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3 Lessons from the UVM Medical School Active Learning Pivot

Why we should all be paying attention.

July 31, 2017
 
 

Are you talking on your campus about the UVM Larner College of Medicine’s transition to an all active learning program?

You should be.

This change at UVM is a very big deal - and a big deal outside of the world of medical education.

Here’s why:

Lesson 1 - Learning Research Is Filtering Into Teaching Practice:

UVM is redesigning the the pre-clinical years of medical school to move towards 100 percent flipped courses.  Students will review lectures and readings before class, and then take low-stakes formative assessments to gauge areas of weakness. Class sessions will consist of hands-on group problem solving, with faculty serving as mentors and coaches.

Research has consistently demonstrated that active learning techniques yield great levels of student learning - and retention - as compared to traditional methods of lectures and high-stakes assessments. What research (as well as experience) has not demonstrated is that students prefer active learning.  In many cases, students will give courses and faculty lower evaluations in active learning classes than in traditional lecture based classes.

It is remarkable that UVM’s Larner College of Medicine is willing to remake its course design methodology to align with the learning research.

Lesson 2 - Professional Schools May Be Leading Institutional Change:

As far as I know, the rest of UVM is not committing to design every class at the university around the research on learning. Across UVM there will still be in-class lectures and high stakes exams.  My guess, however, is that this change at UVM’s medical school will catalyze shifts throughout the institution.

It should not be surprising that a professional school is leading learning innovation at UVM. Professional schools have the advantage of being smaller, more focused, and better integrated than other parts of the academy.  In my experience, deans of professional schools have a good deal of influence and power to drive change.

New online and low-residency masters degrees often emerge from professional schools, as the demand for these credentials has increased. These new programs can build experience and capabilities with new forms of course design and teaching, and can lower barriers to changes in face-to-face programs.

Lesson 3 - Postsecondary Status (and Rankings) May Increasingly Align With Evidence of a Commitment to Active Learning:

The third reason that I think the news out of UVM’s Larner College of Medicine is a big deal for all of higher education - not just medical education - is the impact I expect these changes to have on status.  I fully expect that the relative rankings of UVM’s medical school to improve.  (The school is already highly regarded).  More importantly, it is clear that this medical school is generating buzz in the medical educator community.

Those in positions of postsecondary leadership should be watching the UVM Larner College of Medicine example closely to see what impact these shifts have on the finances and reputation of the school.  My hypothesis is that a willingness to commit to active learning will be a cost-effective method to drive institutional success - as measured by applications, yield and six-year graduation rates.

The challenge in moving towards an all active learning methodology are less about costs, and more about leadership and commitment.  There is no doubt that UVM’s transition is being made smoother by the generous $66 million dollar gift of Robert Larner.  The impact that this gift will have across postsecondary education in catalyzing reform will extend far beyond UVM.

Have you been talking about this story with your colleagues?

What do you think the lessons are for the rest of higher ed from the news coming out of UVM?

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