The brainchild of Diane Reddy, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), U-Pace is a technology-enabled instructional model that is making waves. Reddy, along with Raymond Fleming, professor of psychology, and Laura Pedrick, special assistant to the provost for strategic initiatives and executive director of UWM Online, created this new learning approach in an attempt to advance student achievement and increase graduation rates. At the time the U-Pace model was conceived, Reddy was the associate chair of the psychology department, and after reflecting upon how to improve her own class, she realized there was a greater need. “It was so apparent to me that we needed to do something to increase student success. I wanted to develop a practical intervention,” she says. “So many students don’t make it to graduation — not only at my institution, but nationally. Only 58 percent of full-time students at 4-year universities who are there for the first time graduate within 6 years.”
The U-Pace model comprises two concepts: a mastery-based approach and proactive instructor support. Students participating in the U-Pace instructional approach take classes in an online environment, and instructors pull data out of the learning management system to provide proactive, personalized support. Instructor support coupled with the U-Pace mastery requirement, which requires students to earn at least 90 percent on assessments before moving forward with new subject matter, creates more opportunities for success.
To test this theory, Reddy and her team conducted a large, randomized trial supported by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. “The trial showed U-Pace produces greater success and learning as measured in proctored classroom and cumulative examinations across disciplines,” says Reddy. And a study funded through EDUCAUSE’s Next Generation Learning Challenges program proved U-Pace works across institutions with diverse students. According to Reddy, “U-Pace instruction increased the percentage of undergraduates who are academically successful by a margin of at least 30 percentage points. It also resulted in gains in learning: U-Pace students outperformed students who were conventionally taught by a margin of at least 8 percentage points on proctored cumulative exams measuring core concepts.”
These studies show that as students participate in U-Pace courses, their study skills improve. “They are getting better at knowing when they’re ready for an assessment; their study skills are improving; and you can see this from the beginning of the semester through the end of the semester by mining the data that’s within the learning management system itself,” says Reddy. “Looking at the mean number of quiz attempts needed to achieve mastery, what you see is a significant decline in the number of attempts needed.”
When the U-Pace concepts were applied and tested separately, students did not improve as much. It became apparent to Reddy that both content mastery and proactive instructor support are necessary for success. U-Pace began in 2007 and has since been disseminated to many courses and disciplines and 35 different institutions, including NASA, which uses the U-Pace approach to teach community college students about robotics and science.
The same team that developed, implemented and distributed U-Pace, along with Tanya Joosten, UWM director of eLearning, research and development, is in the process of launching a national research center located at UWM, where they’re drafting toolkits to create standardized research procedures for distance education and technology advancements. “We’re trying to move the field to identify the practices, not only for higher education but also for K-12,” says Reddy. “We also have a focus on disability and competency-based education. These are new models being developed to enable research and identify best practices.”
Going into its second year, the team has released a call for proposals to conduct cross-institutional research. “We will have this repository so we can collect scrubbed data, de-identified data from across institutions, and researchers can openly use that data to answer questions with regard to technology, practices and distance education,” says Reddy.
Reddy says her team wants to know what teaching and learning styles are working. The team’s new research efforts will help answer questions such as, “What’s working for students who are underprepared?” and, “What’s working for learners with disabilities?” Reddy says, “U-Pace is one approach that works for students across the board, but there may be other successful approaches. It’s a new way of thinking.”