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UMPI Takes Proficiency-Based Approach to Improve Graduation Rates

University of Maine at Presque Isle
Professor Scott Dobrin works with a student in a biology class at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

While more high school students in Maine are going on to college these days, they’re taking their time to graduate.

More than half don’t finish within six years, and some don’t finish at all. One university in rural northern Maine hopes to curb the rate of dropouts, and prepare students for the working world, by taking a new approach.

The first few minutes of Scott Dobrin’s anatomy and physiology class at the University of Maine at Presque Isle look like most any traditional college course. Dobrin stands at the front of the class and lectures on topics such as “cell membranes” and “depolarization.”

But then, after about 15 minutes, the lecture comes to a stop and Dobrin offers his students several choices for how to spend the rest of the class. They can start a worksheet, start reading for next week or maybe retake a test from an earlier unit.

This isn’t your typical college class structure. In fact, over the past three years, UMPI has become one of the first schools of its kind in the country to fully embrace what’s called proficiency, or competency-based, education.

(The university is still working with the New England Association of Schools and Colleges for approval of the effort.)

UMPI Director for Student Success Vanessa Pearson says that when a student walks into school as a freshman, they’re no longer told, these are the classes you have to take to get this degree. Instead, they are given a kind of educational roadmap. Over the next four years, they have to show they’re proficient in more than 100 “learning outcomes,” on topics such as critical thinking and communication.

The idea is to give students more control over the pace of their learning. While students still take traditional classes with grades, they’re now also assessed on their understanding of the learning outcomes that relate to their particular field of study.

“Instead of taking this math class, it’s saying, ‘This is what I’ll learn in this class.’ This is how it applies to my major as, say, a police officer. That was the initial step, to make sure we’re meeting the needs of a student. Do they understand what they’re trying to learn?” Pearson says.

Credit University of Maine at Presque Isle
University of Maine at Presque Isle
A group of students re-enact a historic event in Professor John DeFelice's class at UMPI.

And perhaps the most radical thing the school has done is to basically get rid of the failing grade for many students.

If a student does slack off and not go to class, they will fail. But for students who struggle with a specific topic or can’t get a paper in at the deadline, they can be given a grade of “NP,” which stands for “not proficient.” Those students then sign an agreement with their teacher at the end of the semester to get their work finished within about a month. If they do that, their grade will likely go from an “NP” to a C, a B or even an A.

Junior Allison Lopez says getting an “NP” was actually a huge help in anatomy class. She says it gave her time to really understand the subject before submitting her work.

“So to have the time to complete the work that shows my level of competency, I found that better, because I could take my time,” she says.

And by avoiding an F, students can continue toward their degree without having to retake the class, an obstacle that can prompt some to drop out.

UMPI Interim President Raymond Rice says that can make a difference in Aroostook County, where about only a quarter of UMPI’s students graduate in four years. Less than half graduate in six. Those numbers are far below state and national averages.

Rice wants to see the graduation rate improve, so more local students can get better jobs.

“Only 20 percent of people in Aroostook County have a 2- or 4-year degree,” he says. “So we really have to see that move up to 30 or 40 percent.”

This kind of approach has been used at the college level, but mostly for specialty programs or online degrees. Very few, if any, traditional public universities have tried it on a schoolwide level.

Researcher Lindsay Daugherty says competency- and proficiency-based education has rarely been used for 18- and 19-year-olds, who may lack the self-discipline to manage their own progress.

“To throw a student that doesn’t have strong soft skills into an environment where it really is student-driven, where they’re being forced to sit in a high school class to being completely self managing, 100 percent responsible with less structure. It is a big change,” she says.

But officials at UMPI say they’ve created a system that, if anything, gives these students more support than a traditional college.

Still, the approach has its critics. Pearson acknowledges that she’s seen complaints in student surveys that the system may actually reward procrastination.

“That it promotes the lazy students,” she says. “Or that it gives students extra chances, so why try do it on the first time?”

Ultimately, though, Pearson say there’s evidence that the three-year-old strategy is working at UMPI. She says about 60 percent of those “NP”s are now turning into passing grades, which officials say should help students graduate more quickly instead of having to retake entire classes.

The result of all of this change won’t be known for a few years. But educators across the country will be watching what happens at UMPI, to see if proficiency-based education can really work at the college level.