This is the first in a series on the University of Maine at Presque Isle that has been adapted from the original article posted at CompetencyWorks in 2016.
I’m a newbie when it comes to understanding competency education in institutions of higher education (IHE). At the highest level, competency education is the same for higher education as it is for K-12. However, the policy and market context are so, so, so different that I tend to listen carefully for the variations. Furthermore, most IHE are creating competency-based programs to expand the options available for students.
Not so at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. This college is turning proficiency-based from top to bottom (or at least as far as the policy constraints will allow). And they are doing so “at light speed.” What this means is that in a few years, when you travel beyond the end of US 95, you will find what I think will be the first aligned proficiency-based K-12/higher education system. I’m getting goose bumps just writing this! [Note: Given that Maine has a catalytic policy to introduce proficiency-based diplomas across the state, UMPI uses the term proficiency-based, whereas the phrase competency-based is generally used in higher education.]
The Value of Proficiency-Based Learning
President Linda Schott is leading UMPI’s transformation. I had an incredibly rich conversation with Schott and Ray Rice, Provost and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs, to learn about UMPI’s transformation to a proficiency-based system. (Update: Schott has since left and Ray Rice is now President.)
A bit of background: Presque Isle is the retail and educational center for Aroostook County (the northernmost county in Maine and the largest county east of the Rocky Mountains). It’s a rural county with an economy based on potatoes, lumber, and, increasingly, wind power. Thus, UMPI plays a powerful role in the lives of young people and the community. Schott pointed out, “This is part of our commitment to the region. Our county is losing population. With our personalized, proficiency-based approach, we are beginning to bring in students from across the state. We are linking them to local employers so they will stay here after graduation. Our ability to prepare students for occupations and industries is an important part of the economic development of our region.”
According to Schott, “When I became president three years ago, we had much less knowledge about what was happening in K-12. The systems have traditionally operated in relative isolation of each other. We were moving toward competency-based education because we needed a more responsive system for our students. About 70 percent of our students are entering from high school, while the remaining 30 percent are older, working students who want access to better or different jobs.”
Rice added, “We saw proficiency-based learning as an opportunity, especially for first-time college goers. We can design to make sure students are successful. This means we can help to ensure academic progress, lower debt ratio, and create opportunity for faster times to degree completion. It’s interesting that the US News and World Report ranking of colleges and universities are based on these types of indicators, all of which are connected to credit hours and traditional grading systems.”
Schott explained that her interest in proficiency-based learning is both professional and personal. “While I was learning about proficiency-based learning intellectually, it also rang true to me as a mother. I’ve raised five kids, and all have had some difficulty at one time or another in traditional schools. I wanted to find ways to support the districts transitioning to a proficiency-based system.”
The team at UMPI has been simultaneously building the infrastructure while supporting faculty to enhance their pedagogical approaches. “We started this journey in the spring of 2013,” Schott said. “We wanted to make sure we got the campus on board early. We had four open forums to discuss the issues facing us, such as the budget and declines in enrollment as well as disruptive forces. We used a video of Jeff Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound, speaking about the five disruptive forces in higher education, to launch a conversation about what this school in Northern Maine can do that can’t be easily replicated. We were trying to find market niche.” Schott mentioned that Duke Albanese (former Commissioner of Education in Maine) and Craig Kesselheim from the Great Schools Partnership played critical roles in engaging the faculty in exploring and understanding proficiency-based learning. A grant from the Davis Educational Foundation was also helpful in supporting the early transitional activities.
Rice explained that three questions are driving their transition:
- How do you design pedagogy to ensure students are becoming proficient?
- How do you link to student support services for students who need extra help?
- What tools are needed for faculty to know how students are doing?
Changing the Pedagogy
The focus on transitioning to proficiency-based learning at UMPI is on pedagogy. Rice explained, “In higher education there are parameters we have to deal with, such as financial aid and regional accreditation. The higher education system is still bounded by credit, and grading has to transfer across the University of Maine system. Thus, our focus has been changing the pedagogy with a stronger focus on formative evaluation than the traditional emphasis on summative. It is a major shift for higher education.”
“We are guided by the work of AACU on learning outcomes and high impact teaching practices,” Rice added. “The rubrics for general education have really informed our work. We are lined up with the LEAP national program and the quality collaboratives around degree qualifications. Building upon the AACU program helped get faculty buy-in. The fact that these are national best practices is very compelling to faculty.”
Schott expanded on this point with, “We are building upon what the research says on teaching and learning. It is ridiculous for us not to use the current research. When you appeal to faculty with research on the neuroscience of teaching and learning, it is more palatable.”
The process of helping faculty develop skills to re-design their courses began in the fall of 2014. They started the focus on general education and engaged faculty who were the most interested. As Rice noted, “We wanted to build a coalition of the willing as the foundation for the transition.”
Innovative teaching fellowships were created with stipends and an iPad to incentivize faculty to do the professional development. In the first year, twenty faculty went through the professional development. Faculty organized themselves into learning communities, with Craig Kesselheim providing a series of workshops. At this point in time, two-thirds of the faculty and adjunct have completed the professional development. Rice noted, “The faculty received more professional development in the last three years than they had over the seventeen years I’ve been here.”
Schott pointed out that they wanted to make sure faculty had voice and choice from the very beginning, “We want them to use high-impact strategies, but they have a choice among which strategies they use. One professor is using a gaming approach in history called Reacting to the Past. Others are getting students involved in research early. We are seeing a lot more field work in the early years.”
The outcome is that faculty have created interdisciplinary learning communities for students. This year, all 300 incoming freshmen selected an interdisciplinary learning community. For example, one was on the concept of the self and consciousness, drawing on neurobiology and philosophy; another explored environmental science through fieldwork and literature.
Faculty are now working on upgrading the upper division courses in the majors, including redesigning courses and revising their curriculum. Rice explained, “The process to shift to a proficiency-based model requires faculty to be more collaborative. Instead of designing a set of individual courses, faculty have to agree on the outcomes of the program and then back into the set of courses and experiences that will fully prepare students.” Faculty are continuing to make connections and explore how the outcomes can connect to each other. They are also in early conversations about what is needed to assess proficiency. These are conversations that sound amazingly similar to those in K-12.
The UMPI team is now upgrading the faculty evaluation system. Mandated by the union contract, UMPI has a peer evaluation system. In teams of two or three, faculty visit each other’s classrooms to develop formative feedback. Kesselheim has been coaching faculty on observation protocols that are suited for proficiency-based learning.
The Power of Essential Learning Outcomes
The proficiency-based infrastructure begins with a set of twenty-three overarching essential learning outcomes (ELO) within five categories: effective written and oral communication; critical and creative thinking; quantitative and scientific reasoning; information literacy; and global consciousness and intercultural awareness. Each ELO has its own rubric. UMPI engaged employers in reviewing them to ensure they would have meaning in the workforce. Students are assessed on these skills as they build up their credits from 30, 60, and 120 credit hours.
Students are expected to take advantage of real-world experiences and reflect upon their process in building these skills. Vanessa Pearson, Director of Student Success, said that the ELOs have been very powerful in helping students have a greater sense of purpose and meaning. She said, “When we review the ELO, the response of students has been ‘I get it now.’ I ‘get it’ why, as an art major, I need to take math class. It’s not just about expectations, they see the meaning for their own lives.”
Schott explained, “It’s not just the responsibility of the faculty to develop the essential learning outcomes, it’s the whole campus. Faculty ultimately assess the learning outcomes, but everyone has a stake in educating the students. We want students learning and practicing these skills outside of the classroom. They are building these skills in the athletic programs, in community service, and in work study. Staff members who are supervising a work study are helping students build their essential skills.”
Internships are also an important learning experience to build essential skills. The faculty are beginning to “beef up internships” so that by the time students get to junior and senior levels, they can have meaningful opportunities to apply what they are learning in classes. Faculty are also beginning to more formally link internships with the academic program. For example, faculty in the Recreation, Tourism and Leisure concentration within the Business Program have created a leadership certificate program to formalize the demonstration of the essential learning outcomes.
Ensuring Students are Progressing
UMPI has been rebuilding aspects of their institution to better support students. First, they have established three sets of learning outcomes: Overarching Essential Learning Outcomes (ELO), Program Learning Outcomes (PLO) for each major, and student learning outcomes within each course.
Second, grading is changing. Across UMPI, the lowest grade that students can get to earn a credit is a C, and the status of “Not Yet Proficient (NYP)” has been added. When students get NYP, faculty will work with them to write a contract and develop a timeline for completing their work. Similar to K-12 systems, faculty are starting to organize grading so there is separation of habits of mind or habits of work such as time management. Rice noted, “We used to only focus on academic learning. Thinking about how we assess the ELO and the professional behaviors students need to be successful has ignited big discussions among faculty.”
Third, every student has an academic and professional advisor, with the professional advisor taking a strong role in ensuring students build their ELOs. Fourth, the First Year Seminar has taken on greater importance in a proficiency-based system. The seminar has become the place where students are supported in making the transition to college expectations, strengthening skills, and beginning to build the habits of work they will need to be more self-directed.
Finally, UMPI has also strengthened the student support services under Pearson’s leadership. Every four weeks, a student support team gathers feedback from faculty on each student to determine what type of supports or interventions might be needed. Students also see these emails, so they know exactly how they are doing in their class. UMPI is now using the TK20 assessment platform to track outcomes and assessments and to collect a portfolio of student work. Eventually, it will be transparent to students.
UMPI has been converting the old library into the Center for Innovative Learning. Schott pointed out that they found 20,000 books that hadn’t been checked out since the 1980s. The Center is becoming an academic hub with tutoring, coaches to improve writing, and reference help.
Schott deeply understands the potential of both UMPI and the surrounding K-12 districts transitioning to proficiency-based learning. “We have been part of CBEN from the beginning. We have learned a lot from them. However, most of their programs are serving adults, while we primarily serve traditional students. Furthermore, most of the other members of CBEN don’t have the opportunities we have in Maine. We are finding our own way. It’s very clear that there is going to be a K-20 alignment. I don’t know of any place like this where an undergraduate program and the feeder high schools are all going to be proficiency-based. I think we are going to be the test site in the country about how deep alignment can work.”
UMPI is invested in supporting the K-12 districts in several ways, including housing the Northern Maine Education Collaborative on the campus. There are also ongoing efforts to develop aligned dual enrollment and early college programs. (See next post for more information on this.)
Rice said something that has really stuck with me. He said, “In conversations about higher education, you constantly hear about the return on investment. Before we had turned to proficiency-based learning, it was almost impossible to measure ROI. With the help of clear outcomes, we can engage our faculty to think more deeply about how we are helping students achieve the ROI in their education.” Given that UMPI sees the entire campus involved in helping students build their essential learning outcomes, the opportunity to have student achievement drive the organization is turning UMPI into a continuous improvement organization.
Read the rest of the series: