Good instructions

Every teacher has to think once in a while how he/she offers good instructions to the students. From my personal experience, these situations have usually been linked to academic writing tasks such as essays. Reflecting these experiences, I don’t hesitate to say that good instructions are first and foremost short. I have noted many times that if my instructions have been longer than few lines, the students get easily confused. Instructions should be also as clear as possible, which means that the teacher sets clear technical guidelines. These guidelines should include at least:

  • what students must read
  • how many pages they must write
  • how they should write
  • what should be added to the text
  • when the text should be returned

As a teacher, I give students quite a lot freedom to complete their writing tasks but it should be noted that certain academic requirements must be fulfilled. For instance, used references must be in place and in an orthodox manner.

Designing academic writing tasks

In my discipline (Political Science), academic writing tasks are usually essay-styled writings. In practice, this means that when I give academic writing tasks, I expect the students to discuss the given topic from different perspectives as well as to share his/her own critical views concerning the topic.

Stylistically essays are less restricted than for example scientific articles. That doesn’t mean of course that everything goes. As all good writings, essays should be structurally logical and coherent. They should have a starting point, critical review of the topic and at the end, conclusions too. As a teacher, I give students fairly much freedom in designing their writing tasks. I want the texts to be written in proper academic language and also a list of references should be at the end.

When designing academic writing task, I try to make relatively broad guidelines to essay questions or topics. I don’t want to narrow the area of study more than necessary in order to allow the students to write their text according to their own perspectives. Below is a list of essay questions I have made to a certain Political Science’s course:

  • What are the main features of the securitisation theory?
  • What politically controversial questions would you say are connected to the so-called war on terrorism?
  • How can security be seen as a value concept?
  • How has the concept of security appeared in international politics?

As you can see, I have seek to keep the questions as such that the students have the possibility not only to refer to course books but also to adduce their personal point of views concerning the matters in questions.

Example of my EMI teaching methods

Students’ background has been quite diverse every time when I have taught in English. Not only have they come from all over the globe, they also have had very different subjects as a major. That has forced me to think how much I can assume them to know about the topics in question beforehand. For example, this autumn I gave a lecture in a course called “Crises, conflicts and security” and before my lecture I had to consider, how it is possible to make political science’s perspectives understandable to an industrial engineering student from the Netherlands (just to name an actual example).

As a solution, I have attempted to illustrate theoretical questions and concepts by giving practical examples as much as possible. For instance, when I tried to open up Finland’s Internal Security Strategy (published by Ministry of the Interior), I seek to demonstrate and visualize social risks by statistics and figures. One figure was about so-called NEETs – young people who are “Not in Employment, Education or Training”. I also tried to lighten the atmosphere in the lecture by showing a statistic concerning the proportions of causes of death by age groups in Finland in order to illustrate that Finland still is a relatively safe place to visit and live in.

In a nutshell, one of my most important EMI teaching methods is to use examples and illustrations. If they are chosen well, they crystallize main points of the topics in question. I also hope that they help those students to understand better what I am pursuing to teach who otherwise wouldn’t understand political science’s perspectives or generally my spoken English so well.

In case you are interested in what kind of illustrations I use in my EMI teaching, below is the figure about the causes of death in Finland. The source is Statistics Finland. 🙂

Challenges in EMI

Back in 2005 I was a on an international work camp in Iceland. After a pleasant flight to Reykjavik, I found a hostel booked for our labour team. At the hostel, I tried to chat with a French guy and asked if he was hungry and ready to go find some food. He misunderstood me and responded, “No, I’m not angry!”

Those two weeks in Iceland taught me a great deal about communication in English in international environment. In the first place, people are more or less the same despite where they come from. Secondly, perfect language skills don’t matter if you are mute. The conclusion I deducted from this was that if I just talk anything – substance I found secondary at the time – I would get along just fine in multicultural environment.

At the University, it is impossible to disregard the substance of the communication anymore, but the core of the Iceland’s lesson is still valid. Communication isn’t just sharing information to one another, but it is also a moment where individuals share a common situation. This means that in communication, it is important that people can set themselves in a level where they can understand each other and also to be understood.

In this picture, I have drawn a basic model how I see challenges in English medium instruction. The model consists of three elements: individual element, cultural and institutional background and the topics that would be the actual substance of learning events. The key question is how one can find the common level of communication where all three elements would be included.

Culture – what it means to me?

When it comes to culture, I find myself these days being a bit uncomfortable. Not that I wouldn’t like or appreciate culture – I love to consume music, books, films and all other branches of art. God bless culture. I think my uncomfortable condition is due to my background as political scientist. When you have spent nearly a half of your lifetime dealing with political questions and social sciences, you will evolve a certain approach to the world around you. To be more specific, you start seeing problems everywhere you look, and that’s my issue.

From my point of view, culture has become a kind of social battlefield. Concepts that were unknown just a while ago are now framing cultural issues and making them as political grievances. Ideas of political correctness and cultural appropriation make me worry about my own situation as a person who is trying to describe and analyse social and political phenomena such as multiculturalism, cultural diversity and immigration on the one hand, and on the other hand issues such as national politics, demographic differentiation and security threats.

At the moment political correctness isn’t a big problem in Finland, but I wonder will it become as such. On my shelf I have a book by Diane Ravitch called “The language police: how pressure groups restrict what students learn”. Diane Ravitch has been an educational policy analyst who studied how political correctness and the requirement of “right vocabulary” permeated American school system. I won’t go in details here but to give you a hint, the book has a “glossary of banned words” which is 35 pages long. The list is a compilation of words, usages, stereotypes, and topics banned by major publishers of educational materials and US state agencies.

When people are getting more and more sensitive and eager to be offended, I constantly find myself asking how should I say or write certain things. Should I treat multiculturalism, for example, as a thing that has none drawbacks whatsoever, or should I express my concern what could happen if immigrants from entirely different culture won’t assimilate to western culture? Luckily I have the possibility to leave these kind of questions behind when I put on my stereos and enjoy a culture that brings me a sense of good feelings, belonging and harmony.

Technology in my teaching

Kari Kulovaara 18.9.2017

I am teaching multiple courses at the University, and they are all somehow based on the use of different technologies. These technologies are helpful for both the students and teachers, too. By far the most important technology is email. Email is my primary tool for communicating with students and colleagues. It is also the most practical tool that I use in university because – as you all well know – it storages send mails and attachments. If I had to use old-fashioned paper notes, for example, the chaos would be imminent.

Most courses that I teach include an electronic book examination or written essays. Essays are agreed with students by email and when essays are done, they are also delivered to me by email. Electronic book examinations are held in a special internet platform Exam, where teachers create a special area where an examination for a specific course can be held. Exam is a practical tool that gives me a pleasure of not needing to read hand-written essay answers.

I also teach at the Jyväskylä Open University, and there technology is much more in use. The reason for this is that in JYAY, student mass is spread over a wider area. In the courses that I teach the lectures are recorded on video and distributed via “Moniviestin” (a web page through which videos can be played). In addition, when students are ready to deliver their written assignments and learning diaries, they simply save their doc- and pdf-files in a postbox at Koppa (another internet platform).

Overall, technology makes my job easier – at least when it works. Still, I am not completely sure that the so-called digitalization is free from all troubles. The department of social sciences and philosophy, for instance, is determined to set all basic courses on internet where students can watch the lectures whenever they want. Of course, I can see the benefits, but sometimes I wonder if the core essence of being at the university loses something vital as a result of that. Being a student is at least in my book living shared moments with other students, walking in the campus area and seeing different kind of lecture halls and so on. If everyone and everything is online, where exactly is everything?