The secret to well-run seminars is to know your stuff and not to make students feel insecure if they don't know theirs, according to Cleo Longworth, education officer and deputy president of Warwick University Student Union.
“A tutor who constantly replies, ‘what do you think?’ when asked a straightforward question, who fails to get to grips with the chronology of events in a book, who dismisses texts, authors or thinkers in an attempt to look cool, will be undermined immediately,” she says. “Students will decide that they are better off drawing their own conclusions.”
On the other hand, she says, the concept of “no question is a stupid question” is important.
George MacDonald Ross, senior lecturer in philosophy at Leeds University and a National Teaching Fellow, says that to encourage talking he forbids students to take notes, except for an official minute-taker. To ensure students think for themselves, he tells them to treat anything they get from him or fellow students as secondary sources, requiring proper references and criticism.
Kate Exley, a higher education consultant, says that it is important to plan how you are going to get students to engage with your material. “Clarity of purpose is key,” she says. “What do you want students to leave with?”
She recommends setting clear tasks and reinforcing verbal instructions by writing them up on a whiteboard or flip chart.
Exley says that students are more likely to respond if they have a working environment in which they feel that their views will be valued, even if they are contested.
To help students become comfortable with one another, Alan Greaves, a lecturer in archaeology at Liverpool University and National Teaching Fellow, gets them to make an impromptu presentation on a subject for which they have not prepared. He gives students a packet of articles – on what makes a good Christmas cake for example – to read and synthesise in five minutes and to give a presentation on it in ten minutes, using visual aids.
He says this forces teamwork and focuses minds on the need for planning.
Chris Megone, senior lecturer in philosophy at Leeds and another National Teaching Fellow, runs two-hour seminars in which he separates the class into groups of five or six, and gives each group a reading and set questions. He expects each member of the group to prepare a presentation based on these, although he only reveals who will give it when they arrive at the seminar. The groups then reconvene to discuss the presentations before the chosen individuals deliver them.
Short discussions follow. He chooses one group each week to write up revision notes based on the seminar, and then he marks and distributes these notes.
The technique, which forces every student to prepare for every seminar and involves Megone marking the notes, avoids two problems identified by Longworth.
Longworth says that dividing the term's seminars into presentations from different groups of students in turn rarely works because students never feel confident that they are receiving accurate information. In addition, they find the sessions become presentations rather than debates and active participation is necessary only once a term.
Trevor Habeshaw, a higher education consultant, advises preparing new students for the seminar format. When you ask for students' first presentations, have a look at their plans, ask for a list of the questions they are going to pose and what visuals they will employ.
He says it is also worth asking for feedback about how the group thinks the seminar is working, especially if you feel things aren't right.
When the seminar ends, Exley says it is important for tutors to clear up misunderstandings and to draw the strands of the seminar together.
At the end of each presentation, Greaves says the lecturer should start the applause. “And look as though you mean it. A desultory two-second clap is worse than none.”
• Small Group Teaching: Tutorials, Seminars and Beyond, Reg Dennick and Kate Exley, Taylor and Francis Ltd, 2004
• Higher Education Academy: www.heacademy.ac.uk