Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand Confucius
There is no doubt that the traditional lecture is under fire, and many would argue that it is with good cause. Outmoded and didactic, the lecture is something of an educational dinosaur, appearing as a format that is contrary to contemporary thought on optimum ways of learning and seemingly undermining many universities’ aspirations when it comes to research-led teaching. But for all the criticism that exists surrounding the lecture format, it persists – why is this the case, and how far do we need to change the traditional lecture to meet the needs of our students in the twenty-first century?
For those of you who have just started at university, the last few weeks have probably been a bit of a whirlwind, and just when you’ve got to a point when you’re settling in, finding your way around your new town or campus and have figured out where the best place is to get a fulfilling (if not particularly nutritious) snack for your post-night out walk home, we expect you to begin doing some work. As a History student, the bulk of your teaching will be done through seminars and as this type of class will form the backbone of your entire degree, getting your head around both how they are meant to function and how you can best prepare for them is crucial.
As Sara pointed out in our last post on what exactly a seminar is, there are really no hard or fast rules and you will come across a wide variety of different styles of seminar teaching during your degree. Some tutors use group work extensively, some will make use of various technologies, some love student presentations, some may be more old school and run each session as a two hour discussion of the major issues; chances are that within each module you will encounter slightly different formats as the tutor tailors what you do to the subject and tries to make sessions remain fresh. However, whatever the style of the seminar, the substance remains the same – we are looking for a willingness to participate, to share your ideas and interpretations, to listen with respect to other people’s contributions and to discuss points of disagreement with consideration for your classmates’ own points of view. Like most things in life, the more you put into your seminars, the more reward you will gain from them – coming to class to sit there and hope that you will be able to make up for your own lack of preparation through the hard work of others, or the knowledge of your tutor is bad form. You mustn’t just sit there lapping up the insights of others, you must be willing to contribute some of your own!
So, term’s getting underway, and hopefully you’re starting to feel a bit settled, if you’re new to university, or are getting back into the swing of things, if you’re an old hand at this. No matter what stage you’re at – fresher or finalist, undergrad or postgrad – you will no doubt be confronted with a seminar at some point in your learning career. This post will explain what a seminar is, and what you should expect from them – and it should be of use to both undergrads and postgrads. In other posts, I’ll look at how you should prepare and contribute to a seminar so that both you and your fellow students benefit.
What is a seminar?
Put all thoughts of business seminars you might have seen in American sit-coms or movies out of your mind. We’re not in motivational-speaker-land here. A university seminar is a small, discussion-based class, made up of a small sub-section of the whole class. There will be a tutor who is there to lead discussion, but students are expected to do most of the talking, because they will have been given preparation work to do for the session. Finally, a seminar typically focuses on a small-ish, discrete section of the course.