When I learned that hard work and free time are not mutually exclusive

When I arrived in Finland in 2016 to start my Master degree in Education, I was stressed. I had to carry luggage everywhere, buy and arrange furniture, organize University papers, attend meetings with supervisors… I also had to deal with the fact that I was in a new place, far away from home, my family and friends. But I was where I wanted to be and I was familiar with stress.

Eventually I started to focus on integrating myself in the University life. I had over 30 ECTS to complete and I was excited and ready to work “full-on”, get stressed by deadlines, reduce my social life and increase my Education expertise. After all, I didn’t come to Finland to make friends, I came to study and get a Master diploma. Well, things happened in a different way.

I saw myself, in the middle of the first semester, with “too much” free time. I wasn’t sure how it happened, because I was attending all the classes I enrolled, studying the materials, doing my assignments, and making research for my thesis. And still I was getting to know the international community, making friends, attending social events (sometimes even organizing them through the ESN group). And I still had free time … How?! By that time, I had a slight disturbing feeling of guilty that I shouldn’t have “so much” free time, because I was supposed to be using all my time to study hard – even though I was!

Well, that’s what happened: Finnish Universities have Bachelor and Master programs in a particular way.

  • One of my first surprises was that there was an obligatory course dedicated only to adapting to the University life. Meaning, I would get actual credits and reserved time to learn how to effectively use the University resources (libraries, study rooms, computer software, enrolling for courses etc.) and how to manage my own time for studies. Kind of learning how to learn in an University setting. From where I come, in Brazil, this is taken for granted – and if you don’t know it yet, catch up! all-by-yourself-in-your-short-free-time-after-(or-during)-an-exhausting-day-full-of-classes-from-9h-to-17h.
  • Some of the courses we have in a semester start only by the middle of the semester, while others start in the beginning. The courses have varied length of duration. Most of them also don’t have a fixed schedule. Meaning, in a week I might have a class from the Intercultural Communication course on Monday at 9h, and in the following week it will happen on Thursday at 12h, probably in a different place. I have to say that this was strange in the beginning, but not hard to adapt. I just needed to keep my schedule organized.
  • A considerable time of the courses is dedicated to self-study, when students have a significant amount of reserved time to read and do assignments (and this is counted as time of the course). The other side of this is that there was not a fixed schedule during the whole semester in which I had to go to a classroom with a teacher speaking and the students listening (I purposefully wrote speaking and listening, instead of teaching and learning). Of course this happened, but it was not every day, every week at a fixed schedule. It happened from time to time.
  • The fact that the courses reserved time for self-study didn’t mean I was studying alone only. Many courses involved structured study groups (with obligatory meeting memos, pre- and post-meeting tasks, group report on the findings etc.) as the main method of learning and passing the course. Actually, many teachers offered different ways of evaluation, such as a final individual exam, or a study group report, or submitting 3 short essays about different topics etc.
  • For many courses, we wouldn’t get a final grade (0-5), but rather a simple Pass or Fail. And this relieved so much unnecessary stress related to getting a good grade. It didn’t mean I would be lazy and do an unqualified work for the course. After all, it was my learning, my competences, and my expertise that was being developed for my future career. I absolutely had no interest in making an unqualified work. But the effort I would put on the work, this time more than ever in my study life, was not directed to get a grade, but authentically directed to develop a professional skill. In addition, if you fail a course (for different reasons), it will not appear in your academic record and final diploma. How relieving is when we can fail and this will not mark our future performance.
  • When there was a face-to-face meeting in the course, there was an actual effort by most of the lecturers to make the most of that social encounter. For instance, my Quantitative Methods course teachers used Flipped Classroom methodology to teach SPSS. We had to watch and read some materials before the classroom time, and in the classroom we would engage in data analysis and actual exercises with the help of the teacher. Seminar presentations, dynamic activities for reflections and, of course, online education resources (e.g. teachers here love kahoot) among other inter-active methods.
  • Finally, there is one word that best describe the relationship between teachers (lecturers, professors, researchers) and students: friendly. I don’t mean that my teachers were my friends, but there was a friendly atmosphere between teachers and students. Teachers were flexible, understanding, open to talk and to consider case-by-case situations.

Of course many circumstances of my descriptions can vary in different departments of the same University. In addition, managing my own time to learn was not new for me, on the contrary, I was on my territory. However, I’ve seen many international colleagues struggling with the self-study, autonomous Finnish way of learning. They would come from similar education systems as mine in Brazil, with strict schedule, full day of classes (at the same time and place, on a weekly basis), and teachers putting a lot of pressure on deadlines and grades. In other words, my friends were not used to manage their own study pace autonomously. And I will write a post about that later.

But this was my experience. And what I realized was that this type of study program, in which the students get credits and have reserved time to learn how to learn and make the best of University resources, to choose what to study, when, by which methods, choosing how I would be evaluated, with not excessive time in a classroom; all culminated in the fact that I was focused and efficient because I was learning what I chose to learn in my time and pace. And this increased my learning performance, resulting in finishing my studies fast and having free time.

Patvinsuo National Park, Finland. Photo by Piotr Bartczak.

Although I had to keep checking on myself that I have done everything I was supposed to do, I finally started to enjoy my free time. And that was liberating.