A novel undergraduate teaching method developed by psychology professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) has been so successful that it has garnered a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for a scientific study of its effectiveness.
Compared to in-person classes, the online U-Pace program has been shown to increase the performance of most students, while closing the achievement gap for at-risk college students.
U-Pace organizes material for introductory courses such as Psychology 101 into small segments, equal to about half of a chapter or one lesson. Students then take an online quiz, which they must pass with 90 percent in order to move on to the next section. The quizzes, which randomly rotate, can be retaken as often as the students want, and they receive immediate feedback on their performance.
The study, funded by DOE’s Institute of Education Sciences, will involve 2,000 UWM students across three disciplines – psychology, sociology and political science – during the next four years.
“At the end of this grant period, we’ll know specifically why we’ve seen such successful results at UWM” says Professor Diane Reddy, who developed the program with Professor Ray Fleming in 2007.
Results at UWM have been impressive. Not only do U-Pace students perform better than students taking the face-to-face class, Reddy also found that minority and low-income students, in particular, were more successful in U-Pace courses than majority and higher-income students in conventionally taught courses.
The conventionally taught courses used the same textbook, covered the same material a chapter at a time and involved four exams during the semester.
U-Pace students are not just getting better grades, says Reddy. They also understand the material better. One cohort of students was re-tested six months after they finished the course and they still outperformed students who had taken the conventionally taught class, the faculty found.
Those results held true even for students who entered college with lower ACT scores and grade point averages than the majority of students.
There are two components to U-Pace – Mastery and Amplified Assistance. Mastery has to do with the effectiveness of the process itself, which teaches students study and time-management skills. What may be particularly important to U-Pace’s success, however, is the Amplified Assistance component.
“Students who need help aren’t likely to ask questions in class,” says Reddy. “This program capitalizes on the use of the technology to tell the instructor when a student is struggling, and that’s when the personalized support kicks in.”
Coaching is given to all students, usually in the form of an email or a phone call, with the instructor offering specific help and motivation.
The first year of the study involves a comparative study of nearly a thousand students who take Psychology 101. Some will take a fully online course with only the Amplified Assistance component of U-Pace. Some will take the traditional face-to-face course. Others will take the Mastery approach to learning the material, without the Amplified Assistance. The rest will take the course with both parts of U-Pace.
The program then will be adapted for students taking Sociology 101 and Political Science 101, but only U-Pace and the traditional in-person versions will be offered. Year four will include data analysis of the factors that mediate and moderate U-Pace’s effectiveness, and dissemination of results.
“We believe the program works because it builds the students’ academic self-efficacy,” Reddy says. “Students perceived that they have more control over their learning and that it also has a positive impact on retention, an institutional priority at UWM.”
Through the university’s Access to Success Program, UWM students participate in initiatives that help them adjust to and achieve in college, especially during their first year.
In addition to Reddy and Fleming, Rodney Swain, UWM interim dean of the College of Letters and Science, and Laura Pedrick, special assistant to the provost, secured the funding.