Something Old, Something New: Tuula Lehtonen on International Exchange

TuulaToday’s post is written by Tuula Lehtonen, who works as the co-head of the English Unit at the Language Centre, University of Helsinki, Finland.  Her work focuses on graduate writing courses and other writing support for an increasingly international student population taking part in English-medium instruction. She has an MA in English (1988, University of Helsinki), and her EdD (1998, University of Leeds) dealt with individualized vocabulary learning. She was was awarded membership in the Teachers’ Academy in 2015, and the award financed the trip described in this post.

I have taught academic writing to international students for nearly ten years, ever since the first English-medium master’s programmes started at the University of Helsinki. First, there were only a few programmes and a handful of students; now we have closer to 40 programmes and an increased number of students. When I think of adjectives to describe these students, many come to mind: innovative, able, keen to adjust, hard-working, goal-oriented, but sometimes also puzzled, lost in the new academic setting and hungry for support. As a group, they are diverse. This heterogeneous nature of our international student body is a richness, but also a challenge when we (re)plan, (re)organise and (re)evaluate writing courses and other writing support in the English Unit at the Language Centre. I travelled to the USA in October/November last year to find inspiration for meeting this challenge in the various peer practices for which US writing centers are known. My particular interest was in understanding how we could better harness the potential of peer work in our writing context.

DePaul's University Center for Writing-based Learning, Photo courtesy of Tuula Lehtonen
DePaul’s University Center for Writing-based Learning, Photo courtesy of Tuula Lehtonen

Between us, my colleague Michele Simeon and I visited six writing centers at DePaul, University of Chicago, UCLA, Cal State LA, UC Berkeley and Stanford. Although these universities and the student populations they serve have many differences, it seems to me that those working in the writing centers share a passion to help student writers, and that the centers utilize the power of peer work in various ways. The most notable peer work practice is peer tutoring, which clearly offers both the tutors and the tutees learning possibilities.

Embracing pedagogical ideas from the US context that is quite different from my own turned out to be relatively easy, especially as my hosts seemed to base many of their practices on notions similar to mine, such as the idea that learning entails cognitive, metacognitive, emotional and social dimensions. However, adopting pedagogical practices or structures is not as straightforward because of financial or organizational constraints. For example, although I was impressed by the possibilities of receiving individual feedback and other support in the peer tutoring context, setting up and running a system of peer tutoring would be too costly at the moment. So, throughout the trip and after it, the question has been: How can we offer our students peer work opportunities without creating an expensive organizational structure?

UC Berkeley's Student Learning Center, Photo Courtesy of Tuula Lehtonen
UC Berkeley’s Student Learning Center, Photo Courtesy of Tuula Lehtonen

At Helsinki, most of the graduate students in English-medium programmes come from educational backgrounds where English is a foreign language, a school subject, not the medium of writing and learning. These students are, on the whole, eager to improve as writers, partly because writing forms a foundational part of their degree, partly for other reasons. We arrange academic writing courses that consist of a short part for everyone, and many optional modules from which the students build their own course. One module we have had good experiences with is peer reviewing of study-related texts. After a gradual introduction to the practice of peer review, using a set of criteria students can influence, the students seem ready for reciprocal peer feedback sessions where all students receive and give feedback. Student reports from the modular course suggest that making one’s writing public and shared and receiving honest reader feedback helps writers treat their own texts with greater confidence.

The attraction of this type of feedback to many student writers is evident. It is even more apparent in those who write in a language that is somehow foreign, unfamiliar, distant or otherwise detached from their previous experiences, who are not used to sharing their writing and who do not feel confident. Although we have used this practice for a while now as part of the modular course, it is constantly being developed to help students receive all the possible benefits from both giving and receiving feedback.

This spring we will pilot the next step: we will invite our former writing course students to voluntary peer feedback sessions where they will comment on one another’s study-related texts. As these will be students who have taken the modular course where they practiced giving and receiving feedback, and where they were able to jointly set up criteria that they can relate to as readers, the role of the teacher will be that of an organizer. We hope that this collaborative writing practice – new to us in this format – will prove popular and useful.

Author’s Note: This blog post heavily borrows from parts of my blog post for a different audience. 

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