A few things have prompted me to write this post. I’m putting together some new module outlines, and I’ve been thinking about how to assess these. I’ve also spoken to several students about their experiences of group work recently, both as part of the official feedback process and in general conversation. And I talk regularly with my colleagues about how teaching is going. These situations typically prompt me, and my colleagues, to reflect upon our practice, but also how we communicate that practice to our students – in other words, do we make it clear why we ask you to do the things we want you to do? Ideally we should, but there’s a big difference between listing some bullet points in a module template’s ILOs (Intended Learning Outcomes) and really explaining to students how the different parts of their studies all fit together. That’s one of the reasons we started this blog – to de-mystify the process a bit.
What really got me to my computer though was finding out what students think about their studies when they’re talking to each other and not to a tutor. It’s Sabbatical Election time on campus at the moment – there are posters and slogans and people in colourful costumes all over the place! Over the weekend, I was reading about some of the policies suggested by candidates for the Vice President Education sabbatical post (their debate was helpfully recapped on Twitter and then written up by the Exeter student paper Exposé.) I have the utmost respect for students who are engaged and driven enough to stand for election to these demanding posts, they play a crucial role in shaping how universities work, and I think even more students should get engaged with the process – if only through the simple act of voting! And I was impressed with many of the ideas and policies proposed by the various candidates. Several of the candidates brought up group work when outlining their policies, in particular ensuring that the marks awarded for group work were fair. The general point being made was that students should be rewarded for the work they, individually, put in. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
It did get me thinking, however, about how tutors are explaining group work to students, if it is mainly seen as leading to a grade based on hours of work done individually. The balance between the individual and the group is a tricky one to navigate, but group work is about much more than grades, and if tutors are not getting that across, then that worries me a bit.
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.
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.
So far on HEHistoryHub, we’ve focused mainly on undergraduate history students, freshers in particular. But they’re not the only ones starting out on degrees at this time of year, of course. Universities also welcome their new postgraduate students at this time of year – those doing taught degrees (Masters, or MLitts if you’re in Scotland) as well as those doing research degrees. Studying at postgraduate level throws up a whole new set of challenges, so we’ll be looking at studying history at postgraduate level on HEHistoryHub too. Today, I’d just like to go over some of the main differences between undergraduate degrees and masters degrees, in particular the things that seem to throw new MA students for a bit of a loop.
As the wise man Forrest Gump once stated ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get’ and as it is with life, so it is with reading lists.
Now in an ideal world, exactly what you need to read for each seminar would be clearly marked, possibly even rated so that you know what is key, what is recommended and what is there in case you happen to be awake at 3.47 the morning before class and can’t get back to sleep. Chances are that when you open your reading list at the start of the semester this is not what you’re going to find, because as we pointed out to you in our post on lectures, the thing you have to keep in mind is that all tutors will do things slightly differently, and probably have slightly different expectations of what they require from you in return.
At the very least a tutor will expect you to come to class having read a sample of the material that is available, to have thought about it (not just copied out chunks of it) and to be prepared to share your thoughts on the issues that were raised by what you read – these could be questions, problems, links between concepts, things that seem to contradict each other, what we can learn about the same topic by using a different source base and so on. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this issue of how to prepare for your seminars another time. What we want to see from you in a seminar is that you have gained sufficient knowledge to be able to engage with the ideas that are central to the topic that is being discussed, and the gateway to obtaining this knowledge is your reading list.