Getting the Most out of Seminars

Group WorkSeminars are a crucial part of learning and teaching at university. Seminars provide a unique opportunity to revisit course material, ask questions and clarify points. They help to deepen your understanding on a topic by learning from others, and sharing points of view. Being able to contribute effectively is key and will lead to the development of a number of related communication skills, such as active listening, clarifying your explanations and mediating conversations and debates.

Seminars will generally run alongside your lecture programmes, and provide the opportunity to study and discuss topics in more detail, supported by independent study and participation from students. Seminars are much smaller than lectures – generally between 8 and 20 students – and are much less structured in their approach to the module material.

Participation is crucial! In both seminars and tutorials you will be expected to contribute to discussions in the classroom based on what you have read and prepared. You may often find yourself asked to investigate an issue or question independently or within a small group of students. Your lecturer may guide you towards key readings; however, most decisions about what to read, how to read it, and how to address the questions posed will be up to you. Make the most of this opportunity to develop your ideas, and to raise questions on anything you’re not sure about.

Seminars can be quite daunting, especially for those new to university or to the topic in question. The first thing to remember is that seminars aren’t designed to test you. Instead, they offer the opportunity for discussion and debate with coursemates, and to really get to grips with the details of what you’re studying, and the aspects you’re most passionate about. You might want to try using this preparation and consolidation template to help prepare for and reinforce the learning outcomes of the seminar.

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Strategies for making the most of seminars

If you’re worried about the reading…
Look back at your lectures, or at the questions set for the seminar, and see if you can identify the key theme or topic, and any key words. Look for these while you’re reading in preparation for the seminar. Underline any key terms, or any terms you don’t understand. This can help you to pinpoint which sections of the reading are likely to be most helpful, or where you need more clarification from the seminar leader.

If you’re worried about participating…
Before the seminar, try and jot down some ideas or notes on at least one of the questions you have been set. If you don’t have any prompt questions, try and think of some of your own, and devise answers to them. You might ask yourself what the article tells you, what the main argument is, or what the key words are. If you’re really stuck, try and think of two questions of your own that you might ask in the seminar, one about something you understand, and one about an aspect you might be struggling with. Some examples might include: how does this fit with last week’s discussion? How does this relate to the lecture material? Does anyone have a different example of this? Contributing just one idea is a good way to start building your confidence.

If you find it hard to follow the discussion…
Take notes and record the seminar if you can. Listen out for any key words from your reading, or any terms that are repeated: this is a sure sign that these are key to the discussion. Afterwards, sit down and jot down everything you remember – it’s best to do this on the same day as the seminar. See if there are any gaps in your notes, and chase these up, either through extra reading, discussion with your classmates outside of seminars, or in office hours with your seminar tutor.

If you want to make progress from one seminar to the next…
Set aside some time (even just 10 minutes) to reflect on how the seminar went. How did your preparation go? Did you participate? Was there anything you didn’t understand? It can be useful to write this down, particularly if you want to participate or contribute more. Use Gibb’s model for reflection for this, and see if you can make an action plan for next time. See this information sheet for a template on how you might do this.

Top Tips
  • Prepare thoroughly by doing any preparatory reading or writing. Use keywords to help direct your reading.
  • Think about your formal and informal role(s) within the seminar group. What are you expected to contribute, and when are you most confident in contributing?
  • Listen actively, and support the contributions of other students to create a positive collaborative environment.
  • Try and participate when the conversation moves onto something you are comfortable with, even if your ideas aren’t fully developed. Seminars are a chance to try new ideas out on others, and to ask about anything you’re not sure on.
  • Reflect on the seminar and create an action plan for next time.
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