More credits completed during the exceptional year than usual – Coping must be ensured

The exceptional circumstances brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have defined the organisation of studies in the spring and autumn in all faculties. Regardless, or perhaps because of this, the number of credits completed at the University of Helsinki has increased from the previous year. We looked into how students have fared during this time.

In 2020 both undergraduate students and Open University students completed more credits than in the previous year. The phenomenon of increased credit numbers applies to other Finnish universities as well.

“The comprehensive transition to remote instruction in the exceptional circumstances took place so quickly that it was impossible to predict its impact on the progress of studies at the time. We have been closely monitoring the situation since the spring and, based on our observations, the circumstances have not endangered the achievement of learning outcomes in general,” says Päivi Pakkanen, head of Strategic Services for Teaching.

An education reform was carried out at the University of Helsinki in 2017. Now, the transition period implemented for those graduating in accordance with the old degree structures is coming to an end, which may have played a part in the increase seen in completed credits.

Transition to remote instruction relatively smooth in the circumstances

The highest proportional rise in credit numbers, 39%, occurred in the Faculty of Pharmacy, with the Faculty of Law following in second place with a growth of 28%.

According to Juuso Lumilahti, a fourth-year student of law, his studies at the Faculty of Law have progressed according to plan in spite of the exceptional circumstances.

“All of my courses were successfully organised by alternative means. In the spring the Faculty very rapidly responded to the new situation, demonstrating in the process that student safety is taken seriously. Course organisation appeared to be in good hands, and along the way people have become increasingly adept at using the systems,” Lumilahti explains.

What little criticism Lumilahti has concerns the consideration of student workloads, as well as partially contradictory practical instructions pertaining to, for example, compulsory attendance. According to him, several minor changes to course organisation may result in the workload of students increasing, at the worst, substantially. Lumilahti adds that it is important to provide feedback on practices to enable their development.

“All of my courses were successfully organised by alternative means. In the spring the Faculty very rapidly responded to the new situation, demonstrating in the process that student safety is taken seriously. Course organisation appeared to be in good hands, and along the way people have become increasingly adept at using the systems.” - Juuso Lumilahti, student of laws

Flexibility benefits students

In the spring the Student Union of the University of Helsinki surveyed students’ experiences in the exceptional circumstances. Akseli Rouvari, a member of the Student Union’s Board responsible for education policy, says that the transition to remote instruction went relatively efficiently. Any acute issues arising in the spring were addressed before the autumn.

“The survey highlighted the importance of flexible arrangements and flexibility in the spring. For instance, the transition to completing courses online and utilising recorded lectures, as well as easing compulsory attendance guidelines made it possible to continue studies. This also benefitted students whose work or family circumstances make it difficult to study full time,” Rouvari says.

Both Rouvari and Lumilahti find the flexibility engendered by online studies a useful lesson also for the future of studying. In the future, online studies could become an even more extensively utilised option for organising instruction alongside on-site lectures.

Concentrating on studying made possible by the pandemic

A range of reasons may underlie the increase in completed studies. Lumilahti muses that, in the Faculty of Law, the accumulation of credits may have been boosted by courses being organised normally despite the exceptional circumstances.

Both Lumilahti and Rouvari note that the circumstances have liberated students in terms of their time use.

“Many people have had extra time for studying: job opportunities have decreased, staff have been temporarily laid off and traineeships have been cancelled. Also many student events have been cancelled or held online, which has reduced social interaction. Then again, such developments bring with them concerns related to making a living and coping,” Rouvari sums up.

Dual effect on study progression from the exceptional circumstances

Even though the transition to online instruction has, in general, made it possible to continue studying for many, it has also posed challenges to some. Leena Ripatti-Torniainen, senior lecturer in university pedagogy at the Faculty of Social Sciences, says that the dramatic nature of the transition took certain students by surprise.

“Compared to contact teaching, they may suddenly find it more difficult to tackle tasks, manage their time use or concentrate. When studies have to be pursued on your own, potentially in isolation at home, the significance of peers for learning may stand out to a degree not seen before. In fact, we have sought to emphasise in our instructions that the stress caused by the exceptional circumstances must be taken into consideration when planning remote studies,” says Ripatti-Torniainen, who has also familiarised herself with the feedback collected in the spring.

Ripatti-Torniainen underlines that online studies should include elements of interaction and the sense of coming together. She encourages students to seek studying company from their peers in classes to compensate the potentially lacking peer support during the exceptional circumstances.

"We have sought to emphasise in our instructions that the stress caused by the exceptional circumstances must be taken into consideration when planning remote studies.” - Leena Ripatti-Torniainen, university lecturer in university pegagogy

Coping must be ensured

While the exceptional circumstances have resulted in a transition to teaching online, other areas associated with studying have correspondingly become more restricted. Rouvari says that the Student Union is particularly concerned about the integration of new students into the University community.

“Limited social interaction makes it more difficult to become attached to the community. Many students live by themselves in small apartments, and the closure of social spaces, such as libraries, cafeterias and gyms, may be especially hard for them. Fortunately, new and safe ways of maintaining social contacts have been developed in the spring and autumn,” says Rouvari.

Lumilahti too has missed the community in the exceptional circumstances, as well as face-to-face encounters with other students and Faculty staff.

“I’ve accumulated some social debt,” he concludes.

Credits in January–August 2019 and 2020 (figures extracted from the Ministry of Education and Culture’s ExtraVipunen service on 14 October 2020)

In the table, you can compare the credits completed in 2019 and 2020 between January and August in the University of Helsinki. More credits have been achieved each month except for the international exchange students.

Month

Undergraduate students

Open University students

International exchange students

 

2019

2020

2019

2020

2019

2020

Jan

49,484

55,015

5,994

7,716

440

839

Feb

60,888

69,139

4,914

6,191

2,075

2,213

Mar

85,704

81,823

10,765

9,310

2,436

1,836

Apr

76,984

104,844

7,411

6,057

3,149

3,605

May

151,472

145,053

9,687

17,340

4,664

3,911

Jun

72,553

89,093

7,273

14,546

111

196

Jul

10,907

13,935

2,629

5,914

348

42

Aug

23,481

26,164

4,412

10,366

1,408

222

Jan–Aug

531,473

585,066

53,085

77,440

14,631

12,864

 

Leena Ripatti-Torniainen

University lecturer in university pedagogy

Päivi Pakkanen

Head of Teaching and Learning services