Current trends in education and training emphasise that learners, whether they are school children, students or adults, need to acquire generic skills and personal characteristics which will enable them to become independent self-directed learners. This will enable them to continue the process of learning throughout their lives. Recent recommendations for the reform of undergraduate medical education, for training of hospital doctors and general practitioners, and the higher profile now being given to continuing medical education, reflect the strength of this particular educational current sweeping through all levels of medical education. Learning contracts, developed through negotiation between a teacher and a learner, are especially effective educational tools for stimulating independent learning. This paper examines the theoretical basis of contract-learning and its relevance to clinical settings.