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UVM Med School Receives Record $66 Million Gift To Revamp Teaching Methods

Kathleen Masterson
University of Vermont President Tom Sullivan speaks at a ceremony for the announcement of a $66 million gift from UVM College of Medicine alum and Burlington native Robert Larner, 98, to the UVM College of Medicine.

The University of Vermont College of Medicine has announced that it’s receiving a $66 million gift, the largest ever made to a public university in New England.

The gift comes from UVM College of Medicine alum and Burlington native Robert Larner, 98, who now lives in Los Angeles. He has given a total of $100 million to the med school, which is being renamed in his honor. 

Larner's gift is specifically dedicated to allowing the med school to completely revamp its teaching approach. This comes in light of growing research showing that the age-old class lecture format simply isn't effective for most students. 

Instead, active teaching methods that take a more discussion- and team-based approach to learning are far more effective, according to a 2014 meta-analysis that reviewed 225 studies comparing different teaching approaches for science, technology, engineering and math. 

"There is firm evidence that this method of teaching is superior to lecturing," says William Jeffries, a dean for medical education.  

"If it was a medical treatment and the evidence was this compelling, we would say, 'Well, there's no way we should use the inferior method anymore. We should really transition away from doing that.' And that's what we're doing," Jeffries says.

Jeffries also mentioned a New York Times editorial whose author concluded that the people who do best in the lecture approach are white males: "Research comparing the two methods has consistently found that students over all perform better in active-learning courses than in traditional lecture courses. However, women, minorities, and low-income and first-generation students benefit more."   

Jeffries says the school wants "all our learners on the same page, and make sure everyone's learning through the best practices."   

Medical schools across the country are moving toward this approach, at varying speeds and to different degrees. Not every school can afford to reconstruct their curriculum and create new spaces for learning. For one, last year Harvard Medical School rolled out major curriculum changes designed to create more interactive learning experience.

100 percent 'lecture-less' classes

The generous gift is helping the UVM medical school to move to a "100 percent lecture-less" teaching approach.

Some of the physical changes needed for the transition are nearly complete. Instead of the classic tiered lecture hall, the med school has constructed new, smaller learning spaces where students can face each other and use technology.

The change also requires updating the med school curriculum so that classroom time is spent on interactive group activities, whereas the lecture-style learning is expected to be completed as a homework assignment before students come to class.

"Most importantly, we need to ensure that the faculty have the [skills] that are needed to teach in this environment," says Jeffries. "That is a huge undertaking, because I think the faculty in most medical schools, most haven't been trained in this type of teaching."

Jeffries says this approach will translate to better real-world skills for students who will soon become doctors. He says an interactive learning environment will help students not just better retain the information that used to be delivered in lectures, "but how to apply those facts and synthesize a series of pieces of knowledge into a logical argument and a treatment plan for a patient or a diagnosis."

"So it's really about teaching ways of thinking and encouraging thinking in teams, and peer learning and leveraging the power of the group, as opposed to one person standing there talking," he says.

Some of the physical changes to the UVM med school buildings are nearly complete, however the faculty and some medical students will attend a retreat this spring to discuss how to best implement the new changes to the curriculum.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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