups another.

  • Groups may be designed around where the work is being done—one group for work inside the classroom, one in the language lab or a resource center, and one at home.

  • Groupings may also be useful in steering how students do differentiated work.  For instance, a contract might require a student to do three items out of one group, five out of another.

Decide on a minimum number of items to be completed

This will be the sum of the required and differentiated items.  This number is determined by the scope of the learning goals, the number of items deemed essential in mastering them, and the anticipated amount of remediation needed by struggling students.

A factor determining the minimum number of items is the readiness of students to work independently.  For classes with more mature and self-directed students, the number of differentiated items will be greater.  Even in a class that is initially less responsible, as the year progresses, contracts can respond to students’ growing self-sufficiency by having fewer required items and more differentiated items.  When students realize their increasingly mature behavior has led to more freedom, there is a well-earned sense of pride.

Create a planning calendar

After deciding what activities will be in the contract, the pace at which the contract will unfold must be determined.  A planning calendar allows you to design the sequence of activities and to estimate how long each activity will take. You will also need to decide how many of the contract items are to be done as homework and how many will be done in class.

The pace of a class is one of the central factors in ensuring broad success.  Optimizing the pace is tricky, particularly if there is a wide range of abilities in your class. and it is often a difficult thing to predict.  If at all possible, keep a record of what happens in class every day so that planning the following year will become much more realistic. This is hard to do—we are all too busy— but it is a huge help when you plan future contract calendars.

Decide the length of time needed for the contract

In my experience, the shortest contracts were about one week long, and that was generally because there was an external deadline for finishing up the contract, like an upcoming vacation or the end of the marking period.  Under such circumstances, don’t distort the pace to meet the time constraint. Instead, it is better to break up a long contract into separate shorter pieces. For instance, the energy contract was scheduled to start one week before winter break.  The unit, normally three weeks long, originally included a section on the concept of work. Given the timeframe, I created a separate work contract to be completed in that week and introduced the energy contract shown below after the winter break.

If there is less than a week available before an external interruption, it’s probably best to have students do work outside the contract structure.  This might be a small project, independent research, review or other functions that can take a few days to accomplish.

There is also a limit on how long an effective contract can be.  I have found that contracts longer than three weeks tend to lose coherency, and it becomes harder for students to see how the whole scope of material included in the contract holds together. As always, planning is best based on the needs of the learner.

Create a contract calendar

The contract calendar is how you communicate what parts of your planning calendar the students need to know.  The calendar includes hard deadlines for all required homework or other work which is meant to be reviewed together in class.  Once you have established what that work is and when it occurs in the planning calendar, transfer those deadlines and events to the contract calendar.  

In general, avoid describing everyday activities on the contract calendar.  Too much written information clutters the image, making the deadlines less noticeable.  Filling every day with detailed plans also lends itself to the mentality that what we do in class is preordained and that nothing spontaneous can happen.  Finally, sometimes progress through the contract is slower or faster than anticipated, particularly the first time you do it. When that happens, adjusting the calendar—“We are now officially two days behind”—is more complicated if it is cluttered with what is going to happen every day.  Leaving some empty spaces on the contract calendar allows for more flexibility and spontaneity.

For longer cycles, interim deadlines can help the procrastinating student manage his time and avoid a pile-up of work at the end of the contract.  This not only assists in his learning about time management, but also reinforces the need to prevent useful work from turning into busywork just to satisfy contract obligations.  The message to the student is that if it isn’t about learning, don’t do it.

Designing the planning and contract calendars can be quite challenging, particularly if you are developing contracts for the first time.  If time constraints or a lack of familiarity with new curriculum prevent you from planning out the whole unit in detail, hand out the contracts with an empty (or partially empty) calendar and have students fill it in as the unit unfolds.  This is generally a better alternative than waiting until you have completely finished the planning calendar before handing out the contract.

While a calendar is not an absolutely essential part of a  contract, it does serve the important purpose of clarifying the scope of the contract.  Contract calendars also help students learn to manage their time.

Create a mechanism for student self-evaluation

In general, by the time a student hands in a contract, every item should be self-evaluated.  In addition, he should decide on an overall grade for the whole contract.

Create a consistent nomenclature

In order to be concise, contracts need a form of shorthand that tells students exactly what the assignments are in an abbreviated form.   Here’s an example from the energy contract:

      HW 7A:  Read 7.2-7.4   R11,14,19   E14,22,24,35,36  (Power, PE, KE, Conservation )

This stands for the first homework assignment in chapter 7 of the textbook, which requires reading and taking notes on sections 7.2 through 7.4.  When the students are going over the homework in study groups, they will need to discuss and answer Review (R) questions 11, 14, and 19 and Exercises (E) questions 14, 22, 24, 35, and 36.  (“Review” and “Exercises” are separate categories of questions at the end of the chapter in our textbook.)

Following every contract item is a brief description of its contents in parentheses and italics.  Knowing what every contract item is about creates an overview of the material and helps students make good choices about what differentiated work they are going to do.

Create a coherent graphic design

When the design of a contract is clear and meaningful, students will find it easier to use and evaluate, and it will help them organize their own work.  Creating a typographic pattern using font types and sizes, and bold, underlined and italic text can also help organize the different categories of contract items such as required vs. differentiated work, review vs. enriched, regular vs. honors credit, etc.

Leave space for comments

There is often a need for written communication between you and a student.  It may be some specific circumstance that affected his work, or a reminder of some specific arrangement you made verbally.  You may disagree with the student’s self-evaluation (particularly at the beginning of the year) and want to describe what the disagreement is about.  You may also need to ask why a student made certain choices. At the end of the marking period, viewing these comments during a grade conference can provide specific topics for conversation and can be particularly helpful in discussing how the student can improve his performance.

Leave room for new items to be added

Learning new material may require additional review or practice for some students that you hadn’t anticipated.  Being responsive to these needs may entail adding new items to the contract.


7.8 Tips on the Use of Contracts

7.8 Tips on the Use of Contracts

Establishing the meaning of every new unit

Whenever possible, start the new topic with an exciting activity or demonstration.  Make it as intriguing and provocative as possible. Impress upon your students how interesting and worth knowing this new topic is.  Convey how it is connected to the course, how it builds on what they already know and prepares them for what comes next in the course, and how it fits into their lives.  Leave them wanting more.

Introducing the contract

Familiarize your students with the contract.  Start with the learning goals. Remind students that these goals define what they should know and be able to do by the time the contract is finished.  This is what the assessment at the end of the unit will be based on. Briefly review the calendar so that students have a sense of the time frame for the unit and a first look at when homework will be due.  Some students may copy homework due dates into their planners immediately. Finally, review the front of the contract, how many items are required for the contract, how many are differentiated, what kinds of work are coming.

Ending the Contract

The last day of the contract will often be dedicated to reviewing the unit.  A review can of course be handled in any of a wide number of ways. One technique is to hand out concept maps for students to complete in small groups.  The purpose of the concept map is to see graphically how all the concepts of the unit are related to each other. Another powerful way to review is for students to get into study groups and actively talk through everything they know about the essential questions in as much detail as possible.  The expected level of proficiency of the skills is clearly defined by the problems contained in the required problem sets, so reviewing those is an effective way to prepare.

Grading Their Contracts

At the end of the unit, each student will self evaluate every item that he completed and then evaluate the contract as a whole.  The more completely and accurately he does this task, the easier your job becomes. In any case, contracts should be turned in at the time of the unit assessment.  Any work that is done after that point is likely to be busywork, being completed to reach the minimum number of contract items. Such work should be discounted, as it is likely to be of less value in the learning process.

Once contracts are graded, they should optimally be kept in a physical or digital portfolio as a record of the learning process.  This serves as an excellent tool for students when they are reviewing for an exam. They also form the backbone of the information used in grade conferences at the end of marking periods.

Testing for Understanding

At the end of the unit, some form of assessment is essential for both you and the student to evaluate how well he has learned the material.  In my experience, it is important to test concepts and skills separately. I found that the remediation required for the two forms of learning was of necessity different.  When a student didn’t understand concepts, remediation consisted of analyzing misunderstandings. The format I came up with was for the student to write a test resubmittal.  This is described in detail in “Rethinking Tests”. For skills, the remediation process consisted of identifying skills that haven’t been mastered yet, practicing them, and taking another skills test.

As usual, at the end of the energy unit there were two separate tests, one for concepts and one for skills.  For a student that did well on the tests, the cycle of the contract is over when he reviews the test with his study group.  He then puts his tests in the portfolio, along with the contract.

If a student did not do well on the test, there is a remediation process that begins with the study group review.  The remediation process is described in detail in the chapter “Making Tests Meaningful”.  For this student, the contract is over when that remediation is finished.

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7.9 Finding the Rhythm of the Contract Cycle

7.9 Finding the Rhythm of the Contract Cycle

The Learning Cycle

Every unit has a beginning, a middle and an end.  As shown in the diagram below, it typically begins with a teacher-led introduction to the material and a definition of the scope of the contract.  It then branches out into a phase of independent exploration and practice, in which individual students or small groups do differentiated contract work to find their own path to proficiency.  This is a part of the contract that many students come to look forward to. It is a time for them to be in charge. That phase is followed by the reconvening of the whole group to share, summarize, and  solidify what has been learned.

A simple contract can be organized around one such sequence.  On the other hand, if the learning goals are complex and the material is being developed in several stages, this process might be repeated one or more times.  Each sequence would be followed by an assessment. If that assessment shows that widespread misunderstanding exists, it is time to return to the previous exploration phase, with new works added to the contracts.  

At the end of the unit, every student self-evaluates his work and turns in the contract to be reviewed by you.  Finally, there is a cumulative test or tests of the whole unit. During the introduction phase of the next unit, students go over their tests together and help each other to learn from their mistakes.  If necessary, remediation work occurs during the next contract.

The Teaching Cycle

Given the pattern of the learning cycle described above, there is a convergence of work for the teacher at the end of each contract.  This includes grading student contracts, grading unit tests or other assessments, setting up the next unit, and creating the next contract.  In order to minimize the crush at these times, the teacher’s contract cycle needs to be intentionally out of sync with the students’. The teacher’s cycle begins with planning the next unit and writing the next contract during the middle of the current learning cycle.  The more of these tasks that have already been completed before the end of the current contract, the better.

This diagram shows the relationship between the teaching and learning cycles.  As an example, my design for the energy contract began during the middle of the previous contract on work.  I began by looking at last year’s energy contract to review the learning goals and the list of contract items.  In my file folder of masters for that unit, I had a copy of the energy contract with comments that I made last year on how to improve it.  Those improvements included adding several intermediate skills steps and eliminating one lab activity.

I then checked the planning calendar from last year as well as the record I kept of what occurred day by day.  In that record, I found several notes to myself to adjust the pace of the activities and to make some small changes in the sequence of those activities.

Finally, I looked through all the materials—textbooks, internet sites, problem sets—and found several new activities to include as differentiated items on the new contract.

The period when students are reviewing what they have learned is a good time to create the unit assessment.  On the day they took the unit test, I would have them turn in their learning journals and contracts, already self-evaluated.  After some practice, they were so good at it that it required very little oversight on my part, and I found I could often verify the grades they gave themselves while they were taking the test!

Finally, in the day or two after the test, I would focus on grading and returning it to them so that they could review it together in their study groups and those students who needed to work on remediation could begin that process promptly.


7.10 Contracts Require Teacher Responsiveness

7.10 Contracts Require Teacher Responsiveness

Be flexible

Including blank places on a contract allows for the addition of new items in response to students’ needs.  For example, you may discover that the jump from the skill level of one contract item to the next is too big, and that there’s an interim step needed.  Discussions with students about the specific areas they are struggling with are essential in creating new contract items that will be responsive to their needs.  It also reminds students that they are active participants in the learning process. This can have a powerful effect on the working relationship they have with each other and with you.

When a sense of community and trust is well established, individual students with a  specific problem area will be comfortable asking for more work in that area. Similarly, when an student comes up with a related topic that he is interested in, he should be able to add independent exploratory works of his own invention, provided he has already mastered the contract learning goals and discusses it with the teacher first.


Assume that your contracts will evolve over years of use.  It will take a number of iterations of using a given contract before it will be truly effective for the whole range of students.  Continually improving contracts requires the active participation of your students. Therefore, encourage them to give you feedback on how well they are being served by your contracts.  Has some of the work become busywork? Have they had enough opportunities to practice? Are they bored? Has there been sufficient opportunity to do the remediation from the last test, when needed?  

It is important that your students know that you are designing and redesigning the contract to respond to their needs.  It will change, sometimes on the fly, to make their learning process more effective. In my experience, students are more willing participants in improving the contracts (and the course in general) when they also know they are helping improve the course for future classes.

Be ready to adjust the pace

By checking for understanding on a regular basis, you will know whether your planning contract was an accurate prediction of how long the process would take.  The criterion for the pace must be the successful mastery of the material by a broad range of students. If a few students are struggling, the flexibility of the differentiated items allows them to continue practicing while the class proceeds.  If, on the other hand, a wide range of students are struggling, the pace is by definition too fast. When that occurs, it is time to back up, find out where the problems began and get the class back on track. Responding in this way is a powerful signal to the students that their comprehension, not the “covering” of the curriculum, is the goal.

Revise the scope of the contract if necessary

When it becomes clear that some aspects of the learning goals have not been widely mastered by the planned end of the unit, an adjustment must be made.  The calendar can be adjusted, as described above. If that isn’t practical, the learning goals and/or the number of required items on the contract can be modified.  If the problem areas are essential learning goals and it isn’t possible to extend the contract due, say, to external constraints on scheduling, some other arrangement is needed to revisit the topic.  Possibilities include a follow-up mini-contract or an added section of the next contract.

Making these kinds of adjustments requires paying close attention to the readiness of the majority of students finish the contract and to take a test.  Clearly, it also requires trusting your students to give you honest feedback. 


7.11 Designing Your Course as a Sequence of Contracts

7.11 Designing Your Course as a Sequence of Contracts

While it is not necessary to use unit contracts for this purpose, structuring a course in this way is a powerful tool for rethinking academic priorities and reshaping the course accordingly.  Here are some tips on how to do that.

Plan backwards for the whole course

Start with the fundamental question “What should my students know and be able to do when they are finished with this course?”  Answering that question in detail can be a surprisingly difficult task, and is best shared with colleagues who teach the same course.  In any case, it is an essential step in consciously planning the scope of every unit.

Many teachers emphasize the topics at the start of the year to the depth that they think is needed.  By the time spring rolls around (or the end of the semester, if there is a standardized semester exam), they realize that there is not enough time for the remaining units;  they are forced to reduce the depth of the remaining units, squeeze the units into a shorter time span, and/or eliminate whole topics altogether. These decisions are often frustrating, even painful.  

A better alternative is to start by prioritizing the learning goals for the entire course, designing the whole year’s curriculum in broad strokes, and working backwards to decide how deeply each topic will be treated.  In so doing, you will also be deciding what units are more important and deserving of emphasis. The use of unit contracts offers a platform to organize this design process.

Define the purpose and scope of each contract

Design the content of each contract around a single coherent theme.  For example, over time I found that teaching Newton’s three laws of force required creating five different contracts: the Law of Inertia, the study of the forces acting on a body at rest, the study of the forces acting on a body that is accelerating, the conceptual implications of the equation F = ma, and the Law of Action and Reaction.  The first, fourth and fifth contracts evolved into strictly conceptual units, while the second and third were exclusively about the development of mathematical skills. A different teacher might well design this sprawling topic in a very different way and be equally effective.

Don’t follow the book

It is essential that the scope of a contract be determined by the learning process, not by the chapters in the textbook.  If you have a brilliantly designed textbook, chapters and contracts may, in fact, coincide, but optimizing the experience of the student should always drive the design of the contract.


7.12 Tenets of a New Paradigm

7.12 Tenets of a New Paradigm

The process of designing a unit contract begins by articulating the essential learning goals

This requires challenging the notion that all goals are equally important. It requires asking the questions “Does this piece of curriculum help prepare a student to live life well?” and “Can every student can realistically master it within the time constraints?” There are, of course, ramifications to answering these questions honestly, both inside and outside the classroom, but it is a necessary task if we are to obey the Prime Directive.

Learning goals can be sorted into essential and above and beyond

Essential goals are required of everyone. Above and beyond are available for students who are able and willing to explore them.

Unit contracts provide a consistent structure that promotes student agency and accountability

It lets students practice the skill of time management and gives them the ability to self-evaluate their entire learning process. It gives them the scaffolding they need to become truly independent learners.

Unit contracts are invaluable in documenting the learning process

When students self-evaluate their work, a complete picture of how they performed the learning process is made visible, and they take ownership of that process.

Unit contracts can be used to organize entire courses

It forces the evaluation of the relative importance of the content throughout the year in order to establish priorities for students’ learning goals.