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University of Vermont in The Chronicle of Higher Ed: Not Another Lecture

A bold new model at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont aims to reinvent medical education.

It’s the archetypal image of a higher ed classroom – an expert holding forth at the front of a room.

But mounting evidence suggests that active learning methods, those that feature collaboration, simulation, small-group sessions and “flipped classrooms,” actually produce better results for students, both in terms of test scores and information retention.

Nowhere are the stakes higher for better training than in the medical classroom.

That’s why the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine has a goal to replace traditional lectures with active learning within three years. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, it’s the most aggressive push of any medical school toward that format.

We know that these efforts improve outcomes,” says William Jeffries, Ph.D., senior associate dean for medical education at the college, “and that’s what we’re really focusing on.”

A 2014 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences determined that active learning reduced course failure rates by about one-third.

The college is accomplishing this shift thanks to the support of Robert Larner, M.D., a 1942 alumnus and longtime donor to the college. Even though the traditional lecture was a hallmark of his training, when he heard about the college’s plans to increase active learning, he pledged several major gifts – including the largest endowment in the school’s history – to help meet that ambition. His support over the past 30-plus years, worth about $100 million, has supported new and retooled classrooms, technology and faculty training.

Dr. Larner fell in love with that idea,” Jeffries says. “He was essentially willing to give us a huge legacy to support that endeavor.”

With active learning, students spend class time working in teams on exercises or case studies that require them to apply their knowledge. Lectures don’t really vanish, but instead become homework.

The engagement takes place in the classroom,” says William Raszka, M.D., professor of pediatrics and director of the Attacks and Defenses course. “When the students are engaged, they do a terrific job.”

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