Spotlight on seminars

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?

Tom Cruise’s character in ‘Magnolia’ is a motivational speaker, who is leading a very different kind of seminar to the ones we’re talking about!

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.

In some ways, if you’re coming straight from A Levels, a seminar will look pretty much like the classes you’ve been used to at school. Small-scale, ‘teacher’ asking questions, homework to be done, taking place in a classroom-like environment. You can take some comfort from that, I think. But don’t get lulled into a false sense of security – you’ll be expected to prepare for your seminars in a very different way to how you worked at school, and the tasks you do in a seminar tend to be quite different too, as we’ll see.

What is the difference between a lecture and a seminar?

There are several differences between lectures and seminars, most of which should be obvious the moment you sit down. For one thing, there will be hardly any people in the room compared with a lecture, at least as far as first year modules are concerned. It will depend on the module in question how many people are actually in a seminar. Universities are really concerned about staff-student ratios – it’s one of the things that is considered when the different institutions are ranked alongside each other – so seminar sizes are, by and large, getting smaller. Many universities now cap the number of students in a seminar.

The reason for this obsession with staff-student ratios is linked to the second main difference between lectures and seminars, and it comes down to the role we expect students to play in making the seminar work. The tutor needs to be able to keep an eye on how each student is contributing, reacting and learning, and that gets harder the more bodies – and voices – there are in the room. Obviously, a seminar needs a critical mass of people there to get the discussion going, and to provide a variety of opinion and interpretation, but if there are lots and lots of people, it becomes easier for the wall-flowers to deliberately blend in to the background, for the naturally reticent and diffident to assume someone else will talk for them, and for the self-assured confident types to dominate proceedings. Also, the more people there are in the seminar, the harder it is for the tutor to physically get round to hear people’s contributions. Therefore, universities work really hard to get the balance right – enough people to get the seminar to work, few enough so that everyone gets to speak and be heard.

I’ve talked in earlier posts about the lecture format, and how your job there is to soak up the information provided by the lecturer in a way that allows you to gain more insight into the topic at hand. In a lecture, you’re pretty passive. In a seminar, it’s the complete opposite: you’re active. You will be expected to contribute, through answering questions, contributing to discussion and raising your own questions. The vast majority of talking in seminars is usually done by students rather than the tutor.

This brings us to the final main difference – you’ll be expected to have prepared for a seminar, whereas usually for a lecture, you can just turn up (although I’ve outlined some things you can do to prep for lectures elsewhere). I’d say try just turning up to a seminar unprepared, and see how far it gets you, but really, the feeling of being unable to say anything useful, and getting the sense absolutely everyone in the room knows more than you is just horrid. And more than that, it’s usually pretty damn obvious that you’ve not prepared – you don’t want to be the one who gets the reputation as a slacker. Well, you might, but it’s not going to help you get a good degree, which is what we’re concerned with here on this blog, and what we’re trying to do as your university tutors.

What work will we do in a seminar?

A seminar will usually involve looking at a particular theme and topic in more detail than in a lecture. Sometimes, your lectures will be explicitly linked to your seminars, in other modules, they might be more stand-alone.

A seminar is where ideas get broken down, discussed, and consolidated. It’s a thought-laboratory, in some senses. You will have done some reading on a topic, so will the other people in your seminar group, so will your tutor, and this is where you all bring your ideas together, and see what comes out. One of my colleagues at Exeter recently described this in terms of a concept map:


Seminars are where you get to pool ideas, test things out, listen to other people, get some other perspectives, put forward your own ideas and end up with a better understanding of the subject. I tell students that the seminar is a ‘safe space’ where they can express their ideas without fear of judgement – but they need to be able to explain how they’ve developed those ideas, and be ready to listen to what other people think and take that on board too.

What is expected of me in a seminar?

We’re getting down to the nitty-gritty now. Exactly what’s expected of you will change from module to module, tutor to tutor and in some cases, from specific seminar to specific seminar. There are however a few basic things you’ll be expected to have managed:

  • To turn up
    • Seminar attendance is compulsory for history students at most institutions
    • There will be some occasions when you might not be able to turn up – illness, family emergencies, job interviews later on in your university careers
    • You will need to check to see what the exact criteria are for missing seminars – if you miss more than a couple for any one module, expect to be chased up
      • ALWAYS email your tutor to explain a seminar absence.  Tutors plan work for seminars assuming everyone will be there, so even one or two absentees can throw out their preparations – and consequently the seminar’s clarity for other students will be affected. Tutors will be far more understanding if you’ve bothered to explain the circumstances.
        • I’ll talk more about emailing tutors in a future post – but at this stage, it’s worth saying that you should pay attention to the tone of your email, particularly when you’re emailing to let a tutor know you’re not turning up to one of their classes.
    • Don’t assume because you’ve not gone to the class you don’t need to do the work. Not only will the tutor expect you to have done this just as if you were physically present, but if you don’t make the effort to catch up, you may miss out on some crucial elements that come to be significant when you’re writing essays or preparing for presentations & exams.
  • To have prepared
    • Seminars are where ideas are worked out and discussed. If you’ve not done the preparation, you can’t contribute in a meaningful way to that discussion. Skipping the prep doesn’t just hinder your learning, it hinders everyone else’s too
    • Preparation is more than just doing the reading that’s been set for the seminar, however. You might have been given tasks to prepare for the seminar in question – a mini-presentation, or an investigation into a particular topic – so you’ll be expected to have thought about this. Even if you’ve only been set some reading, you will be expected to have thought about that reading critically.
      • I ask students on my second and third year courses to email me questions and thoughts raised by their seminar prep reading before their seminars. Now of course this means I can check they’re actually doing the reading, which is an attractive element for me, but more than that, it forces students to think critically about the texts they’re reading, rather than just mining them for detail. If there’s something they find really strange or hard or interesting, they can let me know, and I know to spend a bit of time on this in the seminar.
  • To contribute
    • This is closely linked to preparation – there’s limited merit if you do the reading and then just sit there and don’t say anything.
    • Students will contribute in different ways depending on the tasks. Some people like getting to grips with the big questions posed to the whole group – ‘So why did the Reformation happen?’-type things – others prefer small group discussion, and others prefer going through sources and readings in minute detail. Work at getting comfortable at least with as many of these types of contribution as possible.
      • Seminars can be quite intimidating, particularly if you’re shy. I’ll go through some more detailed tips on contributing to seminars in the next post, but as a basic task, if the idea of speaking in seminars fills you with dread, set yourself the target of speaking to the group at least once an hour. It could be answering a factual question, contributing to a list of factors, or referring to a text – nothing necessarily earth-shattering, but something that allows you to get used to speaking to the whole room.
    • Remember, talking the most doesn’t always mean talking the best – tutors are far more impressed with one or two thoughtful, considered interventions by a student than hours of mindless babble.
    • If you’re doing a presentation in a group, one of the things the tutor will be looking for is that you’re all pulling your weight. Don’t let one person dominate, and don’t get pushed into the background.


What about my seminar tutor?

Your seminar tutor might be the same person giving the lectures, on a small course, or it might be someone else entirely, particularly with the big survey-type courses you get in first year. You may be being taught by a graduate student relatively new to teaching – they’re due exactly the same respect and attention you would pay a professor. All seminar tutors take their teaching responsibilities very seriously, as we know the seminar is vital to engaging students and promoting their understanding.

It is always worth finding out what your tutor’s policy is on things like email, what you call them, if you’re allowed to bring food & drink into seminars, using recording equipment etc.

What should I expect of my seminar tutor?

Of course, tutors have different approaches to seminars, but again, some common features are:

  • They’ll turn up & be prepared
  • They’ll have outlined what topic is being covered in that class
    • hopefully, they’ll have told you how this relates to the course as a whole too
    • They’ll have made it clear what you need to do to prepare for that particular seminar
      • Get used to using VLEs to find out what you need to do for seminars
        • Tutors are increasingly turning to these as forums for linking to sources, posting pdfs of chapters and links to articles in electronic journals
        • This isn’t universal though, so you will need to get yourselves to the library too
  • See Claire’s post on reading lists for further advice on understanding what you need to do to prepare for a seminar
  • They give you time to talk through points, raise questions and listen to each other’s views
    • this tends to be the bulk of seminar work
      • my next post will go through practical seminar tips in more detail
      • If you’ve got to do some group work or a presentation, they hopefully will have told you how long you’re expected to talk for, if you need a handout or a PowerPoint etc.
      • They’ll respond to questions and points which come up during the seminar discussions
        • Don’t forget, the  tutor knows what will be coming up in future weeks, so they may not go deep into a topic right away because they know you’ll be covering it in the future
        • If you’re not sure you’ve understood something, stop the tutor and ask. We assume everyone’s happy with what’s been said unless you tell us! Chances are, someone else in the group is silently wondering what the hell’s going on too…

What you should not expect

  • A lecture
  • Complete resolution of all the ideas and questions raised
  • All the answers
  • That tutors will tell you what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
  • That they’ll stop everything to give you one-on-one discussion – if you want to go over something in this fashion, you’ll need to ask if the tutor is willing to meet in an office hour
  • That everyone will agree by the end of the seminar

What do I get out of this approach as a student?

Seminars are vital for your development as a history student. On any given module, they’ll shape your understanding of the topic, and will form the bedrock of your learning. You get a chance to lead discussions, and try out your ideas in a relatively informal setting before you’re asked to present them as an argument in an essay or exam. This may seem intimidating at first, but as you progress through a module, and through your university career, you’ll get more and more used to doing this.

Increasingly, you’ll be asked to take a leadership role within a seminar, either through presentation work or in some places, by actually leading a seminar yourself. But all seminar work allows you to develop a whole range of job-baiting ‘transferable skills’: oral and written communication, negotiation, time management, working with others, displaying leadership skills, producing appropriate supporting materials… I could go on and on…

Your seminars are a place where you get to know your fellow students and your tutors. Because they’re based on student discussion and interaction, you will get to meet people with different approaches, views and backgrounds, and listen to what they have to say. You might not always agree with them, but learning to listen and respond is an invaluable skill.

Final thoughts

Students tend to worry far more about seminars than lectures. Don’t worry if you’re concerned, you’re definitely not alone. Particularly when you start a new module, with a new tutor and new classmates, it can take some time to work out what’s expected – you worry about being shown up as ill-prepared or stupid, you can’t contribute anything meaningful, everyone else is better than you… All natural fears, and ones you can manage with a bit of preparation. In an ideal world, a seminar becomes a place where you can exchange ideas and thoughts without fear of being shot down, where you really get to grips with a topic, where you develop your communication and understanding skills and create some really meaningful friendships. This is what both staff and students really should aim for. Watch this space for more tips next week…


About drskbarker

Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Leeds. Interested in all things early modern, European, news & print-culture and higher ed teaching related.

2 thoughts on “Spotlight on seminars

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