Exchange students as course assistants in language learning – joining forces nationally and internationally

23. elokuun 2023

Internationalization at home for local students? Making international students part of our university community? Helping students to meet to connect and to eventually go on exchange themselves? The Language Center plays an important role here.

The German teachers in the Language Center of Tampere University have the longest experience in working with exchange students as course assistants. We learned from our colleagues at the University of Helsinki and started our own pilot in 2015 at the former Tampere University of Technology. A few years later other languages joined in, for example, French, Spanish, Russian, and also Finnish as a foreign language. Now those teachers who have worked with course assistants usually do not want to teach without them anymore. They make our work richer, and the learning of new languages much more compelling to our students as they know that they will be learning the language with native speakers of the same age from the first day on and will understand and be understood when they use their language skills.

Since the founding of the new Tampere University, it remained a pilot to the present day as we do not have a fully established program with its own course code. However, we have given the course assistants ECTS and a certificate about their work which they can later use when applying for a job. Beyond those formalities, it is a win-win-win in every aspect.

What do course assistants do?

We do not expect assistants to have any experience in teaching, as their role varies from being a fellow student to being a peer, an expert in their own field, and sometimes actually being an assistant teacher. They choose the role they feel most confident with, also depending on the level of the language course. The only criteria are speaking the language at the level of a native speaker, living in a country where this language is spoken, and generally being interested in helping local students to learn their language.
In class, they act as dialogue partners, a helping hand when the students try to find the right words, tell about their culture and give presentations. Outside the classroom, they meet our students to help them with their self-studies, project tasks and presentations, organize events like theme evenings or simply go for lunch or a coffee together. In addition, we record audio and video material with our course assistants which we can later use in our teaching. They also can visit local high schools and work with the students and teachers there.

By the end of their exchange period, the international students who worked as course assistants in language teaching, have usually made friends with local students, and feel part of our university community. They also show our students what it is like to go on exchange.

From the perspective of a teacher, we can say that it enriches our teaching, and makes everybody in the classroom more equal, as we all constantly learn from each other.

From pilot to practice

With so many years of experience and a new curriculum in place, we decided it is finally time for a step forward – within our own university, within Finland and internationally.

Our colleagues at the Masaryk University in Brno in the Czech Republic had learned from our Finnish model and had been awarded a prize from their university for their own course assistant program.
After the pandemic, 2022 was filled with interesting conferences. With all of them competing, we had to choose carefully where to place our topic. We chose the world’s largest forum for German teachers, the IDT (Internationale Tagung der Deutschlehrerinnen und Deutschlehrer) in Vienna, meeting German teachers from all over the world. The topic of the conference could not have been more suitable: mit.sprache.teil.haben (participation through language).

We learned that there was one more experienced partner we needed to join forces with: the University of Pécs in Hungary with an excellent course assistant program for medical students who learn German. Our colleagues there had just been awarded by the European Council. Having many presentations on this topic at the conference allowed us to connect and immediately find colleagues from other countries who wanted to learn more about our programs.

As a result, we have started to build a network with colleagues in Denmark, Bulgaria, Romania, and Japan who are planning their Erasmus+ exchange to Helsinki, Tampere, Brno and Pécs so that they could learn from us, and then be able to establish their own programs. In this academic year, the University of Eastern Finland will launch its own pilot.

The development work within Finland will continue at this year’s Language Days conference in Helsinki to work on new ideas on how to build an alumni network for course assistants, as well as on how our local students could stay and get in touch with previous course assistants after their exchange in Tampere.

From big to small: As we build the new curriculum starting 2024/25, we hope to have our new course assistant program ready, to offer our incoming exchange students a great learning experience which they officially can make part of their learning agreement.

Claudia Rehwagen
University Instructor, Faculty of Education and Culture, Language Centre, Tampere University

Here you can find information on the course assistant programs in Helsinki, Brno and Pécs

Helsinki, Finland
Brno, Czech Republic
Pécs, Hungary