Principles of Seminar teaching

Seminar teaching

Teachers sometimes forget what a challenge the seminar may represent to many students. The seminar is, after all, a genre with its own (often unspecified) rules and assumptions. We cannot take for granted that this is a medium students are naturally good at. They may be uncertain about what counts as having anything to say about this subject – and anxious about exposure in front of their peers. So as teachers, we need to make our assumptions and practices explicit and visible. If we do so, and if we make some simple concessions to acclimatising our students to this form, the seminar can still be a powerful medium of learning. This is one of the places where students learn to become fluent in the discourse of the subject. And you as tutor have to be prepared to listen as well as talk. Arguably, the quality of your own listening will set a benchmark for the rest of the group.

  • seminars (classes) operate simultaneously on intellectual, affective, and social levels. While the experienced group leader may not be conscious of these levels all the time, (s)he takes account of them while leading the group.
  • the seminar is a difficult genre. Students do not automatically know how to participate, or to listen to each other, or even how to learn in a seminar;
  • seminars are not simply about learning in a given subject discipline. They are also about learning to learn; (these are not necessarily the people among whom any given individual would have chosen to learn – but then their work colleagues won’t necessarily be, either!);
  • All participants bear some share of responsibility for the success of the individual session or the programme as a whole, BUT
  • the tutor / leader has a particular responsibility to
    • structure the seminar in such a way as to enable participation;
    • maintain the group’s working environment.
    • establish ground rules about preparation and participation.

abc_language_bigNumerous consequences follow, though very few hard-and-fast rules. Seminar tutors need to weigh their approaches within their own specific circumstances. Remember that generally speaking English students have relatively few contact hours, and almost invariably fewer than they will have experienced at school . The seminar is an opportunity to support / scaffold independent study, especially in the first year, by helping students plan their work, and giving models for independent study.

Implicit here is the idea of pedagogic choices. Some things may be out of your hands: if you are a junior member of a team you may not even have chosen the subject matter of the module or seminar. Recent appointees are likely to have little say in the timetabling, or the size of the group (let alone its actual composition). Every seminar group is going to have its individual characteristics that the group leader has to adjust for – size of group and personalities of members amongst them. This makes it different from other forms of teaching such as lecturing.  But nevertheless, some choices are open to you. These are some of the questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • What implications do my texts or my subject area have for the way I need to teach them? What particular opportunities or challenges do they present?
  • What problems are students likely to have with this material? What do I take for granted in my own thinking about this subject that students may not yet take for granted, or even be aware of? How can I help them acquire those ‘threshold concepts’ which make sense of the discipline?
  • How do I communicate that the topic matters? that this discussion is serious?
  • What about the very first session? How do I begin? What can I do to help this collection of people become a working group?
  • How can I foster group norms that encourage openness and discussion?
  • What do I need to do to get as many as possible to contribute?
  • How will what happens in my seminars foster or support students’ own independent learning?
  • What technology-based teaching tools do I have at my disposal which could scaffold the face-to-face time spent in seminars? (E.g. with online pre-seminar activities in the VLE to support my students or post-seminar follow-up activities to extend the learning encounter.) Examples could include online discussion forums with structured questions, tasks or activities; a digital drop box where work started in seminar could be completed and posted to the seminar tutor, reflective blog posts and so on.