A Practical Introduction to College Teaching

All sections of this handbook, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada, are in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged.

For comments, questions, suggestions for improvements, and so on, please contact Ian Johnston.

[Table of Contents]

Section 7: A Note On Seminars

Seminars are small, relatively informal discussion groups in which all participants work together as equals and no one exercises a controlling authority over where the discussion goes, what material is covered, who gets to speak, and so on.  It is, in a very real sense, a continuing conversation.  In a seminar class, the instructor, in effect, hands over her control of the situation to the group and becomes one of the equal participants, with no special responsibilities other than to start and end the process.

Given this general definition, seminar-style learning is particularly appropriate for certain subjects or purposes and less so for others.  Seminars are not really relevant if the main purpose of the class is for the students to absorb complex new information or to participate in a process which requires a firm guiding hand.  They are, however, extraordinarily effective when the purpose of the class is to enable the students to learn how to think more intelligently about and discuss a particular text they have all been dealing with (e.g., a work of fiction, a philosophical argument, a piece of music, a political analysis, and so on).  In such cases, a seminar is, without doubt, the most effective setting for significant student learning, and the experience of incorporating seminars into one's teaching style can completely transform the class room experience for both the instructor and the students.  

Seminars also provide a major collateral advantage: they help the students learn to improve their abilities to listen to, respond to, and deal with other people.  Given the often free-wheeling nature of the discussion, a seminar is a much more open learning system in comparison with the relatively closed system of a formal lecture or a lecture-discussion.  These enormous advantages are among the reasons many celebrated educational institutions and experiments make seminar learning the defining feature of their curriculum (e.g., Arts I at UBC, the first-year program at King's College in Halifax, Evergreen State College, St. John's College, Liberal Studies at Malaspina, and so on).

In spite of the enormous advantages of seminar-style classes, they tend to be quite rare for some obvious reasons.  Seminar classes work well only with a relatively small number of students in the class at any one time.  The optimal number of participants is about 15, and the effectiveness and quality of a seminar degenerate quickly if the number goes above 20.  Seminars also have very specific spatial requirements.  The participants must all be able to see and hear each other equally and feel that they are equal.  Hence, the standard arrangement of sitting around the same table or organizing small tables into a circle or a square.  Finally, to be truly effective a seminar requires enough time so that the conversation can proceed usefully without ending too soon and yet it should not go on for so long that the participants run out of steam (the ideal length is about 90 minutes).

Instructors whose curriculum might truly benefit from seminar sessions should not let these specific requirements necessarily deter them without thinking if there are ways to resolve them.  For instance, if the class is too large, then what are the possibilities of dividing it up into smaller units?  If I have a three-hour night class, I routinely extend the time to four hours, have the first half of the class come for a 90 minute seminar, then have a lecture for everyone, and then have the second half of the class for a second seminar.  This format does require a certain amount of effort to lug furniture around between sessions, but the students are eager enough to help, and the benefits more than outweigh such inconvenience.  If I have a class for three one-hour sessions a week, I use one class for a lecture-discussion (everyone present), and the other two as seminars (with half the class in each one).  Yes, the students get one less hour per week in class, but the seminar experience is at least twice as valuable as a normal lecture-discussion.

There is no more effective and immediate way to transform your classes into more worthwhile learning situations than to incorporate regular seminars, especially if your regular lecture-discussion style is not generating worthwhile discussions.  My greatest regret as a college instructor is that I did not discover this point until my teaching career was more than half over.

Apart from the obvious rearrangements one has to deal with in this form of instruction, there are some other things to think about if you're willing to experiment with seminars

If you're going to have seminars, then make sure they operate as seminars, not as informal lecture-discussions.  The instructor must conduct herself as one of a number of equal participants and not try to exercise her customary authority over the class.  This requirement can be frustrating, because seminars will often digress or get bogged down in trivialities or suffer from long pauses or take a turn which the instructor may not think is very productive.  Of course, the instructor can (as a participant) request a return to something more relevant, but she has no more responsibility for doing so than anyone else present.  Such conduct is not always very easy for an instructor who has no experience in dealing with seminars and who may feel uneasy about surrendering her authority, but the value of the exercise is seriously reduced if she exerts too much control.  In a well-functioning seminar, the instructor should not have to speak any more than anyone else (sometimes it's an excellent exercise to remove yourself from the discussion altogether and simply observe), and she should never get in the habit of rescuing a seminar every time there's a lull in the conversation (the students will come to expect her to do that and will make no extra effort to keep the conversation going).

Seminars will only work well if students do the necessary preparation (reading the material and thinking about it), and it really helps to give them some incentive, by requiring a short seminar note on the material, which the student hands in at the start of the session (to be marked).  Without such a requirement, you may well find that there are students who regularly fail to prepare adequately, something which can really lower the quality of the discussion.

With seminar-style learning, attendance and participation must bear a significant percentage of the mark for the course.  And it is essential to give the students detailed instructions about what you mean by participation.  If you wish to look at an example of a document which provides such information, consult the following link: Seminars.

Since participation is so important, the instructor will have to organize and present to the students a method for evaluating it and converting the mark into a component of the final grade.  The link given in the paragraph immediately above indicates one method of doing that.  A participation mark should never be based on a final subjective impression.  The instructor has to be prepared to produce a written record to any student who challenges the participation mark awarded to him.

An instructor who wishes to incorporate seminars should remember that this form of instruction may not be familiar to all or to most of the students.  It is wise, therefore, periodically to use a seminar session (or part of it) to reflect together on how things are going, what might be improved, what seems to be working well.  Good seminar participation is something students need to learn over time.  For that reason, it's probably a bad idea to have merely occasional seminars.  If you're going to use them, make them a regular occurrence (once a week) and insist that improving seminar participation is important priority of the course.

The vast majority of students find seminar instruction extremely rewarding, much more interesting and helpful than lectures.  However, there may be some students who find the situation difficult.  Some cultures do not encourage (or allow) women to speak when men are present.  Some students are painfully shy.  Some students with learning disabilities (e.g., Asperger syndrome) are more comfortable in more predicable closed-system situations.  So the instructor needs to be alert to such possibilities. 

Obviously, if you are going to use seminars, it's best to set the course up that way, explain the issue in the Course Outline, and start in the first week.  But if you have a class which is creating problems because the students are listless, uninterested in the material, and generally uncooperative, you might want to experiment with seminars part way through the semester.  If so, be careful about not altering the major requirement of the course (and the distribution of marks) announced in the Course Outline without discussing the matter over with the students and securing their agreement.


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