Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Student Learning Agreements

Student Learning Plans/Contract Proposed Pilot Projects While research on attrition of university students has pointed to “dropping out” as the culmination of a complex interactive process, one of the most commonly identified factors influencing withdrawal/persistence behaviour is the degree to which students can adjust to the new academic and social demands of the university environment (Rickinson & Rutherford 1996). A key ingredient of what determines the first year student experience is the result of the interaction between the student and the institution. The involvement of staff in facilitating the academic and social integration of new students, particularly in terms of helping incoming students form realistic expectations of higher education learning, is viewed as a key factor in the successful management of student transition (Grosset 1991). Attention to metacognition and an early development of a sense of ownership of learning also have the potential to influence student performance and progression. In order to facilitate the above process, and to further enhance the first year experience, it is proposed to pilot three different forms of learning plans/contracts

Model A: Personal Learning Plans within the context of the Personal Tutor System (individual meetings) The personal learning plan in this context is envisaged as being a hybrid form of two categories of learning supports, namely learning contracts and minor elements of Personal Development Planning. It aims to encourage students to reflect on their own motivation for learning and to affect a shift in the definition of the student from passive recipient to active processor. Situating the Personal Learning Plan within the Personal Tutor System helps to clearly delineate the functions of personal and academic tutoring and creates a student/tutor relationship which goes beyond an “only when in difficulty” model. Each first year entrant student will be assigned a personal tutor (as per the existing model http://www.DCU.ie/info/pdfs/pts.pdf). A personal learning plan will provide the focus for the student-tutor relationship and will constitute the student’s first attempt at strategically mapping and planning his/her education and learning goals. The Learning Plan will include:

  • A brief description of current goals and expectations of the student
  • An initial plan of the academic path (module options, etc.) relevant to the programme
  • Other activities (e.g. extracurricular initiatives) that will enhance educational experiences

The Personal Tutor will assist students in clarifying learning goals, identifying and accessing educational resources, institutional support and extracurricular activities (e.g. the Uaneen module). Students will be made aware of flexibility such as option modules and possibilities for course transfer.

Event Goal/Purpose
Orientation Personal Learning Plan process introduced to relevant students in conjunction with first meeting with Personal Tutor. Student will also be provided with a clear definition of the aims and boundaries of the system, and made aware of their own responsibility for the preparation for each meeting. Template for learning plan provided to each student (paper or electronic format) to be completed before next meeting
Tutor meeting 1 in first session, student brings template to meeting - discussion centres around objectives or goals which s/he is seeking to attain, with structure of first year, motivation for and expectations of university experience
Tutor meeting 2 discuss University experiences to date; review of goals; identification of skills needs, etc.

Model B: Timetabled group Personal Tutoring sessions The previously outlined model may also be provided in a timetabled group personal tutoring context. This has the advantage of encouraging attendance and establishing a peer group. This also allows scope for the coverage of additional areas which the individual School may feel is relevant to its first year entrants.

Model C: Individual Module Learning Contract Faculties/schools may also choose to implement individual learning contracts for specific modules. A learning contract is a structured method whereby a student, in consultation with lecturer/tutor, designs and implements manageable learning activities usually in relation to a specific module or assessment. It is based on the principle of learners being active partners in the teaching-learning system, rather than passive recipients.

A learning contract may take many forms but will usually include a written record of:

  • The purpose of the contract
  • The relative place of the task to be accomplished within the total course’s framework
  • The learning strategies to be utilised
  • What will constitute completion of the task
  • The form and substance of the evidence that learning has taken place
  • Time-line for completion and evaluation
  • Can be an assessment device or a learning device

Learning contracts can be particularly useful in group work projects. Each model will be supported by training e.g. in the case of models A and B this will involve tutor training, the provision of clear definitions of the role, and guidance on conducting student-tutor meetings. Resources will be produced for staff and students and feedback loops put in place to support users and to address any problems as they arise.


Grosset, J. (1991) “Patterns of Integration, Commitment and Student Characteristics and Retention among Younger and Older Students”. Research in Higher Education, Vol. 32, pp. 159-178

Rickinson, B. & Rutherford, D. (1996), “Systematic Monitoring of the Adjustment to University of Undergraduates: A Strategy for Reducing Withdrawal Rates”. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, Vol. 24, (2), pp. 213-225