Unmaking the Grade

The Swedish School of Social Science. (Photo cred: sockom.helsinki.fi)

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Here’s a strange thought — I’ve already been here in Helsinki for more than a month. I can honestly say I love it here. I love the people, the environment, the way of life, all of it. I miss seeing my family and friends back home, of course, but I’m not ready to go home just yet!

Today, I’d like to talk about perhaps the most vital and obvious part of any university student’s experience, and that’s the academics.

There are several fundamental differences between the way higher education works in Finland versus the United States. In the U.S., depending of course on where you go, college can be very, very expensive. Most students do get scholarships and financial aid, but you have to be a pretty exceptional student if you want to completely pay for your education that way. Most U.S. students have to get a loan, or in some cases, several loans to make it through.

As I mentioned in a previous post, college in Finland is completely free — even student’s meals are subsidized. As a result, about two-thirds of the population goes on to university.

Might as well address the elephant in the room: you’re probably thinking, “Swedish? Why Swedish? You’re in Finland, remember!?” Yes, I realize this, but here’s why I chose Swedish over Finnish.

1) Finland actually has two national languages, one of which is Swedish. Although Swedish is only natively spoken by a minority — 8% — pretty much everything written in public, such as road signs, must be written in both languages per the law.

2) Honestly, I was kind of turned off of learning Finnish when everyone I talked to told me it was one of the hardest languages in the world to learn. It has no common languages except Estonian, whereas Swedish is Germanic, so therefore much easier to learn for a native English speaker.

3) Remember how I said I was at the Swedish School of Social Science? As I mentioned before, it’s not just called that for fun — pretty much all the courses there are held in Swedish, student media is published in Swedish, and even at their social events they speak Swedish almost exclusively. So, all in all, I’m very glad I chose to take Swedish. Kanonbra!

Here’s some background on the University of Helsinki. Despite its size — around 35,000 students — the acceptance rate is very low, at about 17%. That figure puts it on par with such American universities as Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and Rice, and in case you’re wondering, Truman’s acceptance rate is about 70%. But of course, its acceptance rate is far from the only measure of a university’s quality. The University of Helsinki is ranked in the top 100 or so universities in the world based on a number of parameters and is celebrating its 375th anniversary this year.

As a fully bilingual institution, the university offers courses in Finnish and Swedish, and in English as well. Swedish is used particularly in the specific school where I am enrolled, the Swedish School of Social Science.

The school commonly is referred to as “Soc&kom,” an abbreviation of its Swedish name Svenska social-och kommunalhögskolan — It’s pronounced “soss-i-kom.”

The Swedish School of Social Science.  (Photo cred: sockom.helsinki.fi)
The Swedish School of Social Science.
(Photo cred: sockom.helsinki.fi)

Teaching periods are arranged on a roughly quarterly basis, but there is no set length of time that a course has to run. In the U.S., you have maybe five classes a semester and they all begin and end at the exact same time. Here in Finland, courses vary greatly in length, depending on how often the course meets, but usually last for about half the semester rather than the full 5 months. This period, I have three courses: Investigative Journalism, Political Empowerment and Participation of Young People in Eastern Europe — that’s a mouthful — and Basic Swedish.

As mentioned previously, the length of a course roughly depends on how often the course meets. My Swedish course meets three times a week, and therefore ends at the end of February. Political Empowerment, on the other hand, only meets once a week, and runs until nearly the end of April.

Most courses last for an hour and half on days they meet, and since the campus is so vast, you’re given a full half hour to commute between classes.

My Swedish Course at the Language Center

Here’s the part of the story that’s really going to make U.S. students jealous — there’s pretty much no homework, at least not in the U.S. sense. Back in the U.S., homework is taken for granted. You take a course, you are going to get some kind of graded homework, and depending on the type and level of the course, the homework load can be massive. This is because in the U.S., you have to be given a letter grade at the end, and any good professor will give you a large pool of points, usually 1000, on which your grade is based. These points are generally made up of tests, participation points and homework assignments.

Not so here. Although there is a requirement in most classes that you have to attend 80% of the time in order to pass, there’s no such thing as participation points. In fact, there are no such thing as “points” at all. Most courses are graded pass/fail based on one final exam. Throughout the semester, there may be a couple of assignments here or there. My Swedish course, for instance, involves approximately half an hour of exercises to do out of the book before each class, but nothing is ever graded.

I love this method of teaching, and not just for the reasons you might assume. You’re probably thinking, “No homework? Awesome! Who wouldn’t like that system?” As an American student, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t think this at first. Before I arrived in Finland, I was told that the education system was very focused on “individual learning.” Honestly, I had no clue what that meant at the time, but now I understand. Students aren’t motivated by the desire to get a good grade, they’re motivated by their desire to actually learn the material. It sounds cheesy, but I think it works incredibly well. I’m motivated to do the Swedish exercises not because I want the points, but because I want to learn, and taking away the pressure of having to get a good grade allows me to relax and focus on the learning. It took a while for me to get used to, but I’m happy to embrace it.

Oh, sidenote, you don’t have to buy your textbooks either. Unless the textbook you need is absolutely brand new, the library will have it for you, for free.

Get ‘em before they’re gone!
Get ‘em before they’re gone!

All in all, it’s easy to see why Finland’s education system is one of most respected in the world. The absence of cost means that everyone gets a chance to go to college if they want to, and the absence of a strict grading system means students are motivated to learn and better themselves without worrying about getting all A’s. I’m always hearing students back home complain about the the grading system and how they wish they weren’t defined by the grades they earn. I think coming to Finland has shown me that they may just have a point. If you’re sick of grades getting in the way of your learning, I highly recommend you come here to the University of Helsinki. I’m sure glad I did.