Congratulations to our good teacher!
The instruction at the Department of Computer Science continues in the limelight; this time in the form of personal recognition, as the student union at the University of Helsinki has awarded the Magister Bonus prize of 2011 to University Lecturer Matti Luukkainen. Matti was interviewed about teaching and studying by Ella Peltonen from TKO-äly immediately after the festivities.
- Let’s start with the generic: how do you feel now?
The concept of ‘now’ has to be stretched a bit here, because my feelings have varied quite a bit during the past few days.
I heard about the prize from the study secretary of the student union about three weeks ago. The secretary told me that the prize would be presented at the annual gala of the student union, and I would have to give a talk lasting 4 minutes. My first reaction after this phone call was panic, though I’ve been giving lectures for over 10 years already – giving a speech felt impossible. At my lectures, I speak 'off the top of my head,' i.e. though I prepare my lecture material thoroughly, I don't always follow it exactly during lectures. However, I couldn't go to the gala with the same strategy.
As it turned out, I did manage to write a talk during the three weeks, and I was eventually even quite pleased with it. The event itself made me even more nervous. I decided to get moral support from a polished facade, and wore a tailcoat for the first time in my life. For my dissertation, I refused to wear one and wore a so-called dissertation gown instead. The well-fitted rental tails proved a very comfortable outfit!
My pre-event jitters were severe, but in spite of all the big names among the invited guest (such as the present and several former rectors, as well as Minister Paavo Arhinmäki) the atmosphere was nice and relaxed when the prize was presented, and my panicking proved to have been pointless.
So the three-week ‘now’ that preceded the presenting of the prize included a lot of worrying about the event itself. After the presentation I had time to reconsider how I feel now. I can’t deny that I’m pleased about this prize. A teacher's work relies on the teacher's personality, and any feedback, both positive and negative, is vital to help us act and cope at work.
- The criteria for the Magister Bonus award include a positive attitude towards students and in general, and the ability to highlight pertinent information. Most of your students find these features in you. What is your secret?
Teachers can develop themselves in many ways, but basically, being positive and liking the students are characteristics that I don’t see how you could affect consciously yourself, at least not in the short term.
Naturally, as a teacher, the best thing is to see students learn and develop, and even get excited about what they learn. Thanks to our workshop instruction, it is possible to follow our students' progress very closely. Of course you’re inspired when you see how a student, who knew nothing about programming in September, starts to make headway and creates better and better solutions week for week. The feedback is really straight, you can see where you succeeded and where you made a mistake. If, say, 50% of the students in the workshop got something wrong, it shows that the instructor has made a mistake, either in setting the assignment or at the lecture or in the lecture material.
To answer your original question, what is my secret? My secret is the feedback students give me in different ways. It tells me whether the information had found its mark or I have to change my methods. Our students are so smart and active that it is a good idea to keep all feedback channels open.
- What is your best memory of teaching at the department?
One single best memory? One surprising and memorable moment was at the last lecture of the autumn 2009 course Software modelling, when the students presented me with a fine UML-themed Christmas card and a small plastic bag with some bottles of very nice Christmas beer. For a moment, I hesitated to take the present, as I wondered if it could be seen as a bribe and I would be fired. I think the new university legislation of that year saved me from misconduct.
- And do you recall any worst memories related to teaching?
My first lecture in Software modelling on Tuesday 29 November was a bit of a flop. I beat around the bush too much and wasn’t sure at all whether anyone got any clear idea of what I was trying to say. Actually, one of the students admitted on the course IRC during a pause that the only thing he remembered from the lecture was that ‘there can be packages within packages.’ That was a bad 45 minutes. Luckily, the next lecture went much better and the bad feeling didn’t linger for long.
At the beginning of my teaching career, I sometimes fretted about a badly explained feature for up to a week. Luckily my memory isn’t that good any more.
- In Gurula, after we heard about the prize, we wondered if you would be getting any free time now. Will you? How are you going to spend it?
Since I came back from teaching at the technical college in autumn 2009, I've been thinking, 'this term will still be exceptionally busy, but then it will ease up.‘ However, the very dynamic atmosphere of instruction development at the department (thanks are largely due to our Head of Studies Jaakko Kurhila) has generated new interesting opportunities term after term, and I just haven’t been able to keep away from them.
Next spring brings another such a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity in the form of MOOC, the open online course in programming. Last spring we gave lectureless versions of the introductory and advanced courses in programming. Now we are adding the automatic delivery system TMC implemented this autumn to the mix. Our goal is to get all of Finland involved in programming!
My free time has also been limited by the research on workshop instruction carried out in the RAGE project with Kurhila, Arto Vihavainen, Matti Paksula and Thomas Vikberg. You could also partially consider the time spent with RAGE free time, as we organise RAGEfests, i.e. science-centred free-form gatherings with deep discussions.
I’ll have to start generating free time that is completely free from work, as well. I won’t have much of that next spring, but in the summer I will break free from work completely. Usually I’ve spent about a month travelling in continental Europe with my wife. We’ve spent a considerable part of that time trekking in the Alps. A main part of these trips has been the discovery of German beers and visiting various breweries.
I don’t think I answered your original question. So do I get any free time now? Not because of this prize, but I’m determined to get time off and spend more time on old hobbies that I have been neglecting lately.
- You will be teaching the course Software engineering next spring. Can you give us an idea of what the course will contain?
We had planned that I would give this course in spring 2010. A lot of changes had already been planned then. I recruited Matti seise and Tatu Kairi to join me, and we planned to add software technology methods to the engineering theories. Then I had to give the lectures for Data structures in spring 2010, so I had to abandon the Software engineering course. Matti and Tatu implemented a so-called mini-project and software technology for the course (including version management and practical programming)
Last spring I decided that it is time to give up Data structures (see next question) and go back to Software engineering. The past few years I’ve been bringing my software engineering competence up to date, and I’m sure the course will be better now than what I would have produced two years ago. The course will change quite a bit. Here’s a list of buzzwords on the contents of the course: agile, lean, pair programming, code smell, refactoring, clean code, tdd, atdd, bdd, git, maven, continuous integration, design patterns, user story, planning poker, sprint, backlog, velocity.
And ‘learning by doing’ will be the main teaching method again.
- You are giving up Data structures, and you are probably best remembered by your lectures in this subject. How did you reach this decision?
When I found out in December 2009 that there was no lecturer for Data structures the next spring, I promised to give the course on the condition that I’d be allowed to give the lecture course three times. The reformation of a course always takes so much time that there is no point to do all that work just for one lecture course. Personally, I have been more and more interested in software engineering the past few years, and a year ago I felt it was time to give up algorithmics.
I do like data structures in many ways, and feel a little sad to give up the course. The course is a nice combination of theory and practice, so it’s never been hard to motivate students to study data structures. Teaching data structures has also meant that I was in contact with practically all the department’s freshmen for one whole year. You learn to know the students fairly well in one year, and I think teaching is nicer the better you know your students.
- In conclusion: What would you like to say to younger teachers?
Not everyone learns the same way, so don’t use yourself and your own way of learning as the only model. Looking out from the front of the lecture hall, it looks and even sounds like all or at least most of the students understand what you’re saying. At the exercise sessions, you will also get a distorted idea of how well the students have learned what you've discussed. It is best to get out there among the students in every way possible. The programming workshop has given us a good way of approaching the learning conditions, and these days, I try to bring an element of workshop teaching to all my courses.
- Matti Luukkainen’s speech at the student union’s annual gala (in Finnish)
- The Student Union’s news item on the Magister Bonus prize