UW-Milwaukee

This is where powerful ideas converge with proven results.

Unique teaching method earns national attention

By Laura L. Hunt

Video: Mary Rinzel

UWM psychology professors Diane Reddy and Ray Fleming believe they have found a more effective way to teach undergraduate courses. Two major funding organizations agree and have invested to scale up its use at other U.S. universities, and also to scientifically identify what factors make it so successful.

The online U-Pace instructional approach has been shown to improve student performance compared to traditional, in-person lecture classes. The U-Pace also closes the achievement gap between at-risk college students and prepared students.

Funding organizations like the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) would like to see the approach used at other large, public institutions serving low-income and underrepresented students with the goal of improving retention, learning and college completion.

NGLC is a new initiative designed and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. It focuses on technology-enabled approaches that dramatically improve college readiness and degree completion, especially for low-income students, in the United States.

The Society for the Teaching of Psychology, a division of the American Psychological Association, is UWM's partner on the grant.

Outcomes at UWM

U-Pace results at UWM has been impressive. 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 and covered the same material during the semester.

Photo: Peter Jakubowski

UWM psychologist Diane Reddy is a co-creator of the U-Pace instructional method that is attracting national funding for its effectiveness, especially with at-risk college students.

UWM psychologist Diane Reddy is a co-creator of the U-Pace instructional method that is attracting national funding for its effectiveness, especially with at-risk college students.

U-Pace organizes course material 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.

"We believe the program works because it builds the students' academic self-efficacy," Reddy says. "They perceive that they have more control over their learning, and it also has a positive impact on retention, an institutional priority at UWM."

Undergraduate Sandy Vue agrees. Not only did she do well in her U-Pace course, but the method also sparked her interest in the material – so much so that she is now a double major in biology and psychology.

"In a U-Pace course you have total control over what you learn and your grade," Vue says.

Big money

U-Pace also has attracted a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to seek the secret of U-Pace's effectiveness by collecting comparative data on the results over the next four years. Funded by DOE's Institute of Education Sciences, this study will involve 2,000 UWM students across three disciplines – psychology, sociology and political science.

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.

In addition to Reddy and Fleming, Rodney Swain, interim dean of UWM's College of Letters and Science, and Laura Pedrick, special assistant to the provost, secured the funding.