The atmosphere is tense at the first lecture. A compulsory course in statistics completed long ago is making some students dread the course they are about to take. But things are different at the end of the course, and the students give exceptionally positive feedback.
“What I enjoy about teaching is when students get excited about a topic they initially thought they didn’t understand,” says award-winning university lecturer Kimmo Vehkalahti.
He is one of the founding members of the Teachers’ Academy, a network of top teachers at the University of Helsinki. Vehkalahti first came to the University 30 years ago, when he began to study statistics. His career as a teacher who changes students’ ideas about statistics spans almost as long a period.
Vehkalahti is a docent of applied statistics, a data scientist and the director of the Master’s Programme in Contemporary Societies (COS). His courses focus on the basic methods of open data science and social statistics as well as the analysis of authentic datasets.
Vehkalahti is at least partly to thank for the increasing popularity of a field that is often seen as challenging. Students taking his courses learn about modelling, programming, coding and the practices of open science and open data.
“I update the content of my courses with current topics, such as news items. Most recently, I created a preliminary assignment involving a website on the US presidential election to acquaint students with the concept of statistical significance. And I always adapt my courses based on students’ questions,” he adds.
Algorithmic thinking is useful in all areas
Vehkalahti sees statistical thinking and literacy as civic skills that should be used not only in various fields of science, but also more broadly in the job market and everyday life.
“My courses provide students with many basic skills in social statistics that can be used in all areas of life. For example, I’m currently investigating Italian gambling addicts as well as the wellbeing of university students.”
Vehkalahti is a proponent of open science and open data. The freely available programming language R, based on open source code, is an excellent tool for this purpose. Having long been used in the natural sciences, the R language has in recent years also been taken into use in the humanities and social sciences.
“Algorithmic and data-driven thinking is key because they open up new opportunities. You can find numerous research questions, for example, on social media.”
An inspiring teacher also interacts online
Vehkalahti is an experienced lecturer, who teaches one of the University’s big MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): every year hundreds of students take his course 'Introduction to Social Statistics'.
“During the coronavirus pandemic, I have used the Zoom video communications service on my courses. It has taught us new ways of being present and interacting with others. The virtual rooms for small groups as well as the option of sharing the teacher’s or a student’s screen with others provide excellent opportunities to resolve the technical challenges that are part and parcel of methodological courses.”
Vehkalahti believes that the digital solutions adopted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic are here to stay. Most courses can continue to be largely organised in an online environment.
“On Zoom, it is easy to record parts of lectures for future use, and there are various functions that can create a sense of community, even on large online courses.”
Vehkalahti sees numerical and verbal data everywhere, even when browsing through his course participant lists. The Introduction to Social Statistics course has been taken by more than 15,000 students, and topping the list of the students’ most common first names is Laura.
“I have often scrutinised students’ first names. The most typical names, such as Laura and Antti, have five letters and no Scandinavian letters. The wide range of the distribution is demonstrated by the fact that the first letters of the names encompass all the letters of the Finnish alphabet.”
Vehkalahti’s enthusiasm is contagious.
“Students give me a lot of feedback on my enthusiasm. I’m passionate about statistics, and I’m continuously learning new things myself. The atmosphere may at first be tense, but usually, it’s eventually replaced by enthusiasm and even a sense of fun!”
Read more about degree programmes:
- Bachelor’s Programme in Social Research (in Finnish)
- Master’s Programme in Contemporary Societies (COS)
- Master’s Programme in Mathematics and Statistics
- Explore the Bachelor's and Master's programmes offered by the University of Helsinki
You can find a selection of the open online courses offered by the University of Helsinki on the Study flexibly -pages.