Research Learning Contracts

One pedagogical technique that you and your advisor can use to structure and assess your undergraduate research learning experience is a research learning contract. The research learning contract has long been used in adult education where the learning experiences are often highly self-directed as in the undergraduate research experience. Research learning contracts provide form and structure to what is a relatively unstructured learning environment (the research laboratory) while at the same time ensuring maximal flexibility which ultimately puts you, the student, in control of your own learning. Research learning contracts do this by allowing you to define the learning objectives, learning activities, your rate of progress, and the method(s) of assessment that will be used to evaluate your eventual success or failure which helps ensure that you will be successful.

The research learning contract is a contract in that it is a formal written agreement between two parties, you, the student, and your research mentor, defining what is to be learned, how it will be learned, and the terms whereby learning will be demonstrated/assessed. However, it defines the process of learning rather than the content. So, it is not a syllabus. In this way, it allows each student learner to structure his/her learning environment to meet his/her unique needs. It is also unlike a formal contract in that research learning contracts are intended to be periodically revisited and renegotiated in order to ensure that all parties are deriving maximal benefit from the learning arrangement defined by the contract. Research learning contracts are also not research proposals. They emphasize process rather than content and should contain the minimum amount of information needed in order to define the process as their purpose is to provide a modicum of structure while at the same time providing maximal flexibility. In this section we will offer specific information and advice on how to create and use your own research learning contract in support of your undergraduate research experience.

In this section, we will discuss:

Content And Form

There is no set content or specific required form for a research learning contract. However, research learning contracts usually contain the following types of information:

  • Brief descriptive project title
  • Names and contact information (office address, cell phone, email) for the faculty advisor, student, and whomever will be providing daily supervision, if the faculty advisor will not be serving in this role
  • Projected start and end dates for the project
  • Specification of student’s role on the project – volunteer, salaried, for academic credit, etc.
  • Goal(s) of the project – the long term purpose of the project
  • Objective(s) of the project – these should be short term, bite-size achievable aims with realistic target dates for their accomplishment
  • Identification of any significant safety considerations
  • List of any needed resources (bibliographic, training, materials, equipment and/or instrumentation) – this identifies the commitment and responsibilities to be provided by the faculty research mentor; and
  • Anticipated Outcome(s) of Project such as term paper, oral presentation, thesis, etc.

It is totally up to you and your advisor what you choose to include or exclude from your research learning contract.

From an instructor’s vantage point, research learning contracts are attractive because they facilitate student ownership of and therefore commitment to the project and the research plan by allowing the student learner to define the learning objectives, learning activities, and assessment methods. So, it makes explicit for both the student and the research mentor the project’s objectives and process and ensures mutual agreement by both parties.

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Examples of Research Learning Contracts

The following are two examples of research learning contract for undergraduate research experiences in the field of chemistry.

Research Learning Contract 1

[Student Name]
[Faculty Mentor’s Name]

Objective: The objective of my research will be to obtain spectroscopic evidence through resonance Raman of the effect that potassium chloride has on the catalytic activity of horseradish peroxidase in different organic solvents.

Research Purpose: …The resonance Raman study will help to elucidate the mechanism of salt-induced enzyme activation in non-aqueous media, specifically, the effect of potassium chloride on horseradish peroxidase in acetone and acetonitrile.

Methods: Horseradish peroxidase will be co-lyophilized with varying concentrations of potassium chloride, dissolved in aqueous potassium phosphate buffer or suspended in acetone and acetonitrile, followed by spectroscopic study of the sample by Raman.

Personal Goals:

  • To increase my understanding and proficiency in Raman
  • To learn freeze drying while increasing my experience with UV-vis
  • To learn to keep a reliable record of my work in the lab while increasing my confidence working in a laboratory setting
  • To obtain results that warrant publication, whether as a paper or poster with the option of presenting the paper or publication at a conference
  • To be a sponge and absorb everything or as much as is humanly possible in an academic quarter

Lab-Time: I will devote 4 hours on Tuesday and Thursday throughout the spring quarter for a minimum of eight hours each week. If needed and if my schedule allows it, I will increase the lab time.


Research Learning Contract 2

To: [Faculty Advisor Name]
From: [Student Name]
Subject: Work Contract and Tentative Schedule

UV-vis spectroscopy revealed a correlation between the electronic structure of polypyrrole and solvent polarity. I would like to pursue additional characterization of supercritical carbon dioxide synthesized polypyrrole films by examining their structure with UV-vis, Raman, and FTIR methods during my work-study this quarter. My objectives are:

  • To learn and understand Raman and develop my experimental expertise in this technique
  • To learn and understand FTIR and develop my experimental expertise in this technique
  • To expand my understanding of UV-vis spectroscopy
  • To characterize aqueous (sulfuric acid), non-aqueous (acetonitrile), and supercritical carbon dioxide synthesized polypyrrole films with the above methods
  • To analyze my data and compare the results to my previous UV-vis findings
Time Week Planned Tasks
8 hours 1 Synthesize polypyrrole films*
8 hours 2 UV-vis and Raman characterization of polypyrrole films
8 hours 3 Continue Raman and prepare summary of mechanism, instrumentation and information obtained from Raman technique
8 hours 4 FTIR characterization of polypyrrole films
8 hours 5 Continue FTIR and prepare summary of mechanism, instrumentation and information obtained from FTIR technique
8 hours 6 Analyze all data and summarize results

*Note: Synthesis may take longer or I may need to make more polypyrrole films throughout the quarter. I will need to synthesize at least two films (preferably 3) with each method in order to ensure repeatability.

[Faculty Mentor]

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Do’s and Don’ts

Research learning contracts are most effective when:

  • Student authored, i.e., written in the student’s own words. Don’t let your research mentor even if they are well meaning write the learning contract. If there is some idea that you can’t seem to express in writing. Likely this means that you don’t really understand it. If there is something that you don’t understand about the project, explain that to your advisor and ask him/her to explain that concept or aspect again so that you understand and can write about it yourself using your own words.
  • Short rather than lengthy. They should be no longer than two pages in length and contain a minimum of information in order to be maximally effective as their purpose is to provide a modicum of structure while at the same time providing maximal flexibility.
  • Created at the outset of an undergraduate research experience. This ensures that you and your advisor are in agreement from the outset concerning the nature of the problem you will investigate, the methods you will use, the time you will commit, and the methods that will be used to evaluate your success; and when
  • Signed by both the faculty mentor and student during the first or second week of the undergraduate research experience. Signatures are evidence of your and your advisor’s buy-in to the project, the specifics outlined, and your new working relationship.

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First Steps

If this is your first exposure to the idea of a research learning contract, you may find it useful to use a template in constructing your own. Simply complete each section here and click on the “Submit” button at the bottom of the form to generate your own research learning contract. Alternatively you might wish to examine some of the learning contract forms used at other institutions. The following are examples of several good learning contracts:

  • North Carolina Wesleyan College (Criminal Justice internships)
  • Macalester College




Coming soon.

Learning Contract Template

Coming soon.

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