Progress for the U-Pace Online Instructional Approach

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Key Takeaways

  • U-Pace instructors leverage learning management system analytics about student engagement and performance to provide proactive, personalized support.

  • Consistent evidence has emerged showing that U-Pace instruction increases success for all students — both students at risk for college non-completion and students not at risk — across disciplines and universities.

  • To increase student success through the adoption of more evidence-based practices requires rigorous research identifying what works and stronger diffusion mechanisms to ensure wide implementation of the highest impact practices.

Higher education has become essential to developing the 21st century knowledge and skills needed for the workforce, and the flexibility afforded by asynchronous online learning has opened access to a college education. Increasingly, the students enrolling in college are adult learners aged 25 and older, working students, part-time students, students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and first-generation students.

U-Pace is a free online instructional approach designed to reach all students, regardless of their academic preparation or demographic background. It was developed at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

The U-Pace online instructional approach combines mastery learning and proactive instructor support. U-Pace instructors leverage learning management system (LMS) analytics about student engagement and performance to provide proactive personalized support. Free templates on the U-Pace website enable instructors to create authentic, timely messages that engage and motivate students and facilitate their learning. Institutions of higher education have come to rely more on learning analytics, and U-Pace offers a successful model for acting on the data. As figure 1 shows, U-Pace instruction strives to increase students' perceived capacity to affect academic performance, empowering them to believe they can be successful, even if unsuccessful at the moment. This increased sense of control over academic challenges affects students’ behavior (e.g., engagement in the course). The resulting greater academic success, greater learning, greater long-term retention of concepts, and improved rate of mastery increase the likelihood of degree completion, altering the economic trajectory of students' lives following graduation.

Figure 1. Effects of U-Pace on student performance

Figure 1. Effects of U-Pace on student performance

Status of U-Pace Instruction

Since EDUCAUSE Review published the first report on the U-Pace instructional approach, consistent results demonstrating U-Pace instruction's effectiveness have emerged. A Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) report indicates that independent evaluation of U-Pace outcomes by SRI International using data from adopting universities revealed an "effect size of 0.621…which is the equivalent of raising the average student's score on a 100-point exam from 50 to about 73."1

U-Pace instruction had significant and positive effects for both economically disadvantaged students (Pell grant eligible) and their higher income peers.2 Thus, critical data at adopting universities using different LMSs supports the idea that U-Pace instruction can be scaled to increase success in diverse student populations.

As the excerpt from an interview of a U-Pace student illustrates, students find U-Pace instruction shapes their behavior and modifies their beliefs about themselves as learners:

"U-Pace has helped me out so much in boosting my confidence, and actually showing me, and opening the door, and saying you are just a step further from graduation and you can succeed because you have all these skills in you that you might have never seen before."

National and international organizations have also recognized the impact of the U-Pace online instructional approach:

  • 2016: U-Pace instruction was noted in the Horizon Report 2016 Higher Education Edition
  • 2015: The U-Pace Team was named to the Center for Digital Education's Top 30 Technologists, Transformers, and Trailblazers []
  • 2014: WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) Award bestowed by the WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) Cooperative for Educational Technologies
  • 2013: Desire2EXCEL Impact Award bestowed by Desire2Learn
  • 2013: U-Pace instruction was profiled as a best practice by the Education Advisory Board in their 2013 report, The Online Opportunity: Leveraging Technology to Address Institutional Priorities
  • 2012: Distance Education Innovation Award bestowed by the National University Technology Network (NUTN)

Impact of Strategic Investments

Research evaluating the efficacy of the U-Pace online instructional approach and its dissemination benefited greatly from external support.

The U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences funded a large-scale randomized controlled trial evaluating the efficacy of U-Pace instruction across three disciplines. As a result of this grant we now know how U-Pace works: the greatest student learning outcomes occur when both components of the U-Pace model — mastery learning and proactive instructor support — are present. We also know, with a high degree of confidence, that U-Pace is effective for all students — both students at-risk for college non-completion and students not at-risk — and can be implemented to produce student success across disciplines.3

Additional support from the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) program, managed through EDUCAUSE and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, provided crucial support for the diffusion of U-Pace to other institutions. The NGLC support enabled us to develop a website that offers resources to help instructors adopt U-Pace. NGLC support also enabled us to present the U-Pace findings at major conferences to college and university leaders, instructional technologists, and instructors. U-Pace instruction, which originated in a single course at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, spread to more than 40 natural science, humanities, and social science courses, and from one university to 36 universities in 21 states, three countries, and numerous programs (for example, the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars). U-Pace instruction is helping to transform how postsecondary institutions deliver education (with active, self-paced, data-driven learning), assess learning (with demonstrations of mastery), and support learners on the road to degree completion (with proactive, instructor-initiated concept and motivational assistance).

In too many cases, promising innovations remain confined to the originating institution. If higher education aims to increase student success through the adoption of more evidence-based practices, then rigorous research into what works should be supported and stronger diffusion mechanisms should be developed to ensure that the highest impact practices are widely implemented. A "sharing what works" strategy merits an ongoing place on higher education's policy agenda.

To facilitate rigorous research identifying the effective practices in online, blended, and technology-enhanced education at both the course and institutional levels, the National Research Center on Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) was established at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in 2014 with a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. The DETA Research Center has advocated for and modeled rigorous methods for evaluating innovations in distance education. The DETA Center developed a freely available research toolkit complete with a framework for research on distance education, standardized definitions, instruments, and a section discussing considerations for conducting experiments.

Lessons Learned

Over the past five years we have learned that diffusing an innovation in higher education is aided by tapping into existing networks such as EDUCAUSE or disciplinary associations such as the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. These networks provided the opportunity to present at conferences and to offer U-Pace workshops for Psychology instructors. We've published on U-Pace (we see a flurry of published/pending/submitted articles coming out on U-Pace randomized controlled trials), but the direct contact with potential adopters has given us critical information about early adopters and the information resources they need to implement U-Pace with fidelity.

Community is essential as well. The NGLC-convened community and the newly emerging DETA community of practice for conducting research on online learning have connected us with like-minded peers in other states and countries. Innovation is a networked enterprise that depends on a systemic flow of new information.

We've also learned the value of feedback on how we communicate our ideas. As part of the NGLC grant-funded convening at the 2012 ELI conference, we prepared an "elevator speech" to pitch U-Pace to potential adopters. We had challenges in conveying the U-Pace concept: listeners' first impression was that U-Pace is a product (such as a type of software), rather than a set of practices. As a result of this experience, we now begin conversations about U-Pace by describing it as an online instructional approach that uses a campus's existing LMS, which positions U-Pace as a teaching practice.

Recommendations for Other Universities

When considering educational technology-inspired curricular reforms, we recommend that higher education colleagues look for approaches that have been validated through such means as peer-reviewed research published in teaching-focused journals, the What Works Clearinghouse, or the EDUCAUSE Seeking Evidence of Impact website. Conference presentations on new educational technologies are a wonderful way to learn about the directions in which higher education is evolving. Consider, however, whether the presentation offers compelling and rigorous data to support wider diffusion.

Institutions can build capacity for conducting their own rigorous evaluation of educational technology by joining the national community of online research practitioners supported by the DETA Center.

As we reflect on our U-Pace journey, it has been heartening to see the widespread commitment to student success that drives learning innovations. We are grateful for the recognition U-Pace has received and more convinced than ever of its foundational assumption that all college students can reach a high performance standard if provided with optimal support in their learning path.


The research reported in this article was supported by grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation managed by EDUCAUSE through Next Generation Learning Challenges; the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education through Grant R305A110112; and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education through Grant P116Q140006. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of EDUCAUSE, the Gates Foundation, IES, FIPSE, or the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. Andrea Venezia, "Innovations Designed for Deeper Learning in Higher Education," Next Generation Learning Challenges, EDUCAUSE, August 2014; 14.
  2. Raymond Fleming, Leah C. Stoiber, Heidi M. Pfeiffer, Sarah E. Kienzler, Ryan R. Fleming, Laura E. Pedrick, Dylan J. Barth, and Diane M. Reddy, "Using U-Pace Instruction to Improve the Academic Performance of Economically Disadvantaged Undergraduates," Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Vol. 32, No. 4 (2016): 304–313; doi:10.1111/jcal.12133.
  3. Raymond Fleming, Laura E. Pedrick, Leah C. Stoiber, Sarah Kienzler, Ryan R. Fleming, and Diane M. Reddy, "Increasing Student Success: A Randomized Controlled Trial of U-Pace Instruction," under review.

Raymond Fleming is professor of Psychology and chair of Biomedical Sciences; co-creator and director of Evaluation, U-Pace Instruction; and faculty fellow, National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee .

Laura E. Pedrick is special assistant to the Provost for Strategic Initiatives and Executive Director of UWM Online; Director of U-Pace Dissemination; and co-chair, Online Program Council, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Diane M. Reddy is professor of Psychology and director, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning; co-creator of U-Pace instruction and director of the U-Pace Research Offices on Student Learning and Instructional Innovation; co-director, National Research Center on Distance Education and Technological Advancements; and co-chair, Online Program Council, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

© 2016 Raymond Fleming, Laura E. Pedrick, and Diane M. Reddy. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0.