You cannot hurry learning even though the pace of society is accelerating

The University of Helsinki educates specialists in many fields who move on to professional life supported by the learning gained during their studies. The coronavirus period clearly demonstrated why teaching must be continually investigated and developed, says Professor Auli Toom.

Universities educate future experts who will be capable of breakthroughs in various sectors of society. According to Professor of Higher Education Auli Toom, this makes it crucial for universities to provide the highest quality teaching possible.

“The skills of our graduates must be relevant and meet the needs of varying fields. It’s essential that they have agency in complex situations and future challenges.”

Toom studies learning, teaching and the connection between them at the University. She serves as one of the vice-deans of the Faculty of Educational Sciences and heads the Centre for University Teaching and Learning (HYPE).

Toom’s longest-standing research line is the study of teacher training. It is an important part of university education – after all, the University trains teachers who will go on to teach children and adolescents at different school levels for decades to come.

Good teaching challenges and provides freedom

The University has research-based knowledge on how students learn, how they should be taught, and what kind of teaching leads to expertise and wellbeing.

At the same time, teaching must sound out the surrounding society to determine current trends in various fields and be able to take them into consideration in teaching.

Students must learn the central knowledge and skills of their field, in which they also need to have an in-depth interest and a desire to advance in their studies and careers.

“It’s essential to challenge students to delve into what they are learning. They must be given the opportunity to think critically, question things and make a difference.”

The individual nature of learning became prominent particularly during the pandemic. While some students had difficulties, others fared well and progressed. Toom found it interesting that University of Helsinki students completed more credits than usual during the coronavirus period.

Great demands for both students and teachers

Without research-based knowledge, pedagogical decisions pertaining to teaching would be made instead on the basis of experiences and beliefs. Thanks to Toom and the researchers at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning, those who decide on the content and teaching of degree programmes have access to research-based knowledge on learning and teaching.

In addition to research, the centre is responsible for the pedagogical training of the University’s teaching staff. Although training is voluntary, according to Toom many scholars, teachers and doctoral researchers have understood its value.

“Teachers’ personal experiences and beliefs rarely match the research findings on effective learning and teaching.”

Four times during each student’s studies, the centre conducts the HowULearn survey, which monitors students’ experiences of studying, the learning environment and wellbeing. Currently prevailing concerns relate particularly to student wellbeing. The reason for the burden and stress experienced by young people is a key question.

“We have to be aware of the challenges students have been facing especially in recent years. Our University has considered student wellbeing in, for example, curriculum design and the development of supervision and advice services, as well as the resources allocated to these services.”

According to Toom, university education is getting better and better. And yet, teaching ability continues to vary. Moreover, modern teaching requires a great deal from teachers, and they themselves have to continuously learn new things.

The digitalisation of teaching must not lose sight of how people learn

The pressure to apply digital solutions in teaching was high even before the pandemic. Toom believes that digital teaching and learning methods are a good thing, but also that we must not forget, in the middle of the digital leap, how people learn. If the leap is rushed, there is a risk that it does not serve learning or the development of expertise.

Toom points out that human learning is slow. It takes time, discussion, and collaborative knowledge-building as well as an understanding of causes and consequences. These are not realised through teaching that merely repeats knowledge, learning by rote or simplified online courses for the public.

“In society, there is enormous pressure to increase efficiency and make a lot of things happen at a rapid rate, but that cannot possibly be done at the expense of effective learning.”

Researchers are now publishing research on learning and teaching in the pandemic period. According to Toom, the results highlight, among other things, the enormous importance of the community for learning and wellbeing. The pandemic was a culmination, after which teaching as well as the wellbeing of students and staff have been discussed in increasingly serious tones.

“We are now seeing the impact of changes to the quality and form of social interaction. The University community is a prerequisite for high-quality learning.”


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