To pipe up or to shut up. Give us some direction

April 21, 2006

Pat Bryden is gobsmacked at the dearth of discussion in seminars. Why don't lecturers do something about it?

Getting my younger fellow students to say something - anything - in seminars was, I found in my first term at university, as difficult for lecturers as pulling teeth. The majority clearly perceived seminars as a tiresome second dose of lectures.

Resolving this problem is not a matter of tinkering at the margins, given that college seminars typically take up a half of undergraduates' timetabled hours.

This seems to be a relatively new problem. Prior to my present course of study, I briefly flirted with undergraduate education in 1980. I had teething problems both times, because I came from a different class from most of the other students and because I saw things differently, having spent ten years ducking and diving on the streets. But two decades ago, my school-leaver peers readily contributed in seminars: they were not backward in coming forward.

In 2004, I helped out on a taster course run by my university for 16-year-olds during the summer break. The seminars were lively, constructive chaos. The uncritical docility that makes so many first-year undergraduates unfit for seminars appears, therefore, to take hold in the last two years of A-level training. It is not the behaviour characteristic of some intrinsic, developmental, late adolescent phase, but of a worksheet mentality induced by cramming in "facts".

My mum used to say it's better out than in, so I resolved not to let other students' reticence bother me. Still, it was hard not to wonder how many were saying nothing because this boorish dinosaur squatting in their midst was stopping them getting a word in edgeways.

I can't bear foot-shuffling, staring-at-the-floor silences, but I need to learn when to shut up and to break the mayhem-causing habit of a lifetime - what my probation officer once referred to as my "dangerously anti-social" tendencies. But it is the lecturer's role to be a facilitator in seminars. In the end, they have to know when to shut people such as me up and give space to others.

The awkward transition from secondary to university education is largely a de-schooling process. Lecturers need to recognise this and put more time, effort and imagination into it. "My door is always open" is a statement flung in the face of reality; essay and personal tutorials should be timetabled and compulsory. "Ice-breaking" strategies, breaking seminars into small groups, altering social dynamics by mixing students' places around the room - these are a few of the well-established techniques that lecturers need to learn, experiment with and apply. At institutional level, universities need to set up peer and co-mentoring programmes. My college, Goldsmiths, University of London, has been experimenting with this for a few years. It also welcomes students who come by the access course route, which is relatively fit for purpose compared with A levels. Although they account for only a small number of students, access students improve universities' cultural and educational mix.

Tackling this problem is worth the trouble. Apart from addressing the personal waste and distress that lack of interaction in seminars causes, it can lead to less embarrassing student retention figures. Of course, all this is a matter of picking up the pieces once A levels have done their worst, but school-leavers need not be intellectually maimed for life.

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