Sagence Opinion Corner - Hechinger Report on how The University of Maine at Presque Isle hopes new approach will produce more skilled workers for a struggling region
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — For the first few minutes of Scott Dobrin’s anatomy and physiology class at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, nothing feels particularly out of the ordinary. Dobrin lectures on blood clots and vessels, mapping out diagrams on a whiteboard.
But after about half-an-hour, the lecture stops and Dobrin presents his students with a menu of options.
“Is anyone interested in taking an assessment today?” Dobrin asks. He then mills around the room, meeting with students individually or in small groups. Some students fill out a handout or watch a video online. Others take tests first given two or three weeks ago. It’s an open work time — full of choices — that Dobrin says he never would have offered five years ago.
“Typically I would do traditional lectures,” Dobrin said. “Now, they’re getting the freedom to decide that flexibility.”
This change is part of a larger move at the university towards “proficiency-based education” (sometimes called competency- or mastery-based education). In the traditional model, students need to pass a specific set of courses to graduate. But in a proficiency-based system, students must show that they’ve mastered “competencies” — specific skills or knowledge — before they move on to the next level, and eventually receive a diploma.
States across New England have adopted similar approaches at the K-12 level. Five years ago, Maine adopted a law requiring every high schooler to show proficiency in up to eight content areas in order to graduate. But the University of Maine at Presque Isle (or UMPI) is one of the first public universities in the nation to use proficiency-based learning.
With the new initiative, university officials are betting on this new, still unproven, form of education, hoping to improve their institution and upgrade Northern Maine’s workforce.
But the obstacles ahead are substantial. Only 11 percent of the students who entered UMPI in 2005 graduated in four years, and only 30 percent graduated in six — all at a time when the region desperately needs more college grads. The university is located in Maine’s rural Aroostook County, just a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. The county has lost nearly a tenth of its population over the past 15 years as paper mills and a local Air Force base have closed.
UMPI President Raymond Rice says many of the jobs that remain, in fields like agriculture and forestry, require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. “We don’t have the success we need to see for getting students into the workforce,” Rice said. “And in order to improve the economy here, we’ve got to get students to completion.”
One of the biggest changes has been the near-elimination of the failing grade. In most classes, if students fail a test or project, they can redo it until they’ve proven they know the material.
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