Explicit and Implicit Contracts in the Classroom

The Explicit Contract, usually set out in the course syllabus, is composed of:

  • Course objectives
  • Weekly topics to be covered
  • Reading assignments to be completed by each class
  • Assignments or homeworks, with due dates
  • Dates of exams
  • Rules about late papers, absences, etc.
  • Basis of final grades (percentages allocated to exams, assignments, homeworks, and class participation)

The Implicit Contract, however, is composed of those norms and habits that develop within the class unconsciously as students and teachers interact.  For example, the fact that students need to raise their hands in order to speak is an example of a norm that has been adopted in most classrooms in elementary school through college.

The norms that make up the implicit contract are most often not intrinsically “right” or “wrong.”  Instead, they are the result of certain assumptions that both teacher and students hold about what should happen in the classroom. Because these norms can have a powerful effect on learning, the more you can think about how you would like your classroom to operate, and the more consciously you can set these norms, the more likely you can create opportunities for learning to happen.  Below are a series of questions that are designed to help you make key decisions about how you want your classroom to be organized.

Questions to Help Establish Norms

  • Who talks in the classroom, when, for how long, and how do they get the floor?
  • Who sets the agenda: teacher, students, or both?
  • Are answers considered definitely right or definitely wrong? If so, how are answers evaluated?
  • How do students succeed in the course? How is success measured?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between student and teacher (e.g., collaborative, hierarchical)?
  • What is the nature of the relationship between students (e.g., competitive, collaborative)?
  • What sources of knowledge are emphasized? Pervious research? Authorities in the field? Concrete experiences? Observation and reflection? Abstractions? Experimentation?
  • What will be learned?  Are students to learn facts? To think through problems? To show their ability to apply abstract concepts? To create new things?
  • What is the big agenda or story line of the course? What are the underlying questions that need to be answered?


* Adapted from material used in the Discussion Leadership Seminar, Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University, Fall 1993. Prepared for the New Graduate Teaching Staff Orientation by Teaching and Learning Laboratory staff, September 2005.