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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Yik Yak – some more detailed thoughts

About a week ago one of my students mentioned in passing Yik Yak, an app that is a bit of craze at Durham at the moment (as I was soon to learn). I’ve been having a play around with it since then and thought I’d post up some comments and thoughts.

For those that haven’t stumbled across it yet Yik Yak is a social media app that allows users to post anonymous messages which can be read, voted on and commented on by other anonymous users within a vague geographical limit. The limit has been described as 1.5 miles although their website says that users can create and comment on posts (“yaks”) “within a 10 mile radius. Users can also expand the conversation by posting replies to existing Yaks.” . Certainly there does seem to be some variation in what I can see as I’ve accessed the app around different areas of Durham, and somebody next to me on the app can sometimes see slightly different posts.

You can ‘peek’ into the Yaks of another location, although you can’t comment and vote on these. I’ve done this to look at a former university, where I could see that there had been a recent stabbing within the last hour, and Durham’s namesake in North Carolina, where the yaks were pretty intense and it appeared that somebody had been discussing suicide. Obviously neither of these peeks are likely to be representative of these locations.

One of the big features of Yik Yak is that users are completely anonymous. There is no sign up and no profile. Users can collect Yakarma points, but I can’t see what value they have beyond bragging rights (apparently in the US there is a Yik Yak tour and these points can be used to gain ‘swag’.  The website does state that they store

“The IP address from which the message was posted;

The GPS coordinates of the location from which the message was posted;

The time and date when the message was posted”

Which I would guess is to comply with law enforcement issues (in America there has been a backlash in some areas but could have future commercial implications I guess.

Individual posts can get voted up and down by other users (actually the person who posted also gets a vote) and if the yak gets a score of -5 it is deleted, so there is an element of self-policing. Yaks with a particularly high score can feature in the ‘hot list’ and from the content of yaks there’s definitely some kudos to having a yak with a high score (even though it is anonymous and there’s no way of proving it is yours). Another interesting feature is that you can only post text and emoji, I’ve not seen any hyperlinks and when I tried yakking I got a notification that it had been voted off within seconds (I suspect an algorithm). Similarly there are no pictures or videos, so it is quite basic.

Screenshot of new yaks

Screenshot of new yaks

The votes also give some indication of the number of users at Durham, particularly ‘hot’ yaks seems to quite quickly get scores of 200-300. I’m not sure what the highest yak post score is, but this would suggest that the Yik Yak community at Durham is a fair bit more than that, maybe around a 1,000? Which in the context of a full time UG student population of 10,487 based at Durham City is a pretty significant portion.

Screenshot of 'hot yaks'

Screenshot of ‘hot yaks’

There certainly has been a lot of activity and the content seems to cover work (summatives!), toilets, sex, the library (with 1,300 study spaces clearly quite a big focus of yakkers) inter college rivalry and recycled jokes. Here are the current ‘hot yaks’ on a Thursday lunchtime. (note S/O means ‘shout out’).

Having played around with it for a while now it is quite hard to see much educational value in it. I’ve suggested that library keeps an eye on it, as a lot of the posts could be of interest, and when our VLE went down for scheduled maintenance the number of surprised and angry yaks did suggest that the way this was communicated could probably be improved.

It would be interesting to do a more comprehensive content analysis of YikYak, I’m not sure if there’s a way of scraping the yaks over a period of time and maybe their maximum scores/ duration before being deleted. This could prove quite an interesting, if disturbing, insight into student life here.

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Raising your profile on social media

I have started being asked to give the odd talk to various groups of PhD students about using social media to develop their online profile. I thought it would be a good idea to write a quick blog post so that I can point people here and they can access the slides and further reading/ links. My slides are pretty basic but I think the content is good, and I’m happy with the session plan.

There was some recent discussion about a tongue in cheek article which developed a ‘K-index’, the relationship between citations and twitter followers. This has led to some very interesting discussion and spirited responses which are well worth looking at.

Useful links

Top 10 reasons for academics to use academia  Written for natural scientists but still relevant.

10 reasons why academics should use social media and twitter

Really good social media for research guide from Newcastle University

Using Twitter in university research, teaching, and impact activities  A really good guide from the LSE

Tweeting academic research NB student Joanne clement blogs about her experiences using twitter

Reading List

Berry, D. M. (2011). “The computational turn: Thinking about the digital humanities.Culture Machine 12(0): 2.

Berry, D. M. (2012). Understanding digital humanities, Palgrave Macmillan.

Borgman, C. L. (2009). “The digital future is now: A call to action for the humanities.” Digital humanities quarterly 3(4).

boyd, d. m. and N. B. Ellison (2007). “Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13(1).

Costa, C. (2014). “Outcasts on the inside: academics reinventing themselves online.International Journal of Lifelong Education: 1-17.

Pearce, N., M. Weller, E. Scanlon and S. Kinsley (2011). “Digital scholarship considered : how new technologies could transform academic work.” in education 16(1).

Puschmann, C. and M. Bastos (2015). “How Digital Are the Digital Humanities? An Analysis of Two Scholarly Blogging Platforms.” PloS one 10(2): e0115035.

Ross, C., M. Terras, C. Warwick and A. Welsh (2010). “Pointless babble or enabled backchannel: conference use of twitter by digital humanists.” Digital Humanities.

Stewart, B. (2015). “Open to influence: what counts as academic influence in scholarly networked Twitter participation.” Learning, Media and Technology: 1-23.

Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice London, Bloomsbury. [this book is open access and available for free online]

Wilkes, L. and N. Pearce (2011). Fostering an Ecology of Openness: the role of social media in public engagement at the Open University. Teaching Arts and Science with the New Social Media. C. Wankel, Emerald.

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hudl2 first thoughts

Three and half years ago I blogged a review of the various tablet options then available and mused on some possible work related uses. All this time later, and while my work laptop is recovering from a cracked screen I went ahead and bought a hudl2 (after some twitter recommendations and some good online reviews).

Prices for broadly comparable tables (e.g. ipads) have dropped across the board, and whereas the Vega I recommended as ‘good value’ was 200, the hudl2 was 130 (actually 100 as I had a bunch of Tesco vouchers which count double towards one).

The screen is smaller (8.1″ rather than 10″) but again I think this reflects broader trends. The processor power of all the tablets I looked at in 2011 was around 1GHz, whereas my hudl2 is 1.8GHz which isn’t as big an increase as you might expect and there is more RAM (from 512Mg to 2GB).


One of the bigger differences is how I envisage the tablet being used. I noted in 2011 that in every class at least one student was using a tablet, now I would say that usage has increased but is still not ubiquitous, and many will use a laptop in class instead of a tablet. I’ve seen a tablet well used as notes during a presentation, and I’ve heard of a number of apps that students are using to help their studies (e.g. RefMe and Ginger proofreading).

I have still not given as much thought as I would like in how to properly incorporate this into my classroom. Whereas in my last post I focussed on a ‘google jockey‘ my current thoughts are about supporting collaborative annotation of seminar texts (a blog post about this will follow shortly!).

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Using Social Media to raise the profile of arts and humanities PhD students

In a couple of weeks I will be in Belfast discussing how arts and humanities PhD students can use social media (likely to focus on twitter and blogs but could include others) to build networks and raise their profile. This is all part of a larger Northern Bridge doctoral training partnership winter school.

I’m really looking forward to this, it should be fun and interesting. There are going to be about 50 odd students there I thought that it might be a good idea to see how many of them were already on twitter.

I did a pretty simple search, so might have missed a few, and only included accounts where I could be sure it was the right person, but I still found 21 accounts out of the 50 names I had and I drew up a quick graph of their follower counts.

Follower count of Norther Bridge twitter users

Follower count of Norther Bridge twitter users

As you can see there are a few pretty connected people and then quite a long tail of people with fewer connections, and 29 people with either no account or one that I couldn’t easily find. There’s no particular reason to suppose that these students are more or less tech savvy than the general population of arts and humanities PhDs, so 42% penetration for twitter seems quite an  interesting finding.

I’d be really interested to hear how these students, and others in the arts are using twitter and their blogs to make connections and networks and promote themselves. Also when I discussed these rough findings with a colleague ( @bissetjm ) he mentioned that the most active twitter profiles were being supervised by very active twitter academics. I wonder if those not on twitter are being actively dissuaded by their supervisors?

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Challenges facing academic practice over next 5 years

I’ve been asked to give a talk about the main challenges facing academic practice over next 5 years and it’s quite a tricky assignment, so I thought I’d put a few thoughts down here and see if it helps. I’m focussing on the UK context, although of course increasing internationalisation would be one challenge…

The first big thing on the horizon would be the general election. There have been some noises from Labour about a change to student fee levels, although this is pretty non-committal at this stage, but some kind of change in HE funding is certainly a big possibility over the next 5 years, as well as changes regarding international students and immigration…

The 9k cap itself can’t remain at it’s current level for ever as it is ‘unsustainable‘. Whatever happens there will be plenty more discussion about value for money, and how to quantify that for students/ customers and I think that will continue to have a big impact on learning and teaching within HE. This is likely to put more emphasis on blended and online learning as at worst a cost effective way of delivering more bangs per buck, but at best a great way to encourage both formal and informal learning (alongside F2F).

This contrasts with the reduced funding for the HEA which is having a big impact on the sector, at the same time as HEA accreditation is increasingly becoming a key metric that whilst not perfect can give students an indication of the status of teaching within an institution. During a live webchat last year with the compiler of the Guardian league tables I specifically asked about the inclusion of metrics around HEA accreditation of staff in their tables, to which he replied “Accreditation of staff by the HEA / a general look at the qualifications of staff will become an option as data improves, though there are no current plans for changes.” I think if this were to happen it would have a big impact on the HEA, and efforts to encourage accreditation within institutions.

The third big thing, a bit more distant on the horizon is ref2020, which we don’t know a lot about at the moment, although for me the big thing already is the open access mandate. I have been involved in some discussions about this at faculty level and this is certainly a big opportunity, although I’m worried about the emphasis on ‘gold’ OA over green. There is definitely some exciting new stuff happening in academic publishing though that and a big challenge for academic practice is going to be harnessing that.

Cutting across both of these themes is an increasing focus on digital scholarship. Five years ago whilst at the Open University I co-wrote something about digital scholarship which still has a resonance today. I discussed how new technologies were making possible more open ways of working across academia, in research as well as teaching and public engagement. I conclused that:

“These new web based technologies are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a radical opening up of scholarly practice. In this sense digital scholarship is more than just using information and communication technologies to research, teach and collaborate, but it is embracing the open values, ideology and potential of technologies born of peer-to-peer networking and wiki ways of working in order to benefit both the academy and society. Digital scholarship can only have meaning if it marks a radical break in scholarship practices brought about through the possibilities enabled in new technologies.”

I think that I stand by that, even though 5 years has passed I think that there are still some big changes that are taking place (my work as a SSI fellow definitely showed me some interesting stuff that’s going on with software in research for example) and the next 5 years will no doubt be no different, even if the macro level drivers aren’t technologically related.

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How long should a student spend on an essay?

Last year I interviewed a few of my mature students and one of the things that struck me about how they worked was the length of time they spent on their essays. They recognised that it was unsustainable but I couldn’t really give them any guidance.

This year I find myself telling students not to spend ‘too long’ on their essays, and describing the law of diminishing returns  but I’m still not sure how long they should be spending. As teachers surely we should have some expectation of how much work we are asking for?

I thought I’d have a quick look at the academic literature. There is, as you’d expect plenty of stuff about essay writing, in particular in the psychology literature (and therefor studies of psychology students!). One study of note looked at the essay writing strategies of a cohort of students over their degrees, which appears to note that students stick to whatever strategy (ie how many drafts to do, if any) they start with. This study did ask students to estimate how many hours they spent writing their essay (including library research). The actual time spent on essays isn’t really reported, although the median time taken for the four writing strategies discussed is given as between 9 hours (minimal drafting) and 15 hours (detailed drafting), which gives an idea, but doesn’t really tell us the full range of time taken. We are told that “reported length of time to complete the essay was unrelated to the mark received” (p.192), which is interesting in itself.

There are a few threads on the student room forums asking this question and some interesting responses. A number of students seem to reply with a day for reading and a day for writing, which seems about right in my opinion and kind of matches up with the study above.

I guess ultimately students should spend as much time as they can on their essays, and this will vary due to outside commitments (and internal commitments to their studies!). I do think it’s odd to give an assignment without a clear expectation of time taken though, and many of my students are particularly anxious about their studies and prone to over commit an unsustainable amount of time to their early essays, which can be unproductive (in terms of mark) and could lead to them thinking that they are not cut out for HE.

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Getting organised with Outlook: Resources, tips and tools


Microsoft Outlook is more than just a way of accessing email, it’s a phenomenally powerful productivity and collaboration tool. For reference we will be focussing on the Outlook 2010 email client (ie the software tool that’s part of office) rather than the web interface which some of you may use to access your inbox or calendar (especially on your personal devices). The web based interface is accessing the same inbox and calendar as the desktop email client, and will allow you to do many of the same things, but generally it’s easier to make manage things in the email client.

Here are a Durham specific resource to get your started, in particular for synching up your smartphones

Microsoft provide some training materials and this one looks like a good starting point for getting more organized. This is a video so ideally you will have sound, but it has subtitles too (just click on CC for closed captions). Here is an article about best practices in 2010 which has lots of tips and tricks.

Here are some more targeted resources

Inbox management

To start with here is a really good blog post about information overload and managing emails. One useful tip I’ve used in the past is to re-order your inbox to sort for sender. This makes it really easy to delete large numbers of unimportant emails, but also makes it pretty obvious where a lot of your emails are coming from, highlighting possible mail rules and folders to help organise things in future.

One of the big recent ideas around inbox management is ‘inbox zero’, with the idea being that your main inbox should be somewhere that emails only stay in temporarily, being either deleted or filed away immediately as part of de-cluttering effort. Your inbox should be empty by the end of each day (even if they’re all been filed away in a ‘deal with later’ folder). Here are some resources about that, whether you achieve inbox zero, or just inbox a bit less than before, I think the effort is a worthwhile one.

How I get to zero inbox in outlook

Mashable on inbox zero

Some more critical thoughts on inbox zero 

 Calendar tips and tricks

Some people might not use the calendar at all, and some might have their whole lives on there. I definitely tend towards the latter! Having a comprehensive outlook calendar synched up to a smartphone can make managing a busy work/ life schedule much easier. Using the shared collaboration features can make it much easier to arrange and manage meetings. Some of the general resources at the top of the page deal with basic calendar management but here are some resources for getting the most out of the outlook calendar.

If you do use your calendar for personal stuff here are a couple of useful tips for managing your privacy, and here are some general tips for managing calendars

General tips and tricks

12 tips and tricks to work faster in Outlook some good stuff here, I particularly like turning off desktop notifications for all but the most important emails.

Some good intermediate tips from PC Mag 

As ever if you have any suggestions for resources or tips for Outlook let me know and I’ll update this post.

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Tools for referencing

[Below is a quick and dirty resource I put together for my students about the tools that are available for helping them reference. I’d welcome any comments or suggestions!]

Referencing is an integral part of academic writing, and has been for many years, and each academic tribe (e.g. Economists, Sociologists, Psychologists) does things slightly differently. Anglia Ruskin have a good resource about referencing in general (thanks to @emmahead2 on twitter!)

There are plenty of tools out there to help you do this effectively, there is no need to do all of this manually!


The big software tool, and one that the university has a group discount for is Endnote. There are other software packages out there but this is the most widely used by academics (I use it myself) and it is pre-installed on all university desktop computers. I’m really not sure that Endnote is an appropriate tool for undergraduate students, it wasn’t really designed for them (it’s pretty complicated!) and a lot of advantages to using it do not really apply to students writing essays (and most likely not really re-using the same references.).

A very simple to use and free online tool is Neil’s Harvard Referencing Generator. I have no idea who Neil is, but he wrote this tool a while ago (I’ve used it myself) and it is very straightforward. Select which kind of source you want to reference, input the details and it will generate the reference for your bibliography. It does not help with the in text reference (e.g. Pearce 2014) and it won’t alphabetise your references, but it’s quick and easy.

There is another class of tools which I think site somewhere between Endnote and Neil’s HRG, and they are much more targeted at undergraduate students. These are referencing apps, which enable you to use your phone to keep track of your reading (and quotes in some cases), and will generate a alphabetised bibliography. Some of them integrate into word and so will help you with you in text referencing as well.

Citethisforme does look like a pretty good web based app. There is a free version which is time limited (so you can’t keep your references for the next essay) but this product integrates with word nicely and is very user friendly. We’ve been in touch about getting a bulk discount for our students, so do not upgrade to the premium version until you’ve heard from us.

Refme also looks pretty good, in particular it enables you to scan the bar code on a book to get the reference, which I really like (less chance of typos!) although obviously this isn’t very helpful for journal articles, and in the social sciences most things will be journal articles. The overall product does look very user friendly and is definitely worth checking out, there’s a snazzy video on the home page explaining how it all works. This product looks to be free too.

Mastercite Some people at Warwick have recently developed a referencing app which appears to have a more educational focus (ie teaching you about referencing as well as making it easier). I’m not as impressed with this as other apps so far, but I haven’t really had a proper look yet. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Overall in all of your social science assignments a key skill is to find and look at a wide variety of relevant literature, and to demonstrate this to your teachers you will need to reference it correctly. The more you reference the better, so any tool that helps make this easy is really useful. Check out the tools above and let me know how you get on and if there are any other tools that you find or hear about let me know too.

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Clickolage – The movie

A few weeks ago I went to a great workshop about Creative Social-Mobile Learning and Teaching at Graz in Austria. I presented my pinterest stuff, which I’ve written up here .


I met lots of interesting people from all over Europe working on some very interesting projects, all sharing an interest in using new technologies to help learners learn and teachers teach. I’ve made a lot of new contacts on twitter and hopefully I’ll be seeing a lot of the same faces next year.

I was also interviewed by Yishay Mor about Clickolage, a term I’m still trying to introduce and promote (having written about it here). It was actually quite fun being interviewed although it was on a busy street and you can see how distracting that was!

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