”A good teacher doesn't take ’I don't know’ for an answer”

When studies cause anxiety, Maijaliisa Erkkola, a university lecturer in nutrition science, gives her students a novel to read.

At the beginning of each of her courses, University Lecturer Maijaliisa Erkkola, or ‘Maikki’ to her students, asks the students to draw a motivation scale, which some students also sometimes call the ‘pissed-off scale’. The scale demonstrates how studies are progressing and how the student is advancing. In the beginning, students are motivated, but half-way through the course enthusiasm often wanes. Towards the end, the curve starts to rise once more. 

“When in the doldrums, students can even become angry with me about the heavy workload on the courses. However, I’d be disappointed with a stable curve. Learning is hard work and it takes its toll.”

Erkkola teaches nutrition science at the University of Helsinki. She is docent of nutrition science and a university lecturer, as well as one of the University’s teachers recognised for their work. She has received such recognition from both her students and the Teachers’ Academy, a network of distinguished teachers at the University.

At the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, Erkkola coordinates courses on, among others, public health nutrition, research methods focused on food use and nutritional epidemiology (the links between diseases and food). She also visits courses organised by her colleagues and contributes to the international Master’s Programme in Human Nutrition and Food-Related Behaviour, which examines nutrition and food culture with a multidisciplinary approach through, among others, social psychology and educational sciences.

Group work is good training for professional life 

Erkkola has worked as a university lecturer for a little over a decade. During that time, she has evolved into a teacher who trains her students into responsible experts of nutrition science. Her teaching methods are diverse.

On the course on research methodology, for example, students test the usefulness of nutrition applications developed by high-growth companies. On the project-based course on service learning, students hold lectures on nutrition outside the University to audiences composed of young parents and elderly immigrants, among others.  

These lectures and their content are organised and planned by the students themselves. As Erkkola does not provide ready-made materials, students are responsible for the knowledge they share.

“I read the report and request feedback from our partners.” 

Assuming responsibility and sharing one’s expertise receive emphasis in all of Erkkola’s courses. She wants to initiate students into the academic community already during their freshman term. Students have the opportunity to take part in research projects and the sharing of academic knowledge right from the start, which is not a given at all universities.   

Group work is an integral part of Erkkola’s courses.

“I want students to process their thoughts together, since work these days is carried out in teams,” Erkkola points out. 

She believes working in a group highlights aspects of the topics being examined that students might not think of by themselves.  

Erkkola considers assessment of group work difficult, as the evolution and development of thinking, supporting the group’s learning and the understanding of new concepts are not necessarily apparent in examinations and final essays.  

“I hate grading. Learning involves a lot of things that go unrewarded when only the final assignment is graded,” Erkkola says. 

Teachers’ support made Erkkola a researcher 

Erkkola’s path to being a teacher was not the most traditional. She never planned to have an academic career, and as a child she wanted to become a farmer just like her mother, whom she admired. 

Erkkola did not go to upper secondary school, but studied the domestic and institutional aspects of home economics in a vocational institute in Jyväskylä, Central Finland, now a university of applied sciences. Her teachers encouraged her to apply to university.

The final impetus for further studies came from the workplace.  

“Teaching in Jyväskylä, I realised that the students were really smart. I wasn’t able to answer all of their questions, and I yearned for more knowledge.”

Thus, Erkkola applied to the University of Jyväskylä to study educational sciences and to the University of Helsinki to study nutrition science. She was admitted to both and accepted both places, which was still possible in the 1990s. 

After completing her master’s thesis, Erkkola was granted the right to pursue a doctorate at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Tampere, and in 2006 she was offered the position of university lecturer at the University of Helsinki.

She accepted the position, even though a lecturership meant less time for research in the future.  

“When filling, for example, professorships, the number of research publications continues to outweigh a distinguished teaching career. Those with the most publications are hired,” Erkkola says.

She does not believe any university lecturer teaches for the money, but out of passion. Combining research and teaching takes motivation and perseverance.

Erkkola’s field of research encompasses the nutrition and health of children and families. In her latest project, she and her colleagues are investigating the habits of those on low incomes and the nutritional variety of food aid.  

Support for emotional growth boosts everyone 

For Erkkola, dialogue is at the core of teaching. Instead of accepting “I don’t know” as an answer, good teachers guide students towards solutions.

“At one point, students commented that instead of teaching, I interact. I think that was well put.” 

Erkkola likes small groups, since they give a chance to get to know the students and to find their strengths.

“Gradually, you find areas for improvement in everyone.”

According to Erkkola, students of nutrition science are very talented, which occasionally results in challenges and pressures. Students who have become accustomed to being the best may at first be disheartened by a group entirely composed of equally skilled students. 

“Not all of us turn into top-level researchers. Both the students themselves and the University should accept that. First and foremost, universities train skilled specialists.”

Erkkola sees herself as a support for emotional growth, standing by students also at times when their studies are not going well. Novels serve as first aid. Erkkola’s office contains a reference library from which students can borrow books when they are tired and when their studies are not progressing well. With renewed energy, they can then return to science.

“I always give books as presents to members of my research group. I also consider myself a better scholar and scientist because I read books from outside the academic world too.”