Dr Mitchell was celebrated in this year's President's Awards for his transformational approach to teaching within the Department of Medicine.
Dr Mitchell, Senior Teaching Fellow, told Murray MacKay how humbled he was to win the medal and where he gets the inspiration to develop innovative new methods for teaching students difficult concepts.
What did it feel like to win the President’s Award?
"Designed to challenge the student’s preconception of working as a research scientist, the MRP provides them with the freedom to experiment with their ideas." Dr Wayne Mitchell
Receiving the Award was and is a truly humbling honour. Primarily because the recognition and acknowledgement are based on the views of the students and my colleagues for a job that I truly enjoy. For me, the Award recognises my contribution but I know that I could not have accomplished any of this had it not been for the excellent students and supportive colleagues who I work with. It is a very good feeling to know that your hard work is worthy of public honour.
You won the Award for developing a number of new teaching approaches and ways to support Imperial students. What were the challenges in delivering this level of change?
I think the hardest part about making changes at any level is letting go of the past. When people become comfortable in what they are doing or what they are familiar with, getting them to try a new way can be a challenge. In some cases, the challenge is getting the ‘buy-in’, do they see the potential in the opportunity. If they do and are willing to try and it works, that can be very rewarding. However if it doesn’t work then keeping them motivated to try it again can be very hard. As the old saying goes, if as first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’ but so often the reality is that we go back to what is comfortable and familiar without persevering and learning from the mistakes in the first iteration (or should I say irritation).
Another challenge is the ‘we’ve tried that and it doesn’t work’ attitude that can be expressed by colleagues. Often times, they proceed to explain why it will not work in their opinion, this can be very discouraging but my approach is whatever happens, experience is a great teacher. By using sound rationale and focusing on the solution to tackle the problem, we will find a better way to resolve the issues that have triggered the need for change. Fundamental to making changes is effective communication; that is, the idea, and the approach, and then re-enforcing the purposed changes with regular communication with the necessary stakeholders. It has to be a team effort.
When you teach, or think about trialling a new way of teaching, what inspires you?
I suppose my greatest inspiration is the students, being able to imagine and then witness them successfully engage with complex concepts from a position of uncertainty to full engagement and understanding; helping to support them as they grapple with the development of their critical thinking skills required for future success as scientific researchers. It is amazing to observe them as they struggle through the transitional stages of their thinking and overcome challenging activities that you have help to design to harness their potential. Being part of this transformational process of our future leaders is very rewarding and inspiring.
You convinced a number of colleagues to offer their students MRPs (Mini-Research Projects). Why do you think these have been so popular?
I think the popularity of the MRP is the authenticity of the approach. Designed to challenge the student’s preconception of working as a research scientist, the MRP provides them with the freedom to experiment with their ideas in a ‘safe learning environment’. This encourages students to engage with, develop, and understand the nuances of the scientific process, not just focusing on the result. It means that when they embark on their research projects they have developed the confidence and recognition of what makes good research, what are the limitations and the critical thinking required to produce meaningful data. Effectively, the MRP helps to make the students research ready, which is beneficial for them, and their future project supervisors.
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