While minicontracts can vary in size and complexity, the design always proceeds through a sequence of steps.
The first is to articulate what learning goal(s) are to be mastered. What should students know or be able to do when they have finished the contract? A contract may also be designed around a specific task, such as preparing for a test. In any case, the process is one of planning backwards from the purpose of the contract.
Several forms of feedback have to be created to determine 1) which contract items each student will do and 2) whether the student was successful in mastering the goals at the end of the contract. The use of feedback is explored in depth in “Grades Reconsidered”.
Often, existing materials such as homework assignments or classroom activities can be incorporated directly into the contract. Now, however, the full range of what students need has to be taken into account. New remedial work will often need to be created for the students who are struggling and enrichment activities created for the more successful students. Contract items may also allow for a range of learning styles.
In addition to differentiated work, more complex minicontracts may include essential items that are expected of every student. Defining an item as essential means that the teacher believes every student must do it in order to be proficient. For a student who learns more quickly, the essential work may be all that is needed to master the material, in which case she can move on to enrichment items. For the student who takes longer, however, the essential items are just the starting point of the learning process, and they will be followed by remediation items.
The logistics of how students do the work must also be determined. Are they working as individuals, in small groups, or in larger groups? Are some students participating in a teacher-directed workshop while others work independently? How much time will they have? Will they be able to take the work home if they don’t finish it in class?
Students should be aware of the expected outcome of the contract. Should they produce a product, like a completed worksheet or a short essay? Should the product be turned in for evaluation or kept in a portfolio as a record of their work? Should the follow-up feedback be evaluated for a grade or simply be informative?
Finally, will the contract itself be evaluated? If so, will the evaluation be done by the teacher or the student? In either case, the guidelines for contract evaluation should be explicit, clear, and as simple as possible. The topic of student self-evaluation will be treated in much more detail in the following chapter on unit contracts.