How Do Seminars Fit into Your Academic Life
Seminars can serve different purposes. In some postgraduate courses, all the teaching can be done by seminars, usually because the group size is relatively small, perhaps less than 25 people. However, the functions and procedures are different from that of a lecture. Seminar types fall into two basic categories with the following functions; you can have both types during your course:
Follow-up seminars: These seminars cover and reinforce the core information from a lecture series. Those who attended the lectures are divided up into smaller groups so that:
Important points can be reviewed and more detailed examples given or worked out – for instance, specific examples from economic history.
Points raised in the lecture can be extended or linked to other areas of work.
Students’ understanding of the main features of the lecture can be checked and more explanation given where necessary – so you can raise points you’re not sure about.
Students can argue with some of the claims of the lecture if they seem illogical.
A follow-up seminar gives you a great opportunity to check your understanding, ask questions and discuss the issues raised in the lecture. Any questions you didn’t manage to ask at the end of the lecture can be raised here, though the seminar may not be taken by the same tutor.
It’s even more important that you ‘make your mark’ by asking a question, commenting and so forth to show you’ve prepared and to confirm your existence.
Small-group teaching seminars: Seminars can be the vehicle for giving new information to smaller groups of students, especially postgraduates. Because the number of students is small, seminars allow teaching and learning to be more collaborative.
Undergraduates may also have small group teaching seminars if they can choose a special topic to study or a project to work on, for which the lecture format is not suitable.
In small-group learning, the responsibility for teaching and learning is often shared. Students may choose, or be allocated, topics to research and present to the rest of the group, while the tutor works with part of the group and checks, explains and extends what the students present.
Usually about half the group devotes itself to the presentation of the topic and the rest to discussion and input from the tutor. In the early part of courses, the tutor often does the presentation until the timetable for the input from the students has been arranged.
Although it can be quite scary, volunteer to give your presentation early on, because:
You get brownie points for doing so and the tutor always looks favourably on the person who goes first.
It gets the ordeal over with and stops it hanging over your head.
Work-in-progress seminars: These are for both undergraduate and postgraduate students to report back on their project work to date and get feedback and suggestions, especially from their fellow students. Doctoral students may get few chances to meet with other students, so work-in-progress seminars are particularly important for them to network and make contacts.
Work-in-progress seminars are great in helping you get an idea of how you are doing with your own project through seeing what others are doing. You can get and make suggestions, consider new methods and approaches and practise defending your ideas and answering questions in a safe and friendly atmosphere.
Undergraduates as well as postgraduates can have oral interviews to complete their degree requirements, so work-in-progress seminars give good practice in explaining your ideas.
If your group organises work-in-progress seminars, it is important to attend as well as present your ideas and make sure everyone has an audience. If the subject is not one you are interested in, the methods might be useful and you can always learn about the problems of answering awkward questions.
Workshop seminars: Workshop seminars (usually just called workshops) have a particular purpose or problem to consider and everyone is involved. Numbers can be as high as 30 participants, but the chair usually divides the group into smaller groups of four to seven students, with each group considering a particular aspect of a problem.
The aim is to find a solution that is acceptable to everyone at the end of the time allocated – which may be to have another workshop to debate a new problem which has cropped up!
Workshop seminars are good for practising lateral thinking skills or bouncing ideas off the wall. If you become involved, for example, in starting up projects, getting ideas for work placements or any student feedback forums to improve teaching or facilities, then the workshop format may be useful to you as well. Workshops are about which things to do and how to do them, so are not limited to academic subjects.