Martin Björklund: It is teachers' fault if students enjoy lectures but learn nothing

After realising that his salary is not determined by the number of words he utters during classes, Martin Björklund’s teaching improved.

To some, law is a passion, but when it becomes a compulsory part of studies, it may feel like an utter chore. The language of legislation in particular may seem rigid and difficult.

“Students aren’t always sure whether they have the capacity to assimilate legal concepts or whether they even want to,” says Martin Björklund, a lecturer and doctoral student at the University of Helsinki.

Björklund has been teaching public law at the University’s Swedish School of Social Science for over a decade. His courses have focused on, among other topics, human rights, the human rights system and EU law.

The Swedish School of Social Science does not educate lawyers, and it is a rare student that has public law as their major subject, which is why Björklund is so familiar with students’ problems with motivation. One might consider legal studies an unpopular subject at the Swedish School of Social Science. And yet, students have twice awarded Björklund the Lecturer of the Year award.

From 2014, he has been a fellow of Teachers’ Academy, a network of distinguished teachers that promotes high-quality university teaching at the University of Helsinki. Currently, Björklund is serving as its chair.

Cases make law approachable

Björklund began teaching at the Swedish School of Social Science in 2005. From the beginning, he has used actual court cases as an integral part of his teaching, introducing them in every lecture.

For example, cases that fall under administrative law or human rights often involve individuals fighting for their own rights. They are up against the administrative apparatus of the government that is trying to balance the public interest and the rights of individuals.

“In terms of human rights, for instance, individuals may be in great distress. Legal cases are a way to make students think and discuss. By the same token, cases demonstrate the terms on which government operates.”

One of Björklund’s go-to cases concerns gender reassignment and marriage before the enactment of the equal marriage act. In the case, a couple appealed to the Finnish Constitution to prevent their long marriage being turned into a registered partnership due to the gender reassignment of one of the spouses.

“I refer to this case, since the ruling often disappoints students. They are annoyed by the courts rejecting the appeal instead of accepting it,” Björklund explains.

Thanks to their disappointment, students take part in the discussion while considering the role of courts in society. At the time of the hearing, the Finnish Parliament had only recently rejected a bill on gender-neutral marriage. As this was the case, the court found that it was not its place to criticise the parliamentary decision.

“This case demonstrates that not all societal problems can be solved with a wave of a gavel. You also need political decision-making and change.”

Courses in pedagogy turned monologues into dialogues

Björklund believes teaching is communication. His duty as a teacher is to provide students with the best possible conditions for learning. According to Björklund, a frustratingly large number of teachers continue to think that the audience bears the main responsibility for internalising and understanding what is being taught.

“I evolved as a teacher by not getting stuck basking in the role of a rock star, popular with the audience and gratifying to yourself, but not impressing things into anyone’s mind.”

In 2008 Björklund received his first Lecturer of the Year award. At the same time, he noticed that people liked his stories, but were unable to link them with the learning content. In examination answers, his stories were randomly connected to this and that.

“I felt it wasn’t the students’ fault. If they enjoy my lectures but learn nothing, the fault could actually be mine.”

Björklund decided to develop his teaching and registered for courses in university pedagogy.

“One of the insights I gained on the courses was that I’m not getting paid for uttering as many words and displaying as many PowerPoint slides as possible in 90 minutes.”

Björklund made his courses harder. He wanted students to use legal concepts and terms as often as possible to gain sufficient familiarity with them.

“I loaded up a 180-slide lecture series and changed the wording of as many slides as possible into the interrogative. Instead of a monologue, I wanted students to explain things to me. That’s how their learning becomes linked to personal experience.”

Advance assignments are the best way to get to know a course and its students

Finding out the initial level is important to Björklund, who builds his teaching on knowledge already possessed by the students. For example, for courses at the Swedish School of Social Science, he read through social studies textbooks used in upper secondary school.

“With new students, I like to use advance questions. I want to know why they are taking the course, what they already know and how they intend to use their learning in future.”

“I often have to raise the bar, as students’ skills exceed my initial expectations.”

Björklund wants students to be positively surprised by how much they have learnt without considering the course impossible.

“What makes teaching great is the moment when you realise that you have been able to help people advance to the next level of knowledge and that they themselves see their progress.”

Check out our programmes:

Kandidatprogrammet i samhällsvetenskap (in Swedish)

Magisterprogrammet i samhällsvetenskap (in Swedish)

Degree Finder

Martin Björklund is a lecturer and doctoral student at the University of Helsinki, as well as chair of the Teachers’ Academy. His research focuses on international trade, more specifically dispute settlement of the World Trade Organization.

Björklund has worked as a teacher since 2000. Before the Swedish School of Social Science, he worked as a research fellow and assistant in international law at the Erik Castrén Institute.

What are the best aspects of the University of Helsinki?

The people and Helsinki. During my Erasmus student exchange in Strasbourg, I learnt to appreciate more both this maritime city of ours, and the mutual respect and relatively low levels of hierarchy among students and teachers at our University. 

In fact, I only developed a genuine University identity when completing Swedish-language courses in university pedagogy. To assemble a group of students, the courses bring together people from all over the University, from among teachers of the widest possible range of disciplines. Meeting them, you are time and again happily surprised by the intelligence and empathy of the people in this institution.

My belief in the community of the University of Helsinki remains one of the few glimmers of hope in the midst of my acute climate angst.

What about Helsinki as a place of study and work?

The sea and the forest. We are situated at the tip of a peninsula full of wonderful shorelines that provide an unimpeded view to the open sea. Having a strip of forest known as the Central Park stretching across the centre of the tip of the peninsula is an inconceivable luxury. It’s a great location for commuting by bike, for running and also for skiing while snowy winters still exist.

Where would you take a friend visiting Helsinki from abroad?

Of course it depends on the friend, but I might take several of them to one of the new sauna restaurants next to the sea, as they give you an opportunity to admire the waves, the frozen Gulf of Finland or perhaps an autumn storm.

With people who are sufficiently open-minded, I would also take a tram to go skiing. You can ride one from the city centre to Nordenskiöldinkatu, hopping directly onto the Central Park ski tracks.

If the visitor was from a university, we would take a trip to the National Library of Finland to soak up the solemn atmosphere and to admire the beautiful building.

The programme would definitely include fried Baltic herring, blinis with roe, vorschmack or another classic dish, preferably in one of the classic restaurants of Helsinki – Kolme Kruunua, Kosmos, Sea Horse, Ateljé Finne, Elite, Lehtovaara, Messenius or the old Kuusihokki, if it’s revived.