Taking Charge: How to Deal with Running a Seminar

After a few weeks away, HE History Hub is back and this week we’re going to be thinking about student-led seminars. With increasing emphasis today being on ensuring that students leave university with a useable skill-set as well as knowledge, chances are that at some point you are going to be asked to run at least part of a seminar. This is can be a really daunting task: you have probably given little thought to what it is that your tutor does to prepare a seminar and now all of a sudden you’re faced with filling a big chunk of time and taking responsibility for leading your classmates through a particular topic, all the while knowing that you’re being judged on how well you do this by both your tutor and your peers. Once the initial panic subsides a little, you’ll find that the best approach is to work systematically through the various stages of what you’re being asked to do and, while this will differ from class to class, what follows should be broadly applicable to most scenarios.

The first thing to remember is that you have a lot of experience of being in the classroom and you should be fairly familiar with what a seminar is and what its purpose is. Secondly, you should have a good idea of what it is that you enjoy doing in seminars: do you like long debates? Do you enjoy doing small group tasks? Are you someone who loves a good presentation? I think most of us would be in agreement that the best seminars are those that have a bit of variety, say where you move from small group tasks to general discussion, perhaps with a presentation, a brief clip from a documentary, or some new source material thrown in. While it might make for an ‘easy’ seminar, listening to your tutor talk for an hour, or having two-hour discussions that are primarily silence, generally does not make for the most rewarding or stimulating intellectual experience. The starting point for running your own bit of the seminar then should be thinking about what a successful seminar should achieve and how a seminar actually works. What you do next will depend on exactly what the parameters of the task are.  At the very least though, you should have a topic which you can take as your starting point – let’s assume for our purposes that that’s all you’ve got.

Finding and Selecting Reading

One of the things that is likely to have been stressed to you time and again is how important it is that you go beyond the reading list and learn how to locate material using your own research skills. Some of you may even have had entire modules that were based on developing the kind of skills that are absolutely vital for carrying out historical research. When faced with running a seminar, you need to put these attributes to good use by carrying out searches of the most pertinent databases, Google Scholar and your own institution’s library catalogue to find material. At the outset you are looking for material for yourself – you cannot decide what to include in your seminar, and how significant a given theme is for the broader topic under consideration, until you have a grasp of the topic. The first stage then is to read broadly around the subject, taking note of recurring themes, issues and debates, and maybe also jotting down the names of those who seem to have been most influential or active in the field. While you’re doing this, you should also be thinking about what your classmates are going to need to know in order to get to grips with the topic: what contextual information do they need to have, what theories or methodologies do they have to be familiar with, and how might this shape what you ask them to read?

Setting the reading will probably be the trickiest part of this whole planning process; you have 3 or 4 pieces of work that you can set that need to provide your comrades with the entire foundation for what you then want them to do and think about in the seminar. It is not an easy task and is something even the most experienced tutor can struggle with, as once you appreciate the complexity of the topic you’re dealing with, and the wealth of literature that you have to select from, you become very aware of what you’re leaving out by setting certain texts and not others. This is to some extent where additional reading recommendations come in, but you can’t build a seminar on the expectation that people will have done any further reading – be honest, how many times have you read more that the key reading for a seminar?! Exactly… The thing you have to bear in mind throughout this whole process is that you cannot hope to cover everything in one seminar and you shouldn’t try to either.

Planning the session

Once you feel like you have a grasp of the broader topic, you can then start thinking about what aspects of that topic you want to focus on and how you want to approach them. This will, of course, be shaped by how long you have to play with – if you only have 20 minutes then you probably only want to address  one theme, if you have an hour, you will have to think about whether you want to do one or two things in that time, and so on. Bear in mind when you’re thinking about what you want to do and how long you want to spend on each task that you’re going to lose at least 5 minutes at the beginning while you set up how the seminar is going to function, 5 minutes at the end to wrap up, and possibly 5-10 minutes in the middle if it’s usual to take a break in your seminars. While it’s a good thing to remember that most people’s concentration levels begin to wane around the 20 minute mark, at the same time you probably don’t want to break down the entire session into 20 minute blocks, as this could end up with a very disjointed seminar where you’re jumping from one topic to another and never really giving people the space to explore things in any detail. Think very carefully about timing and the balance between covering a range of issues and being able to get into the nitty-gritty of the topic you are examining.

What you also need to think carefully about at this stage is where your seminar, or bit of seminar, fits within the broader module: what themes, issues and topics have you already addressed? Do this have any bearing on what you are looking at in this seminar? What material have people already read? What sources have you already used? and so on. Even though you’re focussing on just one session, don’t lose sight of the fact that this is one piece within a bigger whole.

Once you have an idea about what it is you want to address in your seminar, this is when you should make decisions about what it is you want people to read. There is no point picking out your key reading before you’ve got a fixed idea about what it is you want to cover in the session. The same rule applies for primary material – decide your focus first, then pick your sources to match that focus.

So at this stage, you should have a good idea of what you want to cover in the seminar and what you want people to read. Now you need to think about how this is actually going to play out in the classroom. There are three main considerations to make at this stage and they are all interrelated. Firstly, what are the key questions that you want to address in this seminar? You might have only one or two, you may have half a dozen, so how are you going to explore these within the class? Secondly, do you want everyone to read the same material or do you want different people to prepare different things? This can be a good way of covering more ground, but at the same time you need to ensure that people have a common knowledge base so that the issues can be discussed, so this needs to be planned carefully. And finally, what tasks do you want to use within your seminar and how might this relate to what you ask people to prepare?

As I’m sure you know, there are many things that you can do in a seminar. With the whole group you can do quizzes, debates, general discussions, presentations and the like. In small groups, you can ask people to prepare certain material in advance, to focus on a specific question in their discussion, draw mind-maps, produce posters. You can start people off discussing a question in a pair and then after 5 minutes ask them to join with another pair, continuing until you have the whole group discussing the issue at hand – a technique called snowballing. You can ask people to take a particular position, to put themselves in the place of a specific person and respond to questions as that person, to deconstruct and critique a piece of secondary reading or to discuss a key primary text in detail. And so on. The point I’m trying to make is that there are many ways in which you can ask people to engage with the material but you must consider the fact that some ways are going to be more useful and applicable than others. Is a quiz really the best way of getting to the heart of whatever issue it is that you’re exploring? Yes it’s fun, but is it academically worthwhile? What about presentations – do you want to stand up and talk at your classmates for 20 minutes or would it be more beneficial for them to discuss the topic instead? A general discussion can be great, but is there enough meat to the topic to sustain debate for 30 minutes, or would 15 minutes suffice?

This is why you need to think about the key questions, the tasks and the preparation you ask people to do at the same time. If you want to have a debate where half the class takes one side and half the other, you must tell them in advance so that they can incorporate that into how they prepare for the class. If you want people to prepare a variety of primary documents, then you need to make that clear, particularly if you then expect them to talk about their findings to the rest of the group. These seem like very obvious points to make, but can easily be overlooked. Don’t forget that the other students are not privy to the master plan taking shape in your head – you need to make what is expected of them very clear and do so in good time.

One serious consideration that you have to make within your planning stage is that of accessibility. You must ensure that the tasks you set are suitable for the entire class, regardless of disability, age, ethnicity etc. Are there people with mobility difficulties, is anyone in the class visually impaired or deaf, and how might this influence the activities you ask the class to do? Bear in mind that some people in the group may suffer from conditions such as dyslexia, which can make reading large amounts of text in a short space of time difficult and very stressful. If you’re going to spring new material on the class in the seminar, you must ensure that everyone is going to be able to process that material by keeping it short, and by allowing sufficient time for people to read through what you’ve given them. Your tutor should be able to give you more guidance on this but accessibility is something that you must bear in mind throughout this whole process.

You can tweak this and come up with something that best suits what you’re being asked to do, and that contains enough information to put you at ease, but at this end of this process, I would aim for having a plan that is something along these lines:


Running the session

As fraught as the planning process might have been, the moment when you actually take charge of the seminar is probably the part that you will fear the most. And well it might, because however hard you’ve worked, however much thought you’ve put into the plan, and however prepared you might feel, the success of the seminar is largely in the hands of your classmates, not yourself. Welcome to the scary world of being a tutor! Every time your tutor steps into the seminar room, there is an awareness that how good the seminar ends up being is predominantly shaped by how prepared the group is and how willing they are to engage with what you’re asking them to do. As you will know, your own level of preparation for a class can depend on a whole host of things, from how interested you are in the topic, to what books were available in the library, to what other deadlines are looming, to whether you were out on the lash until 3 am the morning of the seminar. Now times that by twelve and you have your average seminar group!

I’m not saying these things to scare you witless; I’m saying them because there is a chance that your seminar will not go entirely as you’d hoped, and you may feel a little despondent that all that hard work and preparation has not achieved what you wanted it to. Firstly, don’t worry – trust me when I say, we have all been there! Secondly, your tutor will be able to tell from your supporting material – handouts, PowerPoint, reading lists etc. – as well as how you conduct the seminar, just how prepared you were and will undoubtedly take this into consideration when marking your work. All you can do is be as prepared as you possibly can be when you step into the room; what happens after this is largely up to your colleagues. This is something you should definitely bear in mind when it’s your turn to be on the receiving end of this kind of task, and is maybe something that you should consider when deciding how much effort to put in to your seminar prep more generally.

In terms of actually running the session, again you have a whole wealth of experience to draw from, both in terms of being a student and from thinking about what you’ve seen tutors do in other classes. Personally, I never pick on individuals to answer a question because I hated it happening to me when I was a student, but I have colleagues who use this very effective technique as a way of getting someone who has said nothing all seminar to contribute. Think about what you’ve experienced, what you feel works well, what you really dislike, and let that shape how you conduct your session.

Here are some general things to bear in mind:

  • Be sure to give clear instructions – are you wanting people to discuss in pairs, is it a general discussion, how long are you giving people to do what you’ve asked them – all these kinds of parameters need to be made clear at the start of the task. Don’t assume that people are automatically going to understand what you’re asking of them!
  • Try and limit the amount of oral instruction you give. If you are asking people to address multiple issues or questions, it is far better to do this in text rather than just telling them. Include questions on the top of any handout, put them on a PowerPoint slide, write them on a board, etc. You should also bear in mind accessibility issues in that some members of the group may require written rather than oral instruction.
  • Think about how you use documents carefully. You need to ensure that you give people sufficient time to read and process what is in front of them. Try and limit the amount of text you spring on people. If you want people to read quite a bit, you will need to circulate this beforehand, or split the reading between members of the group. Again, there is an accessibility issue here that needs to be taken into consideration.
  • Think about the questions that you ask. If you are asking questions based on a document, make sure you tie it to the document. You can use that document as a springboard into broader debates and issues, but it should at least be your starting point.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. When you ask a question, you must give people time to process what you’ve asked. Don’t feel the need to answer the question that you’ve asked immediately. If no response is forthcoming, try rephrasing the question or coming at the issue from a slightly different angle – it could be that people haven’t quite grasped what you were wanting to get at.
  • Bear in mind that with regards context of a particular source or event, people in the class may not have the same level of information that you, as the person who has done the research, have. Make sure that if you are asking factual-based questions that they are answerable based on what people have been expected to read. Obviously for more conceptual or comparative issues, then it is perfectly acceptable (and indeed desirable) to ask people to try and think beyond the reading.
  • Try not to be too constrained by your grand plan; sometimes a task will be over quicker than you imagined, sometimes the group may have a lot to say on something unexpected. Try and allow the seminar to function as organically as you can – if you are having an engaging and fruitful discussion don’t be afraid to let it run on, even if it means ultimately that you may have to drop a task, or a document further down the line. Clearly there is a balance to be struck here but don’t worry about making last minute changes to your schedule to account for these things which are unforeseeable.
  • On the flip side of this, have a contingency. If the discussion is faltering, be sure to have additional questions you can throw into the mix rather than trying to come up with questions on the hoof. You might want to go so far as to have another related source to give people prepared in case you are moving through your planned tasks too quickly.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. If someone asks you a question, it’s better to say you don’t know the answer than to babble on – no one is expecting you to be an authority on the topic. You can always ask the rest of the group to see whether they have any opinions on the matter.
  • Remember that conclusions aren’t just for the end of seminars. Every time you move from one topic or task to another, you should try and summarise the discussion, perhaps raise further questions for people to ponder on, and make the connection between what you’ve just done and what you’re going to look at next.


Learning from the experience

Believe it or not, we don’t ask students to run seminars because we’re sadists or just fancy a week off. There are very good pedagogical reasons why we assess you in this manner and there are also valuable skills that you acquire that look good on a CV. Tasks such as these are great for honing your research skills; for thinking about time management; for learning how to prioritise and for determining what is most important; for learning to approach things creatively and to take the needs of others into account; and for sharpening those all-important communication and presentation skills. Try and think throughout this whole process about what you are learning from each step in your preparation towards delivering the final product, something that is particularly important if there is a reflective element to the task on which you’re assessed.

So to summarise:



2 thoughts on “Taking Charge: How to Deal with Running a Seminar

  1. Wow this was great, and very helpful advice! Still, all this prep and care and most only get paid for the hours they teach.

    All that prep doesn’t help though if your students don’t do the readings!!!

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