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University of Maine Presque Isle takes Proficiency-Based Approach

February 27, 2017

From Maine Public Radio News
By Robbie Feinberg

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.

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