Recently defended doctoral theses

Here you can find the overview of theses defended in the joint council of the Institute of Education and the Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences during the last three academic years. 

Defended in the academic year 2021/2022

Defended on December 7th 2021.

Author: Tormi Kotkas

Supervisors: Professor Miia Rannikmäe (PhD; University of Tartu), Visiting Professor Jack Barrie Holbrook (PhD; University of Tartu)

Opponent: Professor Shu-Nu Chang Rundgren (PhD; Stockholm University, Sweden)

Summary: The current study addresses the problem of students, especially girls not aspiring to careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Furthermore, it is problematic that the minority of girls are pursuing STEM careers, which is one of the reasons for gender imbalance within science-related fields, like information and communication technology (ICT), engineering and medicine in a range of countries including Estonia. These problems have been linked with poor pedagogical practices, which are unable to make science and mathematics studies at school relevant and interesting, added with low level of raising students’ awareness about possible STEM careers in science classes at school. This thesis aimed to give an overview of the development of an intervention course designed to support students’ study motivation through supporting interest, relevance and enjoyment (IRE) of learning science by incorporating information about and work activities of STEM professionals into science teaching. Altogether five teaching and learning modules (TLMs) were implemented in Grades 7 until 9 in three schools (N = 104) and one class from another school was included as a control group (N = 24). During the intervention, students built a solar panel for charging their phones, visited lemonade factory, experimented with lemonades, acted as a customs officer to stop the trade of endangered species. The impact of implementing STEM career awareness promoting TLMs on students’ a) study motivation, b) career awareness and c) career aspirations was determined. It was found that the majority of students enjoyed learning with TLMs, felt interested in the process and perceived relevance on different levels (personal, family, local, global). However, the TLMs did not align with the interests and career aspirations of the majority of students. Thus, the minority felt motivated to learn module topics further. In addition, both boys and girls career awareness became better, which suggested that career decisions would be made based on knowledge not on stereotypes. Thirdly, it was found that among the experimental group students career aspirations toward STEM were more stable in comparison to the control group.


Defended on February 16th 2022. 

Author: Liina Adov

Supervisors: Äli Leijen (University of Tartu), Margus Pedaste (University of Tartu), Miia Rannikmäe (University of Tartu)

Summary: Research has shown that using technology in education helps support student achievement, motivation and acquisition of new skills, including supporting collaboration and self-regulation skills. Yet, the frequency of technology use in the educational context has been rather low. This, combined with the rising accessibility of mobile devices, suggests that accessibility of technology alone is not sufficient to guarantee the use of technology in education. Research has shown that attitudes are key indicators as to whether technology is used, further it has been assumed that behavioural intention acts as a mediator between attitude and behaviour. The overarching aim of this thesis is to better understand how attitudes and behavioural intention interact in predicting teachers’ and students’ mobile device use for educational purposes in a STEM context. Data were collected in the first phase of the study through questionnaires from both students and teachers, while in the second phase interviews were used to gain insights into teachers’ attitudes, behavioural intention and mobile device use during the distance learning period at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results showed that for both teachers and students, attitude directly predicts behaviour, which suggests that attitudes can help us understand the behaviour beyond a person’s reported willingness to do so. Furthermore, we could see that social support, belief in one’s ability to use mobile devices in education and evaluation towards the usefulness of mobile devices in education have a significant role in predicting behaviour, while social support seemed to be more influential among teachers. While in the first phase of the study we collected data on the frequency of mobile device use, the results from the second phase highlighted the importance of looking beyond frequency and aiming to understand usage more closely. As the results showed that while mobile device use in teaching was a daily activity for all teachers, we were able to see variety in the complexity of technology integration and variety in the latter in connection with teachers attitudes as well as behavioural intention. Based on the results, several suggestions are provided for researchers interested in studying mobile device use as well as for practitioners seeking insights to help them to support mobile device use by teachers and students for educational purposes.

Practical value: Based on the results of the doctoral thesis educators will be more knowledgeable in supporting the adaption of mobile devices for educational purposes for teachers and students. This thesis will shed some light on potential misconceptions when it comes to the adaption of mobile devices in education. 


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Author: Wilson Ofotsu Otchie

Supervisors: Margus Pedaste (University of Tartu), Emanuele Bardone (University of Tartu)

Summary: Studies have shown that social media (e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, etc.) is currently the most popular Web 2.0 environment used by many individuals, communities, and institutions. Its affordances have made it a tool for diverse options of learning, including professional development, virtual learning, formal and informal learning. Many universities are currently using it for teaching, learning, and administration purposes.

However, this is not the case in secondary schools. While the lack of consensus among some stakeholders and researchers could be one of the causes. The fact that most secondary school teachers lack the confidence and capacity to effectively use social media in the context of their teaching is a major concern.

The study, therefore, aims at helping teachers to articulate the contextualization of social media in their teaching activities. So, we theorize the concept of affordance and establish how regular dialogue with tools could potentially create stronger relationships between the user and the tool. Essentially, this will potentially motivate teachers to effectively use these resources.

Practical value: The study will have the following implications for teachers and students:

  1. discovering more pedagogical affordances,
  2. having the skills to control and use the tool,
  3. develop more confidence to teach and learn in social media environment,
  4. ability to contextualize its use in the educational context,
  5. encourage students to use it purposefully.



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Defended on March 11th 2022.

Author: David Cerulli 

Supervisors: Jack Holbrook (University of Tartu), Ülo Mander (University of Tartu)

Summary: Despite of our efforts, development in science and technology has not stopped mass casualties as a consequence of natural disasters. This is worrying as the frequency and scale of natural hazards had increased due to global warming and increased urbanization. Awareness of potential natural hazards are an important first step to reduce associated risks. Raising such awareness is an essential educational task. The extent to which the necessary knowledge and readiness to behave adequately in crisis situations reach the students' consciousness depends on teaching and learning. To alleviate the problem, two approaches have been developed in this work: (1) a disaster awareness and preparedness index on the impact of education on awareness and preparedness, and (2) a conceptual model towards disaster teaching/learning contexts, and its potential to increase competencies in values, knowledge, skills and attitudes through experience. We found a significant positive correlation between the new index and the national level determined education factor, which is based on PISA science test results. This confirms the importance of education in aiding the mitigating the consequences of natural disasters in the country. A four-stage educational model, based on the meaningful use of science and technology, was developed. Its basic parts are well-known from the classical pedagogical theory: contextualization, de-contextualization, and re-contextualization. In this thesis, the existing model has been upgraded with the stage of responsible behavioral action. Based on the logic of the model, a survey conducted among Estonian, US and Japanese school students, on the basis of which the students' experiences of natural hazards and risk perception were assessed. The results of the test are similar across countries and show a relatively low awareness of students' competence with respect to natural hazards. The test and follow-up interviews conducted among teachers confirms that it is important to teach students to be aware of reasons for performing activities related to responsible behavior even in the conditions of an imaginary natural disaster situation. This shows that an additional stage of responsible behavioral action needs to be added to the 3-level model for science teaching/ learning.

Practical value: The practical value of this research is that it provides a framework to develop teaching and learning with a view towards achieving natural disaster reduction and natural hazards awareness and preparedness to reduce risks and save lives.


Further information: 


Defended in the academic year 2020/2021

Defended on November 9th 2020.

Author: Tõnis Männiste

Supervisor: Margus Pedaste (University of Tartu)

Summary: The events in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014 have led to a situation, where many European countries are focusing on strengthening their homeland defense capabilities by reintroducing conscription and looking for ways to improve the performance of their reserve soldiers and reserve commanders. The Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), modest in size, are also built on the principle of reserve army. It means, that EDF can only rely on excellent tactics during combat situations, thus soldiers and commanders with the best decision-making skills are crucial.

It follows, that the training of reserve officers is important for EDF, however, there is only an 11-month training time available for this purpose. During that time, young men, who have no earlier military exposure, have to get the preparation to lead the military unit during the time of war.

The situation is even more complicated, because unlike in the case of other professions, in military profession, commanders cannot practice their job during peacetime other than in military exercises. This however may not provide sufficient authenticity. The same applies to the assessment of learning outcomes – it cannot be done with sufficient credibility. This in turn does not allow to take adequate decisions for enhancing training, selecting right personnel for different jobs and it also discourages research and development in the EDF. Thus, there is a need for a suitable instrument for measuring platoon leaders’ decision-making skills in critical battle leading situations.

The goal of this PhD project is to develop and validate an instrument for measuring low level military commanders decision-making skills in battle leading situations. To accomplish this goal, firstly a systematic literature review was undertaken to determine, what instruments and how had previously been used for the purpose of our interest.

It occurred, that the most suitable and also widely used instrument is the Situational Judgement Test. However, none of the found instruments focused on decision-making in battle leading situations. Thus, suitable instrument for measuring decision-making was designed and applied using a sample of cadets (134) from land forces basic course and conscripts (80) from the reserve commander basic course of the Military Academy of EDF. The developed test was found to produce reliable results, that enabled to distinguish well the test takers on the basis of the level of training and previous experience. It was thus concluded, that the developed test was well-suited to measure the decision-making skills of small unit commanders in battle leading situations.

Practical value: As a practical result of current PhD project, EDF will be able to use the instrument for a variety of purposes, including for example the evaluation and improvement of training as well as research and development. Future research could focus on finding out how well the test results predict commanders’ actual battle leading performance.


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Defended on September 9th 2020.

Author: Kadi Luht-Kallas 

Supervisors: Diva Eensoo (National Institute for Health Development), Jaanus Harro (University of Tartu)

Summary: Injury deaths are often caused by risk-taking behaviour that in turn is associated with several personality factors (e.g., impulsivity) that are to a large degree heritable. Impulsive behaviour is strongly related to the functioning of both serotonin and dopamine systems. The main aims of this thesis were to find out 1) links between risk-taking behaviour and personality factors and markers of the function of the serotonin and dopamine systems, and 2) whether a previously used brief intervention to prevent risk-taking behaviour is still successful, if conducted by driving school teachers.

The results revealed that risk-taking has significant links with certain personality traits (e.g., impulsivity, extraversion, effortful control), higher activity of the dopamine system and lower activity of the serotonin system, but also with knowledge and skills.

Practical value: The results confirmed that the brief psychological intervention helps to reduce risk-taking behaviour. The efficiency of the intervention suggests that if the personal and biological factors causing risk-taking behaviour are known, teachers can deal with them. In addition to the knowledge of dangers, different situations need to be practiced and played through to increase the role of conscious behaviour in the decision-making process, and therefore to decrease the influence of unconscious and impulsive decision-making. In addition to the development of technical skills, there is also a need to develop safety-related and social skills associated with this activity.


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Defended on June 7th 2021.

Supervisors: Krista Uibu (University of Tartu), Jaan Mikk (University of Tartu)

Summary: The aim of the doctoral thesis was to determine age and gender differences in text comprehension and the effects of teaching strategies on primary school students’ text comprehension, vocabulary, and reading interest.

Practical value: The findings revealed that primary school teachers use general as well as language teaching strategies in their lessons. Using suitable instruction according to students’ age and needs is of utmost importance in order to accomplish good results in the language lesson. Therefore, teachers need to know about what, when, and how to implement certain teaching strategies in their instruction (e.g., using more general teaching strategies at the beginning of primary school).

It appeared that extensive use of the grammar teaching strategy has an adverse effect on students’ text comprehension. Grammar is too abstract for some students, and therefore teachers should be careful before implementing grammar teaching in the classroom. For grammar instruction to be resultant for students, teachers should make strategic decisions about how to effectively teach it (e.g., using age-appropriate teaching activities that are also interesting for students). In addition, teachers have to be aware of their students’ characteristics and use age-appropriate texts and tasks in language lessons to promote their students’ text comprehension in the best possible way.

This doctoral thesis has shown that reading interest plays an essential role in students’ text comprehension. The strategy of developing reading interest supported all studied reading outcomes: students’ text comprehension, vocabulary development, and reading interest. When the goal is to promote students’ text comprehension, it is necessary to acknowledge the role of reading interest in the process.


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Defended on August 25th 2021.

Author: Liina Malva

Supervisor: Äli Leijen (University of Tartu)

Summary: Teacher researchers distinguish three main categories of teachers’ knowledge: content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and general pedagogical knowledge (GPK). While the first two are more extensively studied, GPK has gained less attention. The definition of GPK has been updated over the years, moving forward from mainly being about classroom management and organization. In addition to being subject transcendent, GPK is now defined as teachers’ specialized knowledge that helps to create and maintain effective environment for teaching and learning. The OECD developed Teacher Knowledge Survey (TKS) which aims to assess teachers’ GPK with test instrument. The aim of the current doctoral thesis was to investigate the TKS instrument and gain more insight into GPK that is used in practice. Data was collected from Estonian pre-service teachers, in-service teachers and teacher educators with mixed method approach. The results showed that GPK is unidimensional. The results also showed that the knowledge level of pre-service and in-service teachers is rather similar. In addition to that, the more advanced the pre-service teachers are in their teacher education, the better GPK they possess. However, the results from all three sample groups showed that those having more practical experiences get lower results in the test. This implies that TKS test is assesses rather theoretical knowledge and less the knowledge that is gained during pedagogical practice. Teachers do use the same GPK dimensions in their practical work as suggested by TKS framework, however, the content of their GPK is more focused on relationships and supporting students, while test instrument relies mainly on specific scientific knowledge. Based on the results, several suggestions are proposed in order to further study the assessment of teachers’ GPK as well as improve pre-service teachers’ GPK.

Practical value: The results of the doctoral thesis inform educational researchers in order to develop  reliable and valid instruments for assessing teachers, which in return inform policymakers about educational organization.


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Defended in the academic year 2019/2020

Defended on August 21st 2020.

Author: Triinu Kärbla

Supervisor: Krista Uibu (University of Tartu), Mairi Männamaa (Tartu University Clinic)

Summary: Text comprehension involves a full range of interactively working processes and components to understand texts at various levels. To have an overview of students’ proficiency in these processes, the text comprehension can be transferred to three levels: literal, inferential and evaluative.

The processes at inferential and evaluative levels rely on various comprehension strategies that should be explicitly taught in reading lessons. In this doctoral study, the comprehension levels among the text comprehension tasks in the national standard-determining tests were examined, and an intervention program for teaching comprehension strategies was developed.

It appeared that national assessments tended to include too many literal-level tasks and few tasks at evaluative comprehension level. Also, distribution of tasks at different comprehension levels was fluctuating among the tests for the same grade in different years.

Multidimensional nature of text comprehension was considered in developing intervention program. The results showed that explicit teaching of text comprehension strategies enhanced students’ vocabulary and text comprehension at literal, inferential and evaluative levels. However, the students who attended the regular reading classes without focused attention on teaching of comprehension strategies increased only their literal text comprehension.

Practical value: This study can provide guidance for teachers, test developers, and researchers who are planning text comprehension studies and interventions. It represents one of the first attempts to provide an in-depth examination and interpretation of the text comprehension tasks in the national Estonian-language standard-determining tests from the cognitive view of comprehension. Accordingly, it provides detailed information about the aspects of comprehension that are measured and the effectiveness of these tests for identifying deficiencies and monitoring students’ progress in comprehension.

Furthermore, this study presents a model for designing theoretically relevant text comprehension tests that could achieve the goal of the national standard-determining tests: to provide instructionally relevant feedback to teachers. Detailed information about the intervention design and several examples of lesson scenarios, student materials, and strategy descriptions would be beneficial in the design of future interventions. The aforementioned examples could also assist teachers by showing them how to purposefully teach text comprehension strategies to improve comprehension.


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Defended on November 18th 2019.

Author: Mirjam Burget

Supervisors: Margus Pedaste (University of Tartu), Emanuele Bardone (University of Tartu)

Summary: In recent decades, Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has gained a wider importance in the European Union where RRI is developed as a political framework in the governance of science. Although interest has increased in the conceptualization of RRI, the main problem is the lack of theoretical conceptualization as well as an explanation of RRI in practice. The literature indicates that RRI in science education is regarded in connection with the EU research politics, but there is still a deficiency of studies regarding the nature of RRI in education connected with scientific literature and also about integrating the RRI concept into education in a meaningful way.

Therefore, the aims of the present research were to determine: (1) the definitions and conceptual dimensions of RRI based on the relevant literature on the topic, (2) how science teachers perceive the emergence of Responsible Research and Innovation in their work, (3) a better understanding of the meaning that the term responsibility can have in different phases of inquiry-based learning, (4) the complementarity of RRI-related philosophies in science education and to consider responsibility as a part of the RRI-related philosophies in science education.

As a result of the study, RRI can be described as an effort to govern the process of research and innovation with the goal of democratically including, at the early stages, all stakeholders concerned in anticipating and discerning how research and innovation can or may work for the society as a whole. RRI can be described by the four conceptual dimensions – reflexivity, responsiveness, anticipation and inclusion – and with the two emerging dimensions – sustainability and care. Based on the empirical study of the current research, the RRI dimensions were conceptualized in education in the following categories: sense-making, action-taking, exploration and inclusion. In sum it can be said that RRI in education can be described as a process where teachers include learners meaningfully and where learners are given an opportunity to make sense, take action or explore the scientific knowledge or the technology-related processes.

Practical value: The practical value of the work stems from the contribution to the practice of the school for general education and curriculum development as well as to the politics. Attention should be paid on discerning responsibility in the learning process, a deeper understanding of the previously established approaches in science education (e.g. inquiry-based learning, socio-scientific issues) and development of the necessary training and teaching materials.


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Defended on August 19th 2020.

Author: Raili Allas

Supervisors: Äli Leijen (University of Tartu), Auli Toom (University of Helsinki)

Summary: The society around us is changing rapidly, which requires all of us to constantly develop and update our knowledge and skills. Continuous professional development is particularly important for teachers, because in addition to improving themselves, they must support students, so that they could become the future professionals who are able to adapt to the unpredictable expectations and needs of society. Thus, there is an increasing focus on supporting teacher development around the world. At the same time, our teaching staff is becoming more and more diverse, which means that teachers who need support are very different in terms of their training and also their needs. Educational researchers agree that one of the key components of teacher development is reflection, which means making sense of one's actions in order to combine different knowledge and experiences into a coherent whole for future use in managing one's actions and decisions. Various studies have also highlighted aspects that help to reflect effectively - the use of video recordings, the interpretation of meaningful situations, reflection with one's partner, the use of guiding questions. However, there are not enough methods that integrate the above aspects into a coherent whole, so that they would be suitable for supporting teachers with different experiences.

This dissertation introduces a guided reflection procedure and explores how it supports teachers at different stages of their professional development. To this end, 21 student teachers and 80 teachers carried out the reflection procedure and provided feedback on how they perceived its strengths and weaknesses. The reflections created by the students during the reflection procedure were also analysed. The results revealed that teachers with different experiences perceive the developed guided reflection procedure as useful. In particular, teachers value the opportunity to see their teaching on video, to repeatedly make sense of their experiences, to reflect with their partner, and to focus on their strengths. In addition, the analysis of student reflections showed that focusing on empowering situations supports reflection. As a practical value of the dissertation, recommendations are given that should be considered in supporting student teachers and teachers.

Practical value: The results of the dissertation provide an overview of how the developed guided reflection procedure supports teachers at different stages of their professional development. The results of the study suggest that developed procedure is suitable for supporting teachers with different experiences, offering a variety of support measures starting with video recordings of one’s own teaching, selecting meaningful events and ending with peer support and guiding questions. The results of the study suggest that different aspects of the same procedure can be adapted to the different needs and expectations of teachers. So it is a flexible method that can be used as a basis to support teachers at different stages of their professional development.


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Defended on March 30th 2020.

Author: Karin Naruskov

Supervisor: Piret Luik (University of Tartu)

Summary: The concept of cyberbullying is often defined based on and in parallel with the definition of traditional bullying. Cyberbullying researchers have begun to question whether and to what extent criteria specific to traditional bullying apply in the cyber environment. It has been suggested that there might be some cyber-specific criteria; for instance, anonymity and publicity, which could describe bullying that occurs in the cyber world more accurately. Furthermore, researchers have raised the issue of whether the definition of cyberbullying is consistent with how students perceive the phenomenon.

This thesis focuses on how students perceive cyberbullying based on suggested criteria (intentionality, repetition, imbalance of power, publicity, anonymity) and the type of cyberbullying behaviour (written-verbal cyberbullying, visual cyberbullying, impersonation, exclusion). Data was collected via focus group interviews and a questionnaire. In both cases, scenarios were used to collect the data. These scenarios described situations between a victim and a bully that could be considered cyberbullying.

The results of the study showed that two criteria were important for students when labelling scenarios as cyberbullying: imbalance of power and anonymity. In the context of cyberbullying types, it was easier for students to label the visual type and impersonation as cyberbullying and these types were also considered to be more serious than the written-verbal type and exclusion. In terms of gender and age, we found that there were no diametrically opposite differences on how boys and girls and students from different age groups labelled scenarios as cyberbullying based on the criteria. However, differences appeared in how students perceived the severity of the scenarios. In general, boys perceived cyberbullying as more serious than girls, and this was also the case with two cyber-specific criteria (publicity and anonymity). In terms of age, differences in severity evaluations also appeared in the context of cyber-specific criteria. In terms of gender, it seemed that these were more important to younger students (12–13 years) than older students (15–16 years).

Practical value: The practical value of the work lies in providing suggested themes that should be addressed with students at home and in the school environment to help boys and girls and students of different ages cope with the specifics of cyber communication. Furthermore, some recommendations are also provided for the definition and measurement of cyberbullying.


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Defended on November 29th 2019.

Author: Kaire Uiboleht

Supervisors: Mari Karm (University of Tartu), Liisa Postareff (University of Helsinki)

Summary: The last ten years have been challenging for the graduates’ of higher education. In addition to acquiring a deep understanding of disciplinary knowledge, students are also expected to develop generic skills. These expectations challenge university teaching. This dissertation therefore focused on the relationship between teaching (i.e. the teaching-learning environment of the courses developed by teachers) and: (i) the students’ perceptions of the elements of the teaching-learning environment that enhance or hinder their learning; (ii) the students’ approaches to learning; (iii) the quality of learning outcomes.

The results of this study showed that the more the teachers use learning-focused approach to teaching, the likelier are the students to adopt deep approaches to learning and gain high-quality learning outcomes. The reverse is also valid. The greater is the teachers’ adoption of content-focused approach to teaching, the more likely are students to adopt the surface-approach to learning and obtain low-quality learning outcomes. In addition, this study found that the greater the teachers’ adoption of the content-focused approach to teaching is, the more did students report elements of the teaching-learning environment that hindered their learning.

Practical value: The results of this study suggest that it is insufficient to adopt elements that are inherent to the learning-focused approaches to teaching (e.g. enthusiastic and interesting lectures, variety in the teaching methods, a pleasant atmosphere, authentic and challenging course tasks) to support students’ learning. The teachers’ guidance, and the teaching structure and support for learning are also crucial. Therefore, it is not enough to just change the method of teaching or assessment to support the adoption of deep approaches to learning or the development of high-quality learning outcomes. It is also important to develop a constructive alignment between the elements of the teaching-learning environment, the formulation of the instructions of the assignments and the quality of interaction.

The results of the thesis have been applied to the development of the course feedback questionnaire in the University of Tartu and to the development of the courses for university teachers focusing on the elements of teaching-learning environment that enhance or hinder students’ learning (e.g. the design of the course and developing assignments).


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Come to listen to short lectures by doctoral students and choose your favourite!

Teabetunni kaanefoto

­­­­­­­­From doctoral student to doctoral student: why and how to summarise your research in three minutes?

Kolme minuti loengute konkursi ingliskeelne esikolm

Doctoral students are invited to participate in the three-minute thesis competition