Structuring the seminar

Seminar teaching

General points

Surprises can happen. But you cannot automatically expect that a group of students sitting round a table or spread around a room will know how to have a focused, informed discussion. Very often they will fall back on you as seminar leader to run the discussion and even – on occasion – to do most of the talking. We suggest that you need at least to consider using what might appear to be artificial ways of eliciting participation. At the same time, structured activities should not appear arbitrary to the group. You need to communicate to students why you are doing this, which means in turn being clear in your own mind about what you hope to achieve.

If you have built up a confident and well-prepared group, it may not be necessary later in the life of a group to engage in structuring activity. The selection of ideas which follows is aimed particularly at the early weeks – though of course there might well be reasons (intellectual as well as social) for carrying on structuring groups later in the semester.

With all these ideas, you will have to be sensitive to the composition of the group, the time available, and the nature of the space you have been allocated. Many desirable activities will have to be adapted to meet the constraints (un-movable furniture, thin partition walls, sheer lack of room to manoeuvre) of the average university classroom. Your ability to develop your learning activities beyond the classroom will depend a lot on the availability or otherwise of IT tools like interactive whiteboards/smartboards, wireless access, data projectors etc

Many of the sample activities below, as in the activity ideas section of this web area, involve splitting the class into smaller groups. You need to think about the composition of these groups. Will you employ ‘home groups’ which retain the same membership whenever small group activity is called for? Or re-allocate each time? Will you allocate membership on a random basis, or let students choose for themselves? (Caution: letting friendship groups work together often reduces the value of the work done. And it doesn’t help members of the larger group to get to know one another.)

Like setting up a Blackboard or Moodle site (with which these activities have much in common), this may all seem a lot of unnecessary extra work. But we can assure that it will be worthwhile. Effort put in to organising the learning group at an early stage in its life will be amply re-paid later.

Sample activities

All these will require fine-tuning to your own specific circumstances – including what you yourself are comfortable with.

Students introduce themselves to each other in pairs, according to some formula such as ‘three things you want other people to know about you’. Pairs then introduce each other to the whole group.

Buzz groups
If the discussion is flagging, ask the students to break into twos / threes to collect points on a particular topic (or to find three quotations that bear on the discussion). An alternative is to stop the discussion and announce that there will be five / ten minutes for silent individual note-making (helps to give out a subject – e.g. find a quotation which illustrates, or counters, the last point made.).

Agenda setting
(When starting on a new text or topic.) Let the group know you will be doing this the week before. Informal buzz groups agree a shortlist of areas they think the class should consider. You then collect these ideas onto the whiteboard / flipchart. (You can of course slip in your own ideas as well.) The group then prioritises the topics and discusses the order in which to approach them. These could then either be pursued in the whole group, OR

You then break the class into groups and allocate (or let them choose) one of the identified topics to each group, with a task (e.g. find three quotations which illuminate this subject and put up an argument for your choice).

In small groups: give out on handouts a critical extract, or a set of propositions, which encapsulates a particular approach to the subject in hand. Each group has to prepare (on the spot) an argument either for or against this case. Debate then held in the main group.

Allocate to pairs different quotations from the text you are using (this could be apparently oblique – in fact probably more surprising and effective if, like Barthes’ ‘lexias’ (S/Z), they focus attention on an apparently marginal or random aspect of the text. The flotsam and jetsam of a text often yields more pedagogically than the well-trodden ‘big themes’ which are apt to seem intimidating.) Pair then has to make a three minute case (to share later) for the significance of this quotation.

(relies on having flip chart or large sheets of paper available – and a good deal of floor space). Takes a different approach to feedback from small groups. Small groups make a poster of their main points and backing quotations. These are then pinned up for the groups to circulate and read.

involves the fiction that only a few fragments of this text survive an historical catastrophe. Small groups pick out three or four short fragments and write them on cards. They then swap the cards with another group. In the next stage each group is given the task of making a short statement about what cultural historians of the future could deduce if they only had these fragments to go on.

Short poems
In pairs, rehearse a reading of the poem. Students should be assured that they will not have to perform to the rest of the group, and that they needn’t worry for now about meaning, but instead listen hard to the words, and try to get a sense of voicing, how the poem moves, how you need to breathe or pitch your voice. After fifteen or so minutes, bring group together and begin with a round of ‘what did you notice?’

Individually, everyone writes a summary of the novel in sixty words. (cf. David Bader’s One Hundred Great Books in Haiku, Viking Penguin) These are then discussed in pairs, each person asking the other questions about what was left out, and what was foregrounded and why they made the choices you did. The ensuing group discussion is a good place to start on issues about the relationship between plot and theme, about narrative, discourse and story, etc.

One reason why discussion sometimes stalls is that a group becomes locked into an interpretative frame. You might try this as a way of breaking out. You ask the group to reflect on what they see as the key themes of the text. Each person is then given a card on which to write one such theme or dominant concern of this text. The cards are then collected and shuffled, and redistributed (blind). Individuals then given ten / fifteen minutes to work on their card as though it was their own perception, finding quotations which support their adoptive position. Plenary discussion begins (or continues in VLE) with students speaking for the theme they have acquired and the insight it gives them.

If you are using the VLE, it is important to build on the principle of ‘structured tasks’, as so often the ‘post something to the forum’ type task fails because it is so nebulous. It is also important to plan around both students and your own IT ability – and to co-ordinate with other colleagues who are using the VLE. (See AHHE article: (Vol. 6, No. 1, 74-89 (2007), Designing and Assessing Online Learning in English Literary Studies and the Duologue project)

Go on. Your turn.

One of the principles at work here is that structured small group work generates an energy, an involvement, that often leaks away in whole group discussion. (And gives the less confident or more reticent a chance to try their voices.) Another – unscholarly as it may sound – is that rapid-fire, apparently artificial activities excite intellectual energy and start ideas and connections going. They force people to focus. There’s nothing to stop you or the students following these up in more detail later – indeed, that’s the whole idea. And if you are making active use of a Virtual Learning Environment, the discussion can be continued there. All these activities overlap with forms of engagement to which VLEs lend themselves. As also do student learning journals.

It is worth remembering that many of your students will have experienced directed or structured seminar activities during their study for A-level or Highers. Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster of the English and Media Centre have kindly provided a varied selection of such activities for these pages. These can readily be used or adapted for use in the HE classroom, and at the least will enrich your sense of the kind of class activities to which many students will be accustomed.

Many further ideas and starting places can be found in the Case Studies on this website.