How can we understand and improve the seminar?


I’m now in my fifth year of teaching anthropology and sociology to foundation year students who have gone on to successfully study a range of social science degrees. Because Durham is quite a small city I often see former students and ask how they are getting on. Over the last few years students have started to mention seminars and how challenging they can be.

Seminars are a key teaching tool across the social sciences and at the time we did very little to prepare our students for them (although I’m not sure ‘A’ level students are particularly prepared either). Nonetheless these comments got me thinking about seminars and how we can better prepare our students for them, but also about seminars as a teaching tool in general.

I would like to explore seminar teaching in a more systematic way, in particular how it is experienced by a range of students, including international and mature students. My recent experiences with Yik Yak have uncovered numerous (anonymous) negative seminar experiences along the lines of being underprepared and hoping to get away with it, or relying on one person to talk for most of the seminar.

Image source: wikimedia

A seminar. Image source: wikimedia

I would also like to audit how it is viewed by my colleagues across the university. For example what is the level of expected preparation? One former student recently told me she is expected to read six articles for a seminar, and that one of them was delivered to her college pigeon hole the day before, which was a big hassle as she didn’t live in Durham.

Who is taking the seminars and how much guidance are they given for each session? When I was seminar teaching as a PhD student I was given very little guidance on what to actually do with my hour, and over the years developed different ways of structuring the sessions.

For both students and teachers there is likely to be disciplinary and maybe institutional differences in the expectations and experiences of a ‘good’ seminar. I have had a quick look through some literature to see what people have said about the seminar and I’ve not found anything (yet!) about the experience of either delivering or participating in them. Paul Ashwin has explored staff and student perceptions of the Oxford tutorial and shown how each holds at least 4 very different ideas of exactly what a tutorial is.

In order to better prepare our social science students my colleagues and I re-designed and expanded our introductory sociology course to include a second term of seminars based on a wide range of social science readings, which we have just finished teaching for the second year.

I think the seminars have been going really well, with some really interesting discussions about a wide range of topics. Obviously the students know each other quite well by this point, and we can keep our groups fairly small.

However not all of the groups are going equally well, and not everybody is benefitting from the group discussions, so my colleagues and I have started thinking about how we improve the seminar experience, and make sure that all the students are benefitting from it.

For me a good seminar is a lively and inclusive discussion based on a deep reading of a text, contextualising and linking it with other readings and work that the students have looked at. One thing I’m keen to explore is how to use technology to encourage these deeper, collaborative readings. The inspiration for this came from a website I encountered called Rap Genius which allows fans to discuss rap lyrics, annotating key words and phrases with thoughts, links, images or videos. The site has expanded now to include a much wider range of sources (e.g. poetry).

The use of collaborative annotations has been discussed within the HASTAC ( ) community, with a particular tool, Annotation Studio from MIT recommended by literature teachers in the US.

I think it would be great to explore these tools and how they might help a wide range of students better prepare for seminars, by encouraging an engaged, deeper shared reading. I think I would prefer for these tools to be fenced off by seminar group (rather than open to the public) so that students can feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and connections with one another. I also think that it will be important to seed or highlight the texts with questions and links, but this is essentially how I prepare for seminars anyway.

Various types of text annotation at Durham

Various types of text annotation at Durham

I’m hoping that using technology like this might help make seminars more inclusive, and could help the students direct the discussions more by allowing them to dictate the areas of the text to focus on and the themes and issues to be discussed.

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About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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4 Responses to How can we understand and improve the seminar?

  1. For me it would seem, in my introduction to seminar sociology classes, that the problem is simply people. People will choose to get involved in the things that they enjoy, which could be seen when certain topics were discussed, and remain apathetic when not interested. From my personal experiences on stage I would say that it is impossible to hold everybody’s attention all the time, and for me seminars are the same. I think there will always be a lack of participation, for some this sort of discussion is simply not a way in which they can interact with a topic.

    I believe a more technological approach could in fact alienate the older members of my group as they are not particularly tech savvy and are only just getting to grips with the basic online requirements of the course. Further involvement of technology could in fact be a hinderance.

    Also by involving a shared space, does that potentially bring a name and shame culture into seminar work? If, for instance, a particular student has not added to the seminar that week, or added very little, for whatever reason, would the seminar leader then pick on them and ask them extra questions, or the other students look down upon them for their lack of contribution? It would seem unfair in a group of people aiming to better themselves their own way if this were the case.

    Sorry if this seems either negative or I have misinterpreted any parts of the subject matter, I would like to hear your comments though.

    • Hi shaun,

      Thanks for your comments, it’s great to get a student’s perspective on this, I would love to have more!

      I agree that participation in seminars can be uneven, but I think that having online activities before (and maybe after) the seminar can help with that. Some people might prefer to participate online, whilst others might be happier participating face to face. My hope would be that by offering more ways for people to interact with the text (and each other) there would be more interaction overall. I definitely take on board your point about technology potentially disengaging some, but I think that a small part of my job (and getting a degree in general) is to prepare people for a world which is quite heavily technologically mediated.

      I think the public/ private nature of the interactions is a very important point. The seminar is quite a private/ personal space where people can try out new ideas and test the ways in which they think about the reading, or for that matter the world. For the online discussions to be successful I think they would have to be private too, at least at the course level through the VLE and possibly even separated into seminar groups so that people can (hopefully) feel comfortable sharing with their group as the trust builds up.

      It is interesting that you compare participating in a seminar to performing on stage, for me a good seminar should be more like a group of musicians jamming together, playing together and trying new things rather than a performance as such. There shouldn’t be an audience!

  2. timlaztimlaz says:

    Interestingly, I have found the whole seminar experience to very positive, imaginative and thought provoking. I feel that peoples participation or not for that matter really comes down to how one feels talking and sharing opinions in a group and one’s own feelings of being able to provide a useful contribution to that group. As Nick says I really comes down trust and having one’s opinion valued, no matter how off beat that opinion may be.

    On a personal level I have little problem speaking but what I find difficult is ascertaining in my head whether my contribution is going to be worthwhile. As the seminars have progressed I feel that everyone’s confidence has grown including my own.

    I think that the online discussions are a great idea and whilst it should be accepted that some may struggle, or not even bother at all it should be considered as another arrow in the quiver of learning. The other thing I would add its slightly off topic but I would have expected more presentations as part of the foundation year, yes they are nerve racking but the only way to defeat that is to do more of them until it becomes second nature.

    So in conclusion have really enjoyed the whole course and in particular the seminars hope this helps.

    Tim lazenby

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