Seminar activity Ideas 4: Imaginative ways of organising debate and discussion

Seminar teaching


Groups can sometimes fall into predictable patterns. This can involve a few lively, confident students dominating whilst others remain silent and seemingly detached. Or the group as a whole can be unresponsive. Or perhaps students can take up strong positions in relation to each other, for personal reasons. These patterns, once established, are hard to break. From early on in the ‘life’ of a seminar group, it’s worth challenging students’ expectations of a ‘routine’ approach to discussion, so that they arrive prepared for different styles of debate and different demands being made on them. Using a variety of approaches also plays to different students’ strengths, giving space for quieter students to find room for expression rather than having to fight for it.

What to do

Here are six different approaches to organising discussion:

1. Debate around the room

This strategy is very good for ensuring that every  student has to take part, even if they don’t speak. They have to show their participation and their thinking by moving around the room.

  1. Before the class, prepare the room by putting up  big notices in three corners of the room: ‘Agree’, ‘Disagree’ and ‘Don’t Know’. Think of a provocative comment on or interpretation of the text or topic you are teaching. For instance, if you’re teaching Modernism, you might offer an assertion like ‘Fragmentation in Modernist texts leads to lack of coherence and cohesion’. Or if you’re teaching ‘The Gothic’, ‘The Gothic is a conservative genre, feeding insecurity and anxiety rather than breaking free of it’. Or if you’re teaching Shakespeare, ‘The later plays really are ‘problem’ plays. The generic uncertainty makes them work less well as drama than the earlier Comedies, Histories and Tragedies.’
  2. Ask students to consider the assertion on their own for a short period, jotting down a few key points.
  3. Without discussing it with each other, ask your students to go and stand in  the appropriate corner of the room, under one of the notices. If they are, at this stage, undecided, that’s fine: nevertheless, all students must physically move to one corner of the room.
  4. Tell them to present their arguments to each other, trying to argue other students out of their corner. If they hear an argument that is highly persuasive, they should move. They are entitled to move as often as they like, on the basis of the arguments they hear.

If you want to, you can join in, either contributing your own views, or moving when you hear strong arguments or acting as devil’s advocate in support of a viewpoint that isn’t being strongly advocated but for which there are good arguments.

2. Envoys

Small group discussion leading to feedback can work very well. However sometimes the feedback can be dull or repetitive as students hear rehearsed over and over again the same points and arguments. One way of ringing the changes is to introduce the idea of envoys.

  • Set up small group discussion on whatever topic you’re working on, perhaps with a target in mind e.g. the 5 most important aspects of a literary movement, or writer’s techniques, or the key contexts for understanding a particular literary development.
  • When the groups have come to some decisions, ask each group to send an ‘envoy’ to another group, to find out what their views/decisions were. The envoy should be prepared to go back to their own group with fresh ideas to see whether they want to stick by their original thinking, or temper it in the light of the ideas of another group.
  • You can add in a third reconnaissance trip to a new group if this seems likely to yield fresh ideas.
3. Write before you talk

Sometimes students are thrown into discussion before they have had the opportunity to think. For some, this isn’t a problem – they enjoy the chance to think quickly and respond spontaneously. Others are slower to speak, without prior reflection. Offering a chance to think first can help this kind of student.

  1. Do one of the following:
  • Ask a question
  • Set up the parameters of the discussion and ask students to identify a few questions they think it would be important to discuss
  • Baldly state what the seminar will be about.

Now ask students to either jot down their thoughts (writing freely and for themselves only) or write down the questions they want discussed. Give them roughly five minutes.

2. Now start the discussion, or address the questions they have raised as a whole group.

4. Only question

For some students the lecturer or seminar leader is the fount of all knowledge. Questioning comes from the students and answers come from the teacher, or if the teacher asks questions, it’s all too easy for the teacher to end up answering those questions herself/himself. One way of encouraging independent thinking and active participation is to reverse this pattern by only using questioning. This means actively resisting the temptation to intervene with a response and positively thinking about what kinds of questions will push students further.

Simply try to shift the balance of your own interventions from long contributions or explanations towards sharply worded questioning, that encourages students to think more deeply or extend their ideas.

Here is an example scenario:

A student gives a biographical reading of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. You ask, ‘Is it legitimate to bring biographical information to bear on poetry?’ Or, ‘What difference would it make to read poetry without knowledge of the life?’ ‘Does this apply to some writers more than others?’ ‘What about the fact that the more modern the writer, the more we’re likely to know?  And so on, pushing harder with each response.

5. Socratic circles

This strategy helps students to reflect at a ‘meta-level’ on the way in which they discuss and debate issues, helping them to think about the validity and helpfulness of the questions they ask themselves about texts or topics. It also encourages them to function as a group without depending too much on the guidance of the lecturer, encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning.

  • Offer students a challenging text to be shared (either in advance or on the day of the seminar, depending on length). Ask students to generate their own questions for discussion, perhaps in pairs or threes, prioritising key questions they would like to have aired.
  • Choose a small group of students from across the class to form an inner circle. Ask the rest of the class to form an outer circle around them. The inner circle will discuss the text, using the questions they generated and others that emerge. The outer circle will observe and take notes, reflecting on issues such as the following:
    • What kinds of questions generated the most interesting and useful discussion.
    • What other questions might have been asked.
    • What kinds of interventions and approaches to discussion took the debate forward most constructively.
  • Repeat the activity soon, with a different text or topic, in order to give all students opportunity to be in both the inner and the outer circle.
6. Statements to debate

Rather than discussing in a vacuum, students can be given a series of between five and ten statements to debate, with the aim of selecting two or three that they agree with most strongly or consider to be most significant. You can include in the statements some of the key issues or areas of contention that you would like to see addressed by your students.
To give you some idea of the kinds of statements you might provide, we’ve included examples in downloadable pdf files on Blake_debate and Wuthering Heights.

Activity contributed by Barbara Bleiman and Lucy Webster, of the English and Media Centre