Marika Seigel: How do Estonian and American students differ?

Marika Seigel, a former visiting associate professor at the Department of English Philology of the University of Tartu (UT), compares the learning methods of Estonian and American students.

By far, the question I was asked most frequently as a visiting professor at UT was, “how do you like teaching Estonian students?” or maybe, “How are Estonian students different from their American peers?”

My standard answers included, “I like teaching them quite a bit,” or “they’re not that different. Estonians are a bit quieter, maybe.”

The truth is a little bit more complicated, as it often tends to be. First of all, when I am talking about “American” students, I’m talking about students in a very particular university in a very particular part of a very large country. My home institution, Michigan Technological University, is a small school (about 7,000 students) in a very remote area of northern Michigan (the state that is surrounded by the Great Lakes). Houghton, Michigan, is wild and remote, not what most people typically think of when you think of the US. It makes Tartu seem urban by comparison.

My students there, for the most part, are destined for careers in engineering and other technical fields, and are thus rather pragmatically career minded; they frequently want to know how learning rhetoric or writing or philosophy or literature will help them get a better job.

The area where I’m from, the Upper Great Lakes of the American Midwest, looks a lot like… well… like Estonia. Despite being a dozen degrees of latitude further south, our climates are similar (except that we get a lot more snow in the winter than Estonia). The flora and fauna are similar. There is even a large Finnish population and in my home community, street signs often appear in Finnish as well as English. Many of my students back home are from Michigan or from the neighbouring states of Wisconsin or Minnesota, but there is also a large international student body (over 1,000 students), many from China and India. We’ve even had some students from Estonia. All of this is to say that when I talk about “American” students, I’m talking about a very specific subset of students at a very specific university, some of whom are not technically Americans.

In turn, I’ve only taught a couple of classes here at the University of Tartu involving a very small subset of students (some of whom are also international), so I hesitate to generalise about what the University of Tartu students are like, let alone Estonian students in general. With those caveats in place, however, here are the most significant differences I’ve noticed between students in classes I’ve taught here (hereafter “Estonian students”) and in classes I’ve taught in the US (hereafter “American students”):

1. It is more difficult (but not impossible) to engage Estonian students in classroom discussion.

At my home institution, I can count on carrying almost an entire period with student discussion alone, and just by posing a few key questions to the class. Once I get the conversation going, American students have little trouble airing their opinions for hours at a time. Estonian students, on the other hand, will answer my questions, but in a matter of fact way, and getting sustained discussion from them (where students discuss with each other instead of just with me) is much more difficult. Some of this is Estonian reserve, true, and some of it has to do with language (as I am lecturing in English), but most of the students in my class are so fluently bi-, tri- or quad-lingual that this really shouldn’t be a significant issue. In general, I’d say that American students could stand to think a little more before they speak, while Estonian students could stand to venture their views and opinions a little more quickly and with a little more confidence.

2. Estonian students don’t try to hide their texting or Facebooking or Tumbling during class.

The majority of my students here pay attention and are engaged, but those who aren’t paying attention don’t try to pretend otherwise, but openly gaze instead at their computer screens or phones while I lecture. Since the class that I’m currently teaching is on the rhetoric of social media, perhaps this can be justified as research. American students do these things, too, of course, but they go to great lengths to try to be more covert about it. Granted, when any student is gazing in fascination at their lap for an extended period of time, there’s no great mystery about what is going on, but I haven’t yet decided which is worse – to be overt that you are not paying attention or to try to seem like you are paying attention when you are, in fact, not.

3. Estonian students are more interested in discussing ideas divorced from practical application.

At my home institution, I more often have to stress the extrinsic value of theories we may be studying, or how class content might directly relate to students’ fields of study. Of course, some of this is due to the type of institution that I teach at (a technological university), and some of it is due to the fact that American students have to pay so much for their education, frequently going into astronomical debt to acquire it. If American students want the most bang for their buck I can hardly blame them, but it is refreshing to teach at an institution where students are interested in literature and philosophy and theory, and seem to, in general, value intellectual curiosity for its own sake.

4. Estonian students get dressed for class!

In my experience, they do not come to class in sweatpants, or pyjama pants, or pyjama pants paired with Uggs (Australian boots, made of sheep skin), or (as happened to me once early in my teaching career) nothing but a bathrobe and slippers. Neither do Estonian students noisily eat their meals during class. If any American students happen to be reading this, please take note: There are places in the world where it is still possible to get dressed before venturing into public and it is possible to eat your lunch on your own time. Everybody wins.

In the end analysis, though, there are far more similarities than differences, the same enthusiasm from some students and disengagement from others, the same excuses for not being able to come to class or for turning in homework late, the same energy for learning new concepts and figuring out how to apply them. I am grateful for the slight differences. It’s easy to get complacent when you teach the same classes to the same students, to get into a rut, and the differences I’ve experienced during my short time here have given me an opportunity to grow as a teacher, to develop new materials, and try different methods that will surely benefit my classrooms back home.

But seriously, Americans, put on some pants.


This article was originally published on University of Tartu blog. The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover photo by Andres Tennus, courtesy of University of Tartu. Author’s profile photo by Tõnis Varjas.

2 thoughts on “Marika Seigel: How do Estonian and American students differ?”

  1. As a teaching professor , ceramic artist , many times to Eesti , I have found that the desire to learn , is a force , which unleashed , makes the apparent calm seems like an eruption . Students respectful , polite , eager and dressed for a successful outcome . . Aitah Eesti

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