by Stacy Ruvio, Ph.D. & David Stewart, Ph.D.
ITI Faculty Fellows of Scholarship for Teaching & Learning
January 3, 2018
Is it possible to evaluate independent scholarly work in a standardized way?
A syllabus is an excellent tool for communicating course expectations when every student is expected to learn the same material and develop the same skills through the same assignments. When a student is working on an independent project in a discipline, that work can and should be unique to that student. In that case, the assignment cannot as easily be predefined by the advisor of the scholarly work. The student and advisor must determine the proper form and extent of the project through discussion. A learning contract can serve as the documentation of the shared understanding of the project so that both the student and advisor can evaluate progress as the project advances.
Though scholarly work should be unique, it can be evaluated by the standards of the discipline. A scientific research report must make reference to the prior work on which it is based, for instance.
The learning contract should clearly state what the student is expected to do to successfully complete the scholarly experience.
Independent work must be evaluated within the context of the student’s experience
Thinking back on your development as a scholar in your discipline, you are likely to recall some missteps in your early work. Presumably, with the help of your advisors and mentors, you have learned to avoid the errors that novices make in your discipline and you are now able to work much more effectively and quickly than you could initially.
Our role as advisors in our discipline is to bring students from their current novice status towards becoming independent scholars. That requires a recognition that each student will begin at a different point along that path. A learning contract can recognize the experience level of the individual student by setting different requirements for novices and students who have already begun scholarly work.
Learning contracts are negotiated
Critically, an advisor cannot determine the next appropriate step for a student without an evaluation of the student’s current level of experience or interest in scholarly work. Meetings between advisors and students are clearly required for students taking on independent scholarly projects so that the expectations of the project can be set. Students should share their interests and previous experience and advisors should share their own scholarly interests and explain the methods and standards of their field. The learning contract is a formalization of the shared understanding of the expectations of advisor and student so that there is less room for misunderstanding.
That initial meeting can get the project started, but more discussions will inevitably follow as roadblocks are encountered or new avenues open for investigation. The learning contract will now serve as a reference for the original intent of the project, but it can be re-negotiated to account for the new challenges and opportunities.
Learning contracts in practice
The authors are currently using learning contracts with their undergraduate research students completing projects in neuroanatomy and analytical chemistry. Undergraduate research in the Biology and Chemistry Departments is a one to three credit elective that the advisor teaches as a directed study course. Prior to using learning contracts, the authors weren’t sure how to assign grades fairly while still setting rigorous standards. While there are still issues remaining, the authors have found the use of learning contracts to be very helpful in resolving that tension.
The learning contracts the authors use are based around a set of outcomes including professionalism, safety, self-reflection, and research skill development . All students must meet a minimum standard for the first three outcomes, but each student determines which research skills they will emphasize over the course of the semester. Students earn a high grade by demonstrating substantial improvement in autonomy in at least three of six research skills.
Built into the contract is a space for students to record their goals for research skill development and the evidence they will be able to present at the end of the semester to demonstrate their increased autonomy. At the midpoint and end of the semester, students are expected to reflect on their progress towards their goals. The final grade is based in large part on the evidence the student can present in the end of semester self-reflection. The reflection assignment at the midpoint of the semester offers an opportunity to clarify goals or renegotiate the goals based on roadblocks or new opportunities.
A workshop by Ann Rivera PhD of Villa Maria College was instrumental in the Authors’ development and formulation of the ideas in this whitepaper. Dr. Rivera employs Learning Contracts as a portion of her course syllabus so that students can decide which additional assignments they will complete to earn a grade above the minimum passing standard.
 Willison, J. & O’Regan, K., 2006. The Research Skill Development Framework. URL: www.rsd.edu.au
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