Feedback steers the learning process

At the heart of the contract system is the task of making well-informed, effective choices that optimize learning.  In order to be well-informed, students must have good and frequent feedback. Feedback makes learning visible to both student and teacher and affects the behavior of both.

Feedback refines the design of the contract

By paying close attention to what contract items students need in order to learn the material successfully and completely, teachers can make their contracts more effective over time.  For instance, if students are learning a complex skill, feedback can be designed to expose the difficulties they are having with specific subskills. Such feedback may help students discover that there is a particular aspect of the material that they need to practice further.  If you are paying close attention, these needs become apparent and can lead to the creation of a new contract item addressing that particular issue.

Feedback provides closure

Whether you are using a minicontract for students to prepare for a test or a unit contract (as described in the next chapter), feedback can tell you whether it is time to wrap up the current work or whether students need more time.  Without such feedback, you might move on and leave holes in some students’ understanding that will haunt them in later units. Of course, tests themselves can be seen as feedback, particularly if they are designed to be formative. If a student can continue to learn from her mistakes on a test, then the test becomes part of the learning process, rather than the end.  Students who did well can move on, and students who are struggling can continue to work on what they didn’t understand while simultaneously addressing the next topic.

Feedback and the evolution of learning contracts

Students are not the only ones who need feedback.  Regardless of scope, your first contracts will improve much more quickly if you are open to feedback and constructive criticism from your students.  Since the purpose of contracts is to be responsive to students’ needs, it is important to listen to them. When students understand that you consider their voice important in developing the use of contracts, it gives them a sense of power that they may never have experienced before in school.

Open work time is the most fluid aspect of contract structure, and it is the most amenable to a flexible attitude.  By interacting with your students as they work, you can get a good sense of how they are doing with the material. You can determine whether the amount of time set aside for open work is too little or too much and can adjust accordingly.  

Finally, open work time is an opportunity for you to model creativity and flexibility as a teacher.  If you try a new strategy that doesn’t work as you planned, you can show students how important it is to learn from mistakes and correct them.  For many students, the idea of a teacher intentionally "trying" something without being certain of its success is novel, to say the least. Such vulnerability can dramatically improve the working relationship between teacher and student.