Better equipping students through communication…and Instagram: Meeting Dr Thomas Robinson, Associate Dean for Student Experience
Dr Robinson will orchestrate student practices after he was appointed to the role from 1 January.
Dr Thomas Robinson says building a caring university culture around communication and mutual recognition will be at the heart of his strategy as new Associate Dean for Student Experience.
Dr Robinson, who started the role at Bayes Business School on 1 January, says questions such as: What is it like to be on the receiving end of PowerPoint slides? What makes students anxious and uncertain? How do our campuses frame student joy for studying? will be at the heart of the experience.
The module leader for the first year compulsory module on BSc Business Management, Dr Robinson is the pathway leader for BSc Business with Marketing and says his desire to help students is a key motivator in his job, adding that alienation, exclusion, and fragmentation are poison to higher education “as learning thrives on dialogue”.
“Community and belonging are central to well-being, student attainment and job prospects. My motivation to do this job goes back to all the teaching I’ve experienced in my own life growing up as a third culture kid,” said Dr Robinson, who teaches first-year first-term students. “Multicultural institutions are a boon for students, but also a challenge. At Bayes, our undergraduate cohort has 60 different nationalities – therefore there are 60 different ways of writing essays, doing coursework, addressing the teacher, etc. The first challenge we face is negotiating a common framework and connecting with material that is typically tacit at many other schools.
“How do we bring them together? I see it in three parts. Firstly, it is with me. I need to understand where the students are coming from, and then to think about how I connect with them on their terms so they can understand me. That is a process – empathy is a big part of teaching. In that first term I don’t just teach marketing for instance, but how to become a university student. I try to create a community with new culture that is explicit and makes sense to them.
“Secondly, it is the ‘them’. There needs to be emphasis on teachers remembering their own educational experience. What was it like to be 18, or 22? A student’s attention span is not that long yet – not because they don’t want to take part in class, but because they cannot endure the relentless flow of information. Disruption every 10-15 minutes is important, as monotony is a killer of learning. None of us remember our commute from three weeks ago, but we are more likely to remember a startling interaction with a stranger or the last party we went to. We must bring that logic into the auditorium – the students should enter a lecture being unable to predict what will happen.
“There are experiential boundaries too - I like to move around to make my lecture multi-dimensional, whether filling the Zoom screen or running around the classroom or doing a dance by the podium. I want to utilize all means of communication.
“Thirdly, it is the ‘us’. Anglo Saxon university teaching is very modular, so the university education risks being perceived by the students as a Pick & Mix with no core story or coherent idea. We need to be more attentive to what the bag of goodies looks like in the end when it all comes together. What are the narratives that appear as students’ progress through the whole programme? Is there a meaningful beginning middle and conclusion that prepares me for my future life?
“We want to generate students who can think autonomously. Rather than just lecturing at students I want the students to be involved and to sit down and work with ideas on their own before refining them and getting smarter.”
Dr Robinson added that the chance to define what the student experience is and how it relates to Bayes’ core services are incredibly valuable. In doing that, he will be shifting on the helpdesk to better understand the experience from the beginning.
“Communication is at the heart of these ideas. I want to know the concerns that students are bringing to us, their emotions and frustrations and what opportunity our employees have to respond to that. Learning how others do their job, what they need, and their circumstances are integral to me to understand how we make things better for our students.
“I want students to feel like they belong, we need a caring university,” added Dr Robinson, who uses Instagram as a tool to reach out to his students. “Something we learned from lockdown is people don’t want to sit and work alone, they want to hang out together and have a feeling of belonging.
“Staging Instagram videos with the students helps create memories students will remember forever. I recorded a video showing a performance of students sleeping in the classroom for the 9am lecture – it is not easy. They are all part of it, and it is building that joyful, community feel where everybody wants to learn.
“In a few years a student might say ‘this module changed my life’ and it might not just be because of what they learned about marketing but how they felt about education or even the potential they have in their lives. They, and their potential, were seen. That is why I do this job. I want to equip all these wonderful young people to survive in this crazy world we have pushed them into.”