Officials at Presque Isle event on Thursday

Going All In on Proficiencies

The University of Maine at Presque Isle is moving away from grades to competency-style education for all of its academic programs, with an announcement that both drew praise and raised questions.

February 14, 2014

The University of Maine at Presque Isle is moving beyond grades by basing all of its academic programs on "proficiencies" that students must master to earn a degree.

University officials announced the planned move to proficiency-based curriculums on Thursday. While many details have yet to be hashed out, the broad shift by the public institution is sure to raise eyebrows.

"We are transforming the entire university," said Linda Schott, Presque Isle's president. "In the next four years, for sure, all of our programs will be proficiency-based."

That means students will progress through in-person, online and hybrid degree programs by demonstrating that they are proficient in required concepts, which faculty members will work to develop. Schott said the university will start by converting general education requirements, and then move to majors.

The proficiency-based approach university officials described shares much in common with competency-based programs offered by institutions like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire's College for America and the new "Flexible Option" from the University of Wisconsin System.

There are differences, however, university officials said. Presque Isle will not be focused primarily on degree-completion for adult students, as are some competency-based (or proficiency-based) programs at other institutions. And while the university does have online offerings, much of its proficiency push will occur in the traditional classroom.

In the Thursday rollout, university and state officials said the main reason for the change is to create a more "personalized" approach to learning. Students will have more choice in selecting assignments and can move at their own pace, according to the university.

Schott said more customized degree tracks are possible at the small public university, which enrolls about 1,500 undergraduates and is located in a relatively rural part of northern Maine. A relatively large number of first-generation, under-prepared students attend the university.

Self-paced learning is a move away from the credit-hour standard. But the university will continue to link its proficiencies to courses and credits, mostly because of financial aid and accreditation requirements. That approach can also help students who transfer to other institutions.

"We will be mapping them to traditional course-equivalencies," said Schott, at least for now. "I don't think that will last forever."


As a starting point for proficiencies, university officials said they would use the learning outcomes that are the framework for the Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP) project, which the Association of American Colleges and Universities launched in 2005. The association linked those outcomes, which hundreds of institutions have used, to "authentic" assessments and other research-backed teaching practices.

Carol Geary Schneider, the association's president, had not yet reviewed Presque Isle's plan. But she said the growing emphasis in higher education on learning outcomes and proficiencies is a good thing.

"The focus on proficiencies is a short-hand way of saying that we want students to leave college with the demonstrated ability to apply their learning to important problems and to real-world contexts," Schneider said via email. "That takes a combination of big picture knowledge and hands-on experiences that develop both proficiency and ethical judgment. "

The trend also poses challenges, she said.

Colleges should resist pressure from "course packaging enthusiasts" who seek to commercialize "no practice of any kind required" courses, said Schneider. She said those low-impact academic tracks are often used as a "strategy for accelerating credit aggregation and faster degree completion."

Workforce-readiness and affordability were driving forces in Presque Isle's decision to move to proficiencies.

A university news release said the overhauled curriculums would focus on "solving real-world problems" and "hands-on experiences in students' chosen fields." And the grounding in competencies will move learning further toward the "21st Century skills that employers are seeking, such as collaboration, creativity and critical thinking."

Some of that language was alarming to Amy E. Slaton, a professor of history at Drexel University, who has called for caution as competency-based education picks up speed.

Slaton said the university's description of proficiency-based programs as being a good financial deal -- a low-cost solution to student debt -- set up the new curriculums as being "oppositional" to traditional higher education pathways. That's not fair, she said, as both approaches can prepare students to thrive in the workplace.

Furthermore, Slaton said the heavy emphasis on giving students control of their education was a "false form of empowerment." Earning a degree should be hard work, she said, for the student's own good.

"What they're describing allows the student to avoid discomfort," she said.

Duke Albanese had a different take. Albanese, a senior policy advisor for the Great Schools Partnership, a Maine nonprofit, said Presque Isle will lead the way in Maine and beyond with academic programs that are both more "student centered" and more "relevant" to the workforce. They will also align with state-mandated proficiencies that the Maine's public K-12 schools will be using by 2018.

"This is big news," he said. "It's great for the state of Maine."

Nine-Credit 'Clusters'

It's not easy to envision how, exactly, the self-paced programs will work at Presque Isle, in part because they are still being developed. But Raymond Rice, the university's interim provost, gave some clues.

The plan is for faculty members to teach in interdisciplinary "learning communities" he said, that will feature "credit clumps" of 9 or so proficiencies per 15-week term. Each proficiency would track back to a credit.

A student might earn six proficiencies in a semester, for example, with three more to go in the following term. They wouldn't flunk a course -- because the clusters wouldn't be organized around courses -- nor would they pass one.

To successfully complete each proficiency, students would need to get at least a three on a four-point scale, Rice said. A one or two would mean more work, while a four would be exceptional.

As a result, students must actually do better than they would on the conventional A-to-F grading scale.

"We've just raised our standard from a C-," Rice said of the new proficiency mark.

The university's Faculty Assembly in September voted unanimously to support the proficiency-based conversion, the planning for which began a year ago. That doesn't mean every professor jumped on board without reservation.

Rice said some faculty members went through the five stages of acceptance before getting there. But the decision to increase academic standards "was a big help" for faculty to buy in, he said.

The university won't be the first to layer proficiencies under its academic programs. Capella University, for example, created a competency-based framework a decade ago.

One key reason Presque Isle took the leap, Rice said, is that the "distributive model" of one-off and often disconnected courses is no longer getting the job done. The resulting lack of connectedness in the curriculum has led to an insufficient use of learning outcomes. It can also hurt student retention, he said, particularly in the layered approach to non-credit remedial courses, which can discourage students.

"Nothing really seemed to carry over" between courses, he said, with some exceptions. "That led us to proficiency."

For several years the university had been reviewing its general education outcomes. But that work was "nibbling at the edges," said Rice. This new project is an all-in approach.

The university received a $200,000 grant from the Davis Education Foundation to support the work. A group of 19 faculty members will lead the effort as "innovative teaching fellows."

Likewise, an initial group of 15 incoming students will receiver scholarships to enroll in the first batch of proficiency-based clusters. Schott said students will help the university shape the program by telling faculty members what works, and what doesn't.

"We want their input," she said.

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