What are seminars really like?

Seminars provide an opportunity to explore topics by discussion, and to identify and resolve any questions that may arise after lectures.  This section will look at how to prepare for a seminar, and what to expect from one.

Background

What is a seminar?

A seminar is generally a small group meeting that often happens after a lecture.  During a seminar, students and a tutor discuss a particular topic. This may be directly linked to the theme of the lecture, or might be a related topic which the tutor introduces as a means of broadening the students’ knowledge.

During 2020/21, some seminars will be held in- person, in the larger teaching spaces.

This room was a large lecture space for 150 students, but has been modified to allow for social distancing and now holds 33.

Who does what?

Often the tutor will give the students a topic or reading to prepare in advance of the seminar.  To get the most out of the experience, you should take the opportunity to do some research or read the required text, and you should be prepared to contribute in some way to the discussion.

Many students find speaking in front of a group and voicing their opinions uncomfortable, particularly early on in their studies; if you have told the university about your autism, the tutor should be aware and may be able to make reasonable adjustments – for example, perhaps you could produce a PowerPoint to show your research, instead of speaking directly to the group.

The tutor’s role is generally not to lecture during a seminar, but rather to encourage and facilitate further discussion.

Why are seminars important?

Seminars allow you to:

  • Explore topics in greater depth
  • Learn from other people
  • Share ideas
  • Gain different perspectives and  points of view
  • Clarify any misunderstandings
  • Explore the language, vocabulary and ‘jargon’ of the course
  • Practice debate and turn-taking in conversations
  • Collectively advance your level of thinking through an effective combination of independent reading and group discussion

How could this affect me?

Seminars can be quite open and unpredictable in their outcomes. Although the tutor may have an agenda, it is not necessarily clear from the beginning where the conversation leads to. This can be unsettling as you may ask yourself “what’s the point?”

One important aspect of attending a seminar is realising that other students may be experiencing the same worries and difficulties as you.  Often this is helpful, as it can put your own worries into perspective, and understand others’ reactions.

You may also be mixing with students from other disciplines during the seminar;  you may realise from the other students’ experiences, that there are many different ways to approach a topic; how one student researches a topic will be completely different to another.  All of these different approaches are what make your own learning experience richer and fuller.

By participating in the seminars, you will develop skills that are not only useful at university, but also later in the workplace; these skills are often called ‘transferrable skills’:

  • Listening
  • Negotiation
  • Leadership
  • Teamwork
  • Oral communication
  • Turn-taking – when to say something and when to stop
  • Taking responsibility
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Time management
  • Developing an argument
  • Collaborating with people from different backgrounds
  • Dealing with conflicting opinions
  • Producing and using visual aids

What to do next?

Take advantage of seminar opportunities as they offer a chance to really deepen your insight on a topic.

Practical tips

  • Make sure that you are aware of which seminar group you are in
  • Check your timetable and be aware of when and where your seminars are (the sessions may not be every week, and may fall on different days)
  • Familiarise yourself with the seminar room, e.g. you could spend some time there before the seminar (when it is not in use)
  • If you are one of the first people into the room, you can choose where to sit – you might like to sit on the end of a row near the aisle so you can get out quickly if you need to leave.
  • If you have time, go to the loo first! It sounds obvious and embarrassing, but you don’t want to be thinking about it throughout the session or having to run out at the end.
  • Make sure that you have copies of any required readings or research, well in advance of the seminar
  • Listen to the other students’ ideas and opinions
  • If you feel you would be unable to verbally take part in the seminar session, speak to the tutor well in advance, and see if they can suggest a reasonable adjustment such as presenting your research as a PowerPoint presentation
  • Follow up any interesting new ideas from the seminar, by doing independent research

Questions to think about

  • What do I need to do to prepare for the seminar?
  • Are the reading materials available online?
  • Do I know where I have to be and when I have to be there?
  • Can I present my research in a visual format? – PowerPoint, Mindmap etc?
  • Do I know who else is in my seminar group, in case I need to check any details beforehand?
  • Is my tutor aware of my autism; do I need to let them know?

Additional information and links

There is more useful information on seminars on the Glasgow Caledonian University website:
http://www.gcu.ac.uk/media/gcalwebv2/gculead/content/PDF%20Practical%20seminar%20tips.pdf

About the author

This article was written by Jackie Hagan, Learning Support Coordinator at the University for the Creative Arts at Rochester, and further developed by Tash Hobbs, Student Disability Supportworker Co-ordinator at the University of Bath