This post is part of a series on the University of Maine at Presque Isle originally posted at CompetencyWorks in 2016.
During my visit to University of Maine at Presque Isle, I had the chance to meet with Scott Dobrin, an Assistant Professor of Biology, to hear about his experience in moving toward proficiency-based learning. He has been wanting to organize a course that would look at consciousness from several perspectives (such as scientific, philosophical, literary, and psychological) for a while. When the opportunity for designing a proficiency-based course arose, he and Lea Allen, an English professor, proposed designing a course for freshmen on consciousness. The first discussion centered on the question of, “What do we want the students to get out of the course? There is no way they are going to learn everything about consciousness in one semester. So we had to identify the learning objectives that we wanted them to do really well.”
They designed the course by identifying themes, out of which they would then build the text, movies (such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Matrix), and other activities to engage the students. As students engaged in questions regarding consciousness, they then began to develop presentations to capture their analysis and ideas. Thus, in addition to building a base of knowledge, exploring and analyzing complex issues, students built up the workplace skill of organizing and communicating complex ideas.
Our conversation moved to what is different in his biology classes now that they are proficiency-based. As Dobrin put it, “The pedagogy shows you that lecture doesn’t work well. Proficiency-based learning is about students being active and engaged. So now my classrooms are much more about activity than pure lecture. I use the flipped classroom and then develop ways for students to be active in the classroom. My classroom is totally different.” He noted that he hasn’t been able to find all the videos he needed, so he has been making his own videos that are organized to be more “bite-sized and streamlined.” He pointed out, “I tell my students that there is zero possibility for you to be a passive learner in this classroom and get anything out of it. You need to participate and stay on top of things.”
Dobrin explained that his planning for his courses has changed as well. “I organize around units or topic areas. I create unit plans with three tiers: learning, practice, and demonstration of knowledge. The first phase of learning is designed to help students become familiar with the material. It will include lecture though a video or an online textbook, with students expected to take notes and then complete quizzes. Students can retake the quizzes until they reach 85 percent or higher. Practice takes place primarily in the classroom with activities or case studies. Activities may be designed for groups or individuals. I’ve chosen the case studies so that students can tackle the subject matter independently. The final stage of demonstrating knowledge is usually a choice of two activities, such as a paper or solving a complex problem and a summative assessment linked to the learning objectives.”
Dobrin emphasized that the units have been designed so that students can be working on different units at different times. “Some students are pushing me to get new units ready so they can work ahead. My biggest challenge, however, is that I haven’t yet figured out how to motivate students who are dragging their feet. They are either not motivated or don’t have the time management skills. I used to have target dates for every unit, but I had to create target dates for each tier because some students couldn’t manage well without deadlines. We expect you to complete all the assignments to receive a grade at the end of the semester.”
Dobrin stated that he would have moved in this direction on his own, but he would have never gone this far. “Proficiency-based learning stretched my understanding of how to engage students. It has also made a difference in my relationship with my students. I used to not even take attendance. Now I know their names and what they are interested in.”
Designing Proficiency-Based Programs
Dobrin also talked about what proficiency-based learning has meant for the Biology Program. “The biggest change is that we focus on success now. Previously, students could get through an introductory biology course and still not understand a basic concept like photosynthesis. Students would take tests, and even if they missed all the ones on photosynthesis, they might still get a C and pass the course. That can’t happen anymore.”
Dobrin explained the process the faculty is taking to develop a proficiency-based pathway is one in which they use different ways to organize themselves to see what really works. “It’s been helpful to have the room to brainstorm different ideas. We want students to be part of a learning community so they can support each other and help each other when classes are challenging. We are in the process of creating the proficiencies that would be expected for biology majors. We are also thinking through the knowledge and stages students will have to move through. For example, we are creating a freshman seminar for students interested in biology, where they have a chance to understand what it means to be a biology major, the different concentrations, and opportunities for student research. We are creating a much more intentional pathway for students than ever before.”
One of the big changes happening at UMPI is that the faculty are developing more ways for students to participate in research earlier in their program. They are making the shift for students to “know and do” in exactly the same way K-12 is shifting. Dobrin explained, “We want to get students interested in research earlier in their careers. We want them to start doing research so they get a jumpstart. The point of science is how we develop what we know, not just knowing what has been done before. We want them to be ‘doing science.’”
Dobrin pointed out that “It’s a breeze for programs that are already accredited, such as physical therapy and athletic training, to create the outcomes of the program. In addition, the accrediting exam is already in place. However, for other programs, it takes time for faculty to build a shared understanding of what students should know and do by the time they graduate.” For biology, they started with the National Science Foundation Vision and Change document to create the program outcomes. Dobrin continued, “We have wanted to update the curriculum. Proficiency-based learning offered us the opportunity to do it because it made us look at the whole instead of just the pieces. Our next step is to organize the concentrations and create meaningful rubrics.”
There have been two challenges in this process. As Dobrin put it, “We are in a process of change. It feels like a constant state of flux, and faculty don’t know exactly where we are going. That’s difficult when we were used to designing our own courses. We also don’t have everything in place for the students. We can’t answer all their questions. Of course, before we were proficiency-based, students just took courses without a clear pathway. So it’s definitely better than it was.”
I asked Dobrin how the faculty is learning about using this different pedagogical approach. “First of all, the university gave us time,” he replied. “That makes all the difference. I also learned a lot from my wife, who teaches high school science. She helped me to understand the weaknesses in the traditional grading policies. Our faculty had been learning about proficiency-based learning, but we needed something concrete. My wife gave a presentation on the three tiers of learning, and that helped us start to understand how to design our courses differently. It also helped us learn about how to organize workshops rather than lecture so students could also begin to build up their own metacognition. Any heel dragging disappeared once faculty could understand how to redesign their courses.”
His recommendations for other science departments that want to redesign their programs to be proficiency-based included showing the research on different pedagogical strategies and starting with the national standards.
See the other part of the series: