Dr Wayne Mitchell is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Medicine. Earlier this year, he was awarded a President’s Award for Excellence in Supporting the Student Experience in recognition of his efforts to create a better learning environment for students. We spoke to him more about his role for the latest instalment of our Staff Profile series.
Tell us about your role in the Department – what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
My job varies quite considerably depending on the time of year. From September to March, I’m extensively lab-based, teaching both undergraduate and postgraduate courses. We help students develop the essential experimental and critical thinking skills required for undertaking effective laboratory research. From April to August, I’m involved with evaluating taught components, and helping to attract potential students through our international Summer School. The evaluation is crucial for assessing what went well, and thinking of new ways to meet the needs of the diverse student population that we attract.
When did you first join the Department, and where were you working before this?
I joined the Department in September 2015, having previously worked in roles in both education and academia. Most recently, I worked as the Head of Science at a middle school. This was a very interesting and varied position, as I was responsible for planning activities that would bring science to life for these children. Before that, I was a research scientist on projects ranging from the immunology of aging, to the detection of biomarkers in common cancers at a number of institutes, including Cranfield, Imperial and UCL.
You recently received a President’s Award for Excellence in Supporting the Student Experience – how did it feel for your work to be recognised in this way?
Receiving the President’s Award was, and is, a truly humbling honour. This is primarily because the recognition and acknowledgement are based on the views of the students and my colleagues, in respect to a job that I truly enjoy. Although I know that the award recognises my personal contributions, I also think that I could not have accomplished any of this had it not been for the excellent students and supportive colleagues with whom I work. It is a very good feeling to know that your hard work is worthy of public honour.
What do you think is the most important factor in creating an effective and positive learning environment for students?
I believe that a student needs to feel that their individual needs are met, despite being part of a much larger cohort. It is important to develop a connection with the students and to learn their names, as in my view this communicates a genuine interest in them. Additionally, you should make time to listen to students’ concerns while recognising that, occasionally, you need to challenge them in order to enable them to do their very best. However, I also want them to know and understand that they are not alone, and that we are here to support them through the experience. Students who feel supported and listened to will be better prepared to focus their energy on learning, and this will hopefully help them on the path to achieving their full potential.
What do you think are the main challenges faced by Imperial students today, and what do you think can be done to help overcome them?
I think a major challenge for students is the pressure felt from their ‘fear of failing’: being afraid to make mistakes because everything they do is part of an assessment towards their degree. This can prevent their enjoyment of the learning experience, and instead causes them to expend energies on developing strategic approaches to look at how they can get the best mark without embracing learning in itself.
We have developed an approach that provides alignment across the curriculum and therefore enables the students to develop the necessary skills in a relaxed learning environment. Mistakes are used as experiences to reflect on and learn from before they have to demonstrate these skills at an appropriate time, when it will then contribute towards their degree. The explicit communication of these skills to students provides the platform to learn and show their mastery of the desired skills.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of your role?
The most rewarding part is overseeing the development of a student’s ability to tackle unknown tasks because of the confidence that they have gained from planned activities. I also enjoy seeing students embrace new challenges using the various approaches that they’ve learnt along the way. Also, it is very pleasing when students demonstrate their appreciation for how we have helped them on their learning journey.
What do you find to be the most difficult part of your role?
Having to wait for others to see the problem in the same way that I do and provide the means to implement effective change.
Your biggest passions and hobbies outside of work?
I enjoy playing sports and listening to music. I have recently discovered photography and I’m trying to develop my skills for capturing the special moments.
Your favourite thing about working in the Department of Medicine?
I really enjoy working with the students, and the freedom that I have to develop and implement teaching ideas that help them to embrace and enjoy learning. Also, I have been very fortunate to work with some talented and enthusiastic individuals, who not only support but help to inspire novel approaches to teaching.
If the Department could do one thing to improve its organisational culture, what would that be?
I think the Department could do more to promote the recognition and status for those with a passion for teaching. Everyone at some point in their life has needed to learn from someone! Those who devote themselves to teaching can be made to feel ‘second-class’ compared to those engaged with scientific research. We really need to promote the benefits of drawing on each other’s strengths to help develop a more inclusive learning and effective research environment.
Read more about Wayne’s work as part of the College’s Innovation in Teaching profile series