Posted in Intern advice, Written by James

How to Avoid Seminar Sadness

Seminars are the marmite of the university world. You either love them or you hate them. Humanities students will most often have seminars, where you are expected to join a group discussion rather than be taught specific tasks (tutorials) in a taught environment. The seminar leader, which might be a student depending on how your course is set up, is ideally meant to do little at all. The group discussion should simply occur naturally. The tutor is meant to facilitate discussion, rather than participate. But this doesn’t always go to plan. Momentary silence can quickly become awkward, conversation jilted and discussion replaced with frosty looks and stammered points. I’d say the reason this occurs is because often, students aren’t taught how to g about discussing a complex topic or text. We’re thrown in at the deep-end, so naturally we either sink or swim. Thankfully, we at 301 are here to help with some tips about seminars to help you swim the distance!

1. Seminars are Group Work

When you think of group work, you think of large projects, a list of tasks to be divided and booking rooms in the library. Few would think of a seminar. But a seminar is probably the most common group task a humanities student will ever have to face. Except instead of producing a physical piece of work, the project is the fifty minutes of discussion and argument you’re about to have. 301’s seminar on group work and its corresponding materials are fantastic. A group discussion is not just a simple exercise of people speaking and responding. It takes a lot of work to keep that discussion going, to take a point and elevate it, rather than just acknowledge it.

With this in mind, consider taking on some of these roles from the 301 worksheet:

Facilitator Moderates team discussion, keeps the group on task, and distributes work.
Recorder Takes notes summarizing team discussions and decisions, and keeps all necessary records.
Reporter Serves as group spokesperson to the class or instructor, summarizing the group’s activities and/or conclusions.
Timekeeper Keeps the group aware of time constraints and deadlines and makes sure meetings start on time.
Devil’s Advocate Raises counter-arguments and (constructive) objections, introduces alternative explanations and solutions.
Harmonizer Strives to create a harmonious and positive team atmosphere and reach consensus (while allowing a full expression of ideas.)
Prioritizer Makes sure group focuses on most important issues and does not get caught up in details.
Innovator Encourages imagination and contributes new and alternative perspectives and ideas.
Liaison Ensures that systems are in place to ensure that group members can communicate.
Wildcard Assumes the role of any missing member and fills in wherever needed.

Your seminar leader should be the perfect Wildcard, being whatever the group needs to keep discussion going. Mainly, they will be Facilitator, but at times they’ll favour one over the other. You should too! Nobody will always fill these role, and a room full of Devil’s Advocates helps nobody.

You don’t always need to be bringing up fresh points each time you speak. Sometimes it is better to ask a person a question, to deepen the point they’ve made or your understanding of it. Sometimes its good to summarise the points so far and the group’s current conclusions. Other times its best to question the relevancy of a point a person just made. All of these are good. All of these are valuable. Treat your seminars like the group work they are and you will only do better!

2. Everybody makes mistakes

I have known some students, myself included, to say some stupid things in seminars. Everybody froze to try and grapple with what had just been said. And you better believe I remember them. However, don’t let the fear of saying something stupid put you off. Its better to say it here than in an essay, and if you treat these occurrences with good humour, then you can be sure that the laughter will be kind, rather than cruel.

3. Do the reading. No, seriously.

I know, I know. This is simple stuff, but it has to be said once more. In a lecture, the only person seriously hurt by not having done the reading is yourself, as you might not understand some of the points brought up by the lecturer, as they will assume you have already read at least the essential readings. But in a seminar, especially one of eight or ten? Everybody can tell you haven’t read anything. If you’re lucky enough that nobody has done the reading, then we might as well pack up and go home. Your tutor isn’t there to teach you, just facilitate discussion. We can hardly have a productive discussion if nobody has anything to discuss! Do the readings, at least in so far as you can. If you don’t understand something, highlight it! Bring that reading to the seminar. Avoid the embarrassment and awkward silence, while also enriching yourself and your peers! Often the best thing I’ve said in a seminar has been “I don’t understand this”. By the end of the seminar I did, and so did many of my peers to embarrassed to admit they also didn’t understand what we were discussing.

In summary…

There you have it, my three big tips for success in seminars. First, realise seminars are group work and you don’t have to fill only one role. Not every role in a discussion is coming up with new points. Second, don’t let the fact that you might say something stupid hold you back. Its better to speak up and have a laugh in a supportive environment, than still be wrong when you write it down a few weeks later. Third, do your reading, for your sake and that of everybody else! At least as much as to answer the questions.

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We are 301 Academic Skills Centre and we give academic skills advice to our students at the University of Sheffield. We offer workshops and 1:1 appointments.

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