Understanding the Finnish Academic System

17 Jan

The academic system differs quite broadly from the one I’m used to in the UK. Main differences include:

  • Relaxed attitude to studying and course choices
  • Different styles of teaching
  • Different methods of studying and assessment

Relaxed attitude to studying and course choices

The Finns relaxed attitude permeates their academic system; not to say that the Finns don’t study hard or expect high achievement, just that they are relaxed about it. I recently met a friend who openly told me she only had one hour of free time per day for the next eight weeks, the rest being spent in classes or sleeping. She said it with the biggest smile and most jovial manner and even tried to arrange for us to have dinner at the weekend. I thought she was mad and tried to offer support, but she was completely unconcerned.

The academic support staff are also very laid back about things. In my first week in Oulu I went to my academic co-ordinator all panicked and worried because I didn’t know what I was studying or what I should study or how to sign up for anything. She told me: ‘As long as your home university approves it you can study anything you like’. And just like that, the doors opened and she personally took me to the room where I could register for courses. She did all the talking and boom, it was done. Last term I studied such a mix of courses, from Finnish Literature to Sami Culture to Nordic Mythology to Social Interactive Perspectives to Language Learning (that last one is a bugger to say quickly!). This term I am taking British and Irish Art, North American History, Beat Literature and English History, to name but a few. In England I get four choices, two of which are taken from a list of compulsory modules – boring huh? The great thing is there are barely any deadlines for registering for courses (although the popular courses fill up quickly) and you can change your mind easily if you want to. Simples.

Different styles of teaching

The Finns are known for their quiet nature and ‘less is more’ attitude to speaking, however this is not so in the classroom. Lecturers have confessed to us foreigners that the Finnish way of teaching is to talk and talk and talk and talk and zzzzz…. You get my point. But it’s not useless information – no, they are knowledge banks of expertise in their fields and very often have a lot of interesting things to say, they just don’t know how to say it in an interesting way. That said, they all welcome questions and comments in their lectures, which gives them the air of an academic discussion rather than a boring lecture, and has resulted in many fascinating debates. It’s best to get the questions in before the class has drifted off though, and if you’re quick to lose attention take a dictaphone, trust me. It’s also common to see Finnish students knitting in class – to keep themselves awake perhaps?

Different methods of studying and assessment

Don’t panic but – there are no reading lists! For regular classes if you need or want a reading list you’ll need to approach the teacher directly. Often the teacher expects you to learn everything you need to from their lecture, which is why you don’t provide book lists  – but if you’re like me and you want to read around the subject they’ll be happy to provide you with some sources. Another big difference is the use of a type of assessment known as ‘book exam’ – this means independently reading one, two, three or more books and going into an exam to answer questions about them. Daunting, right? However, it’s pretty standard practice here, especially for foreign students. Upside is that you don’t have to drag yourself through the cold to class. Downside is it can be hard to find focus for your reading and you may feel a little lonely.

Another differing method of assessment is known as the ‘learning diary’ – a long essay which is really just a reflection of your thoughts on the topic and can be shaped and focused however and on whatever you like. As long as you show that you know what you’re doing and fill it with your own questions, argument and answers you’ll be fine. I really enjoy this emphasis on your own views and opinions, as it’s something that was stamped out of us Brits early on in our education and it never really found its way back into my writing.

To Conclude

The Finns do it differently, but different isn’t bad. In fact, I think it’s working rather well. My experience so far has been fantastic and I feel very well supported at university. It can be daunting at first but the Finnish teachers know this and are incredibly kind and helpful.


Now, if all of that was super dull, here are some pictures from today. Minus twenty and deathly cold but beautiful blue skies reigned supreme. Lovely.





2 Responses to “Understanding the Finnish Academic System”

  1. Katariina Partala January 21, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

    A course of Sami culture??? Noooow you got me jealous!! 😀
    I agree with you, Finnish lectures can be really boring! Just facts, facts and facts… And even more facts!

    • saramay91 January 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

      Yeah, it’s a great course! =)
      Haha, yes I’m afraid so – but when you get the teacher to open up and be themselves it’s excellent to have a conversation, especially as most of them really love what they teach =)

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