Striking a Balance in Seminars

So What’s My Beef?

Since I began my undergraduate degree back in 2000, students, professors, and teaching assistants have collectively decried the rising size of seminars – alternatively known as tutorials or conferences, depending on the institution. These people disagree on what that magical, ideal number of participants is; a perfect moderator-to-student ratio seems to exist as an ideal type (if not a reality), and it inspires hope that the right balance will facilitate the perfect salon-style conversation. Regardless of what that sought-after ratio is, I think everyone would be comfortable saying that 20+ students when there is only one moderator is not it. Unfortunately, the problem of increased class size (seminars included) refuses to go away, and so I’ve had to come up with strategies for dealing with it instead of just venting my spleen to whoever will listen. Don’t get me wrong, dear reader, as this blog continues I will demonstrate a marked tendency towards vocalizing my displeasure about various systemic issues. However, I’m also a firm believer in picking your battles, and I’ve decided that this is just one of those fights that I’m not going to win.

I’ve now taught a variety of seminars, none of which have ever dipped below the 20-student mark. This has proven exceptionally challenging on a number of levels, because as a good friend of mine likes to point out: “It’s easy to teach a seminar, but is really freak’n hard to teach a seminar well.” This statement is not just true in terms of preparation time. It also applies to meeting each and every one of those 20+ students at the level at which they are capable of engaging. This essentially means that you turn yourself into a pretzel trying to accommodate students with special needs, senior students vs. junior students, and those who have a background in the subject material vs. those who don’t.

Problem 1: The Quiet Kids

This is even more of a hurdle for me than for many of my colleagues because I emphasize seminar participation, weighting it anywhere from 20-30% of the value of a student’s overall grade in the course, depending on the course in question. This means that those students with anxiety about speaking in public feel disadvantaged by my courses. I have two thoughts about this. Firstly, I refuse to change the weighting because I really and sincerely think it’s important for students to engage with both primary and secondary readings in a conversational setting – to be able to work through problems in a group, and learn to offer half-baked thoughts up to the group for criticism and improvement. Second, I also fundamentally believe that one student’s anxiety about public speaking is no more or less important than another student’s exam anxiety. So what do you do?  Even if you offer supplementary written work, the students seem disinclined to take this offer seriously, and by evaluation time, everyone is tired and disenchanted.

Problem 2: The Readings

In all likelihood, your seminar is either 50 minutes, 110 minutes, or 3 hours. The more time you have, the more material you get to cover, right? Except these are undergraduates! They’re all taking 5 courses. How are you going to get them to read enough material to keep conversation going, especially for those 3-hour senior seminars? How about to contextualize the topic at hand significantly enough that novices can engage with it critically while experienced students don’t get bored?  Even more problematic, how are you going to get those first years to read enough material to keep them busy for a 1.5 Thursday tutorial? If you don’t strike the balance just right, everyone in the room ends up hating their lives.

Problem 3: Balancing Discussion 

For each one of those quiet kids, you are likely to have another who is extremely eager and will dominate the discussion if not reminded that there are other students in the room (Confession time: I used to be this student, so I sympathize, I really do). So the last question is, then, how do you make sure that the eager students and the shy students get equal time in the spotlight and that no one feels either pressured or left out? The only way to describe this problem is as some sort of elaborate balancing act, and it’s matched in difficulty only by the question of how to balance time between documents. Personally, I always assign at least 1 secondary source (for students to start to think critically about scholarly methodologies and develop preferences that they can then apply to their own analytic work) and several primary sources (so that students can meet the past without a filter). Some prefer the former and hate the latter, while some are the opposite, and the rest – well, they’re those people that have already started to hate their lives. On top of all this, you still have to worry about how to cope with the reality that at least of few of those students aren’t going to do the readings at all.

So What Have I Been Doing About All This?

First of all, 9 times out of 10, I have found less reading is better. If you reduce the page numbers by choosing your readings more strategically, and you choose readings that are both illuminating and engaging, your odds immediately improve. This year I have therefore elected for roughly 50 pages of reading per seminar in my Modern Europe survey (in which there were 150 students in winter term). At my institution, we don’t have the resources to run seminars weekly, so I also space them 2 weeks apart so that students have more than enough time to do the readings. If the course in question is a full-fledged seminar, with no lecture component, then I raise the bar while still trying to keep it reasonable for their level. I try not to go over about 90 pages for 200-levels, 110 for 300-levels, and 150-200 pages for 400-levels. This has paid off, and in every case I have had students tell me that – much to their own surprise – they have done and enjoyed the readings for my course.

Managing time and student interactions without crushing the discussion has proved more difficult, but I think I’m finally starting to make some progress. The first step was organization. Sadly, I learned quickly and painfully that I couldn’t just go in there and completely let discussion guide itself. Sometimes this happens, but you have to be prepared for low-energy days, student confusion about the meaning of documents, and any number of other speed bumps in the seminar process. So I now always build a complete set of questions that cover all the salient points in the documents, just in case. If you do have to use these, the trick seems to be moving in the right order. Depending on the document set, this means going from broad thematic questions, to more detail-specific issues, or vice-versa.

Most effective, however, has been a shift to small-group activities, even within already-reduced seminar setting. At 20+ students, I have found this absolutely indispensable as a model. And it has the merit of naturally balancing out shy students and overly-active participants since students tend to self-regulate better when they’re talking in groups of less than five. I try to repeat my activities as infrequently as possible, although I have a few staples I like to go back to. Two particularly effective ones are debates, and group leadership of discussion. Debates require a team-leader to moderate who on each team gets to speak and when. This can be useful either to keep the over-zealous in check, or to provide a structured leadership role to shy students who want to practice working with the group. Debates do require giving students roughly 20 minutes of class time to prepare as a group, and they also tend to look absolutely absurd to the outside observer. That said, students consistently tell me it is their favourite part of the seminar. Group leadership of discussion is my favourite though. Here, I break students into as many groups as there are documents. Instead of asking them to become “specialists” in the document, who the group can touch-base with if discussion falters (another standard tactic), I ask them to generate the questions they think should be asked of their peers in order to properly understand the source material. This forces them to think even more critically than normal, because they have to work backwards and start thinking about how to get their peers thinking as well.

Finally, I also give out mid-point feedback on how students are doing in conferences. This consists not just of a tentative grade, but of a paragraph explaining how they’re doing and how they can improve. It’s a way of warning those super shy students that they do need to either participate more or do some written work (and they do tend to come out of the woodwork once they get this evaluation) and of gently reminding keen students that they need to leave space for their peers. It’s also a great place to reiterate what defines quality participation and to demonstrate to students that you do indeed take seminar participation seriously enough to justify assigning a weighty participation mark. This seems to be the most important part from the student perspective, and there is often a direct correlation between how much effort and care I put into a seminar, and how much my students take away from it. My friend is right. Unfortunately, you really can’t mess about. Seminars are fickle creatures at the best of times, so it’s best to give them your full attention.

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One thought on “Striking a Balance in Seminars

  1. Pingback: Preparing Students for Seminars | Ph.D.s and Pedagogy

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