Using Student Contracts To Increase Success In Math (1 of 5)

April 26, 2010 at 8:29 am 2 comments


This weekend I had the pleasure of speaking at a MyMathLab forum at CSU Northridge. It was very invigorating to me on a couple of levels. First, it was my first time back on campus at CSUN since I graduated in Spring 1994 (THE earthquake semester). It was great to see how beautiful the campus was – so much has changed. Second, I got the chance to share my work on student contracts. I hope the attendees got as much out of it as I did.

The goal of using student contracts is to make students more responsible for their own learning. I chose the student behaviors that I valued most (persistence, attendance, performance) and designed a contract that would reward students who demonstrated these behaviors. Students who demonstrated these behaviors, in my mind, are more likely to learn and understand mathematics. You may have a different list than I do, and I recommend trying a contract that rewards the behaviors that you value.

My reward, the opportunity to complete a final cumulative assignment rather than taking a cumulative final exam, may not be possible at your school. Find a reward of your own that will motivate your students.

I have decided to share my student contract project in a series of three blogs. Here is the first installment – conditions and benefits of the contract.

Birth Of The Contract

I am a community college math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. In our department meetings we never focus on mathematical questions such as “What is the best way to teach the section on the quadratic formula?” or “How do we teach students to find the LCM of two numbers quickly?”. At this point in our careers we are all very comfortable with regards to the mathematics. We very rarely disagree on which topics should be emphasized or left out of our courses. What we spend a lot of time discussing are different ways to motivate our students.

It can be very frustrating when you feel you are doing an excellent job lecturing on mathematics but the students are not giving the necessary amount of effort. I believe that students, with the proper effort, can learn the material we teach in our developmental mathematics courses. Proper effort, to me, includes a consistent effort on homework for the entire semester. Unfortunately, many students do not see any immediate reward from doing their homework. It’s funny because when I ask students on day 1 if they plan to pass the course, they always reply that they do plan on passing. If your plan doesn’t involve doing the homework, then I say you are actually planning on failing.

One colleague and I used to discuss the lack of motivation our students have and we were equally frustrated. He used to weight his homework as 10% of the overall grade, and students wouldn’t do it. He raised the weight to 15% with no significant improvement. The same thing happened when he went to 20% as well. So, I asked him, how high do you have to raise it in order to get the students to do their homework? He told me he thought about making it 50% of the grade, adding the condition that students must pass the final exam in order to pass the class. The 50% seemed a little extreme to me, but I knew that if he tried this policy and students still wouldn’t work then we might as well give up.

About the same time our college president shared an instructional strategy he used as a community college chemistry instructor. His idea was: Take the student behaviors that you think are most important to student success and incorporate rewards into your syllabus for students who demonstrate these behaviors. He valued attendance, taking quality notes, and getting help outside of class at the tutorial center or his office. Any student who met his conditions could upgrade their score on one exam.

So I thought about this approach for a while, and decided that the student behaviors that I valued were attendance, effort, and performance. What follows is the first version of the contract I used in my Intermediate Algebra course in Fall 2007.

Contract Requirement #1

I wanted my students to be in class, so the first requirement of my contract was that a student could be absent for no more than 2 days. I felt that this gave some wiggle room to the student with a stomach flu or a sick child, but still showed that I felt their attendance was crucial to their success.

Contract Requirement #2

I wanted my students to display a consistent and thorough effort throughout the semester, so the second requirement of my contract was that a student had to earn 100% on each homework assignment.

I use MyMathLab to assign and collect homework. Students are allowed 3 attempts at each problem that I assign. If a student gets a problem incorrect they can request a similar problem and they can do this until they eventually get it right or the deadline passes. There are built-in features to assist students with the homework – they can see a similar example, they can be walked through that problem, or they can view a video segment involving a similar problem. Students have all of the tools they need to work through the problems, provided that they make the effort. The bottom line is that any score below 100% is an indication of a lack of effort and persistence.

Contract Requirement #3

I want my students to be able to synthesize material from different sections. I give two quizzes per chapter – one for the first half of the chapter and a second for the whole chapter. The third requirement of the contract is that students must average 80% on these quizzes.

I use MyMathLab for these quizzes. One difference from the homework assignments is that the built-in help features found in the homework section are unavailable to students while they are taking a quiz. I do allow students to take the quiz as many times as they’d like before the deadline. MyMathLab randomly generates the problems, so students see a different quiz each time. The idea is that a student completes a test, looks at the problems they missed, and tries to figure out why. MyMathLab helps students to self remediate. If a student can determine their areas of weakness, then those areas can be addressed and fixed prior to the exam.

Contract Requirement #4

Everything I do as an instructor focuses on preparing my students for their pencil & paper exams. (OK, I know that’s not completely true. My main goal is to help my students learn and understand mathematics, but in my students’ eyes it’s all about the exams.) The fourth requirement of the contract is that students must average at least 70% on their in class exams.

The purpose of this requirement is to push each of my students to be a passing student in terms of the exams. If they have met this requirement, then they have demonstrated a passing knowledge of the material.

Contract Payoff

If any student meets all four of my requirements, they are allowed to complete a final cumulative assignment on MyMathLab instead of taking the cumulative in-class final exam. Many developmental mathematics students lack confidence, especially concerning “that one big exam at the end”. My contract used this lack of confidence to inspire and motivate my students to give their fullest effort for the entire semester, and it was successful beyond my wildest dreams.

Regarding the final assignment, this was a cumulative assignment of over 150 problems. The assignment also served as a final review for students who still had to take the final. A student had to complete the assignment prior to the last day of class in order to complete their contract and opt out of the final exam. By completing this assignment with a score of 100%, students are demonstrating that they can do any problem covered during the course of the semester and that they are prepared for the next class.

In the next installment I will share results from the first semester.

I hope you find this series on student contracts to be helpful. If you have any questions, or experience with student contracts that you would like to share, I encourage you to leave a comment, or reach me through the contact page at my web site – Come back tomorrow for part 2 in the series – Results.

– George

I am a math instructor at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, CA. Each Monday I post an article related to MyMathLab on my blog. If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to address, or if you have a question or a comment, please let me know. You can reach me through the contact page on my website –


Entry filed under: General Teaching, Math, MyMathLab, study skills. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Factoring Trinomials – Trial and Error or Grouping? Using Student Contracts To Increase Success In Math (2 of 5)

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