How to... get a seminar group to sizzle

October 27, 2000

WHAT : Tutors often find it an uphill struggle to get students to open up in group debate about their studies and ideas

WHY : Kate Exley argues that getting students to help set the ground rules can ease tension and nerves

HOW : Seminars are a regular feature of most courses. But why have them? The idea is to give students the opportunity to discuss their work with tutors and peers. Seminars should also encourage students to extend their knowledge through further reading and research, and apply their understanding to problems, case studies and novel situations.

Although the theory is that students can hone their academic and communication skills, tutors often find it an uphill struggle to turn this into practice. Students may seem unwilling to do the necessary preparation or be reticent about contributing to the discussion. They therefore gain little.

Providing clear ground rules may help to establish a more productive atmosphere. What are the expectations of those taking part? Involving students in drawing up and agreeing their own ground rules can be a very effective method of including everyone from the outset. It also encourages students to take more responsibility for the seminars.

At the University of Nottingham history students agree on how their seminars will operate during the first session. They assign roles for each other and determine how the seminars should run.

They include statements such as "Everyone will be expected to contribute to each seminar" and "Nobody should dominate the discussion (including the tutor)."

A pair of students takes the responsibility for each seminar, they assign pre-reading tasks to their peers, they present important findings and then orchestrate the ensuing discussion. The tutor helps the "leaders" to underline key points.

Quick tests and quizzes can also motivate the students to do their preparatory work. A colleague in physics and astronomy at University College London described to me how she starts her sessions with a test on the pre-set work.

These questions are then marked by another student in the group so the students find out how well they understand the topic. The tutor then collects in the anonymous answer sheets to help her gauge how well the class is getting to grips with the work.

Alternatively, a quick multiple choice or true/false test at the end of a seminar can also act as a useful method of summarising the session.

Depending on the seminar topic it may be possible to use teaching techniques that involve the group in generating lots of ideas. For example, brainstorming can be used to begin a discussion.

Writing a topic on the board and asking the students what springs to mind can be a lively way of generating a wide range of views and ideas. Work then needs to be done to turn quantity into quality by analysing and reviewing the list of points.

Passing one pen around the group of students means that all must contribute. You could also bring a range of articles or specimens to the seminar and the students have to select one and explain what they know about it or how it works - this can work really well in subjects as diverse as archaeology, geography and anatomy.

Many tutors encourage their students to develop presentation skills in their seminar courses. A standard format would be that the students select a topic to talk about from a list provided by the tutor. These may be grouped into themes and two or three students would present their related topics in one seminar, or they may be independent and a student would kick off the seminar, which would then be opened up for general discussion.

Students gain much from this experience, both in the increased level of understanding of the topic itself and also from the skills gained from presenting to their tutor and peers.

However, the student audience may not gain as much, perhaps valuing a presentation from a peer less than a talk given by their tutor. The inexperience of the presenter may also make it more difficult to follow the talk. Because of these concerns, a number of tutors are looking at ways in which the audience can be formally involved in the process of the student-led seminar.

For example, a pair of students may be asked to lead on a topic. One student being given the traditional role of presenter and the second given the role of facilitator. The facilitator has the responsibility of triggering discussion and involving their "audience". They may choose to set up a debate about a contentious issue, ask their peers to vote on points or set them particular tasks to do, eg analyse a poem, do a calculation or apply a methodology. A different approach uses assessment to reward contributions made by the audience.

For example, the audience may be asked to write down a question that they would like to ask the presenter(s) and they receive marks from the tutor or the presenters on the quality of their questions. The marks awarded do not need to feed into the formal assessment of the course but could be used purely for formative purposes.

The same may be said for assessment of the presenter. It may be useful to involve the audience in formatively assessing their colleagues' presentation skills. This not only provides a method for giving feedback to the presenting student but it is also a fantastic learning tool for those doing the assessing.

Making judgements about the quality of a presentation using assessment criteria and being able to give constructive and sensitive feedback to a peer are very useful skills to develop.

The seminar group could well have been involved in drawing up their own set of assessment criteria before anyone gives their talk. This activity is also likely to lead to a greater awareness of what is good practice in presenting work, for example, the importance of having a clear and visible structure that includes a brief summary or conclusion.

Kate Exley is on a career break from the University of Nottingham where she is staff development officer.


The methods used in student-led seminars can be further developed in peer tutoring and tutorless seminars. An investigation into improving student learning was carried out at the University of Bergen, Norway, in the early 1990s.

Additional training was provided for students at the end of their first year, either in the form of a tutored revision programme or membership of a study group led by a second-year student.

Both sets were assessed at the end of the year through an unseen written examination together with a third group of "non-participating" students who were not given any additional training.

The difference between the two training regimes was remarkable. The lecturer-led programme produced only marginal improvements in examination performance, whereas the study group set not only had far fewer students failing the examination (6.5 per cent failed compared with 23 per cent in the non-participating group) but also the number of "very good" marks rose to 48 per cent compared with 26 per cent in the non-participating group.

A number of courses now use tutorless groups to enhance learning and to provide additional student support. At the University of Nottingham, the postgraduate certificate in academic practice makes use of "base groups" to provide a learning forum for a work-based module. The base group has six to eight members who meet twice with a tutor to agree how they will complete the tasks necessary for the course.

The group then carries out those tasks independently. Most groups choose to meet regularly, finding the support and academic stimulation very rewarding, while a few groups meet less often, preferring to communicate between meetings using email discussion lists.

Not being present at some of the seminar sessions does not mean that the tutor is abdicating responsibility for helping students to learn. Indeed, it is very important that tutorless sessions are as rigorous in their requirement for having clear learning outcomes as any other seminar.

To this end, many tutors have used a "learning contract" or "learning agreement" approach to establish how tutorless sessions will run and the roles and responsibilities of all taking part.

A key feature of many of these agreements is the ability of the students to negotiate how they will work together within a clearly determined framework, dictating the scope and level of the work, that has been pre-set by the tutor.

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