4 Organising seminars

This section deals with five aspects of seminar organisation:

  • developing mutual understanding;
  • encouraging students to prepare for seminars;
  • presenting in a seminar format;
  • choosing whether students work individually, in small groups or as a whole group;
  • working with colleagues in a team.

4.1 Developing mutual understanding

The quality of learning in a seminar programme depends, among other things, on the quality of the relationships between the seminar leader and the students. Successful seminars are usually relaxed, interactive and inclusive. In part, a good relationship is built on the confidence that students have in the seminar leader. This confidence is influenced by the quality of the seminar leader’s preparation, organisation and promptness. The quality of the interaction in the seminar will depend on how well the students understand why the seminar is organised in a particular way. It also makes sense to put time and effort into getting to know the students, even though the module may only last a semester. Students who believe that the seminar leader is genuinely interested in them will treat guidance they receive in a much more serious manner. It is also worth spending time helping students to work together, as this will be important to the success of small-group activities during the seminar programme.

Each group of students has a particular dynamic and an activity that works very well with one group may not work at all with another. Thus, an important objective in the first few weeks of any seminar programme is to find out what works best with any particular group. It is advisable to make the planning for the first few sessions fairly flexible in order to provide scope for adjustments according to the character of the group.

4.2 Encouraging students to prepare for seminars

Arguably, students who attend and participate in seminars on average perform significantly better than those who do not. So how can students be encouraged to prepare and attend, and what can be done when students arrive without preparation? It is more likely that students will attend and prepare if they are clear about the purpose of the seminars and if seminars offer opportunities that are not available elsewhere. These conditions may be met if the assessment demands are clarified through the seminars and if students are sure that they will get useful feedback on their work in seminars.

Nevertheless, the impact of these tactics on some students will be marginal and this has led some lecturers to make attendance and preparation integral to the assessment of the module. For example, passing a module could be made conditional on the achievement of at least a minimum level of attendance. This practice is almost impossible to justify, however, when a student demonstrates that they are quite capable of achieving at least a pass standard even though their attendance has been below the acceptable minimum. It is more feasible to make attendance and preparation integral to the assessment process. For example, students could be required to make brief notes on topics that are the focus of five seminars in a series. Each student could be required to make a short presentation on the basis of their preparation on one of the five occasions. All students in the group could then be required to submit a portfolio of work that includes their preparation notes and a critical commentary on the brief presentations by other students.

Seminar leaders also face a difficult situation when some students have prepared for a seminar whilst others have not. In these circumstances it is critical that students who have prepared for the seminar are rewarded. If it is not obvious to students that there are benefits to preparation then the incentives to prepare are weak. A natural way to reward students who have prepared is for the seminar leader to devote the majority of their time to providing useful feedback to those students. This may be more easily accomplished on an individual or small-group basis whilst students are working on a set of problems. Examples of preparation tasks for economics seminars include the following:

  • Requiring students to complete a specified reading and prepare two relevant questions to contribute to a small-group discussion during the seminar.
  • Requiring students to find a relevant newspaper or magazine article that illustrates the application of an economic concept presented in the lecture. Students then present their article to the other students in their small group. This helps students to understand the application of economic concepts to a variety of real world issues.
  • Requiring students to design and solve a quantitative problem related to a topic covered in the lecture. Each student brings a question (and solution) of their own devising to the seminar, where it is used as part of the seminar activity. They are organised into small groups, pool their questions and solve them. Where students have trouble with a particular problem, the student who designed that question is able to provide further explanation. This exercise is very useful because a student’s understanding of a topic tends to be enhanced when they are required to teach the concept to others.

Alternatively, the seminar leader could devote their initial time to those who have not prepared, getting them properly acquainted with the ideas and information they should have considered in their preparation. During this time the students who have prepared can proceed straight to the seminar tasks. However, this procedure effectively rewards those who have not prepared rather than those who have, and this is inherently problematic.

4.3 Presenting in a seminar format

A seminar leader is likely to spend a certain amount of time presenting to students, and the qualities pertinent to good lecturing (see the chapter on lectures in this book) are equally relevant here. In seminars, the time spent in presentation should be short and there should be an emphasis on enabling considerable interaction between the seminar leader and the students. This provides the focus for this section.

The board or an overhead projector (OHP) can be used to help students to keep track of the session and this may be done in two ways. First, an outline of the session can be presented at the outset and this may be linked with an explanation of the purpose of the session. Clear instructions can often be responsible for the success of an activity. Second, the board can be used to keep track of a discussion of a topic. When the seminar leader is directing a group discussion, they keep track of the discussion in their minds, noting alternative points of view, chains of cause and effect, and references to assumptions that underpin strands of reasoning. However, much of this may be opaque to students in the group, especially if it is built up from a series of exchanges between the seminar leader and a small number of the students. Many students in the group will find it easier to follow the structure of an unfolding discussion if it is visually, as well as orally, presented and the seminar leader can provide this by showing diagrammatically how points are related.

Top Tip: Always use more than one resource for seminar delivery – keep the delivery and the learning resources varied to maintain student interest and understanding.

When trying to help students keep track of a line of reasoning, it is tempting for the seminar leader to restrict the visual display to their ‘correct’ version of the reasoning. In this case, the ‘correct’ version is gradually revealed as the discussion proceeds, and when students offer suggestions that conflict with, are non-essential to or are simply different from the seminar leader’s reasoning, they are ignored and do not appear on the board or OHP. The interaction between seminar leader and students is likely to be stifled by this procedure, as it conveys the message that the purpose of the discussion is to prompt the gradual revelation of the seminar leader’s ‘correct view’. Some students will naturally infer that the less they speak, the quicker the seminar leader will get on with telling them what they are expected to know.

Alternatively, the board or OHP can be used to keep track of a discussion in a more complete way. That is, non-essential points, conflicting points and weak expressions can be added to the display alongside key ideas, consistent reasoning and powerful ways of expressing ideas. If this is done, students can be invited to make the kind of judgements (such as whether two ideas are consistent or which out of two expressions is more powerful) that the seminar leader would be making in controlling the discussion. Inevitably this takes longer, but it does make the interaction between seminar leader and students more profound and, therefore, makes greater use of the time spent in the seminar.

It is useful to prepare a handout for more difficult concepts to accompany an activity, as it provides students with an additional resource in an environment where they feel more free to ask questions and consider the relevance of the material. If the seminar requires students to work through mathematically based questions, it is useful to incorporate a quick review of the mathematical techniques presented in the lecture. This ensures that students understand the concepts and can then apply them to specific questions. If the activity uses discussion questions, it is sometimes helpful to hand out a tree diagram showing the main issues and how they link together. This enables students to revisit the lecture material in a different format, and helps them to organise the material into a structure that they find clear and that they can then use to apply the material to a broader discussion or exercise. A useful handout might include:

  • the objectives of the session;
  • a full written explanation of a difficult concept covered in the lecture;
  • a diagram with an accompanying explanation;
  • a formula with a worked example;
  • a few short scenarios that illustrate different ways in which a particular theory can be applied;
  • a tree diagram that shows how different concepts are related;
  • advice about preparing for the test/essay/exam;
  • sample test/essay/exam questions with model answers;
  • information about how to work through and solve mathematical and statistical problems in specific computer software packages;
  • a list of keywords and definitions;

4.4 Choosing whether students work individually, in small groups or as a whole group

It is helpful to organise seminars so that some time is spent with students working individually, some of the time working in pairs or small groups and some of the time as a whole group. Varying between these options within the seminar helps to reduce the weariness that sets in when students are asked to participate in the same way throughout a session.

Working individually

One reason for asking students to work individually on a task is so that they can prepare their personal ideas, views or arguments in response to a problem or a piece of stimulus material. It makes sense for this kind of preparation to be undertaken before the session, but there may also be times within a seminar when it is helpful to give students an opportunity to work alone. If students are given time to prepare an answer rather than being obliged to provide immediate responses, they are more likely to produce a considered response and likely to benefit from the time spent working out an appropriate answer. A second reason for asking students to work on their own is to provide an opportunity for the seminar leader to talk with individuals to gauge and respond to students’ understanding.

Individual work may take the form of silent reading activities, problems or case studies. For example, you might ask students to read through an article and identify the application of economic theory, or to consider the answers to a series of related questions that can be used for a small-group discussion in the latter part of the seminar. Alternatively, you might have students complete a worksheet that covers a number of concepts from the previous lectures. This enables you to discuss progress with students on an individual basis, and, if the students are required to submit the worksheets at the end of the seminar period, it will provide you with more information about overall student understanding of the different topics studied. As a rule, individual work creates lower levels of interaction between the seminar leader and students (because attention is focused on one individual at a time) than other formats. For this reason it makes sense to use individual work sparingly.

Working in pairs and small groups

When students work together in pairs or small groups, the quantity of interaction is increased, and evidence from research reviewed by Springer et al. (1999) suggests that achievement is promoted, attitude towards learning is improved and willingness to work hard is increased. Students can be asked to work together in pairs or small groups to consider the answers to specific problems, discuss ideas, prepare for whole-class discussions, compare their answers or mark each other’s work.

If you include an in-class test as part of your unit assessment, you can incorporate this into a subsequent seminar activity. When you mark each test paper, identify the one or two questions that caused the student most difficulty. Identify these questions on the test paper. Pair each student in the seminar group with a student who had difficulty with different questions and ask them to work through, with their partner, those questions that you have identified at the top of each of their papers. This exercise requires students to revisit material that they did not understand and pairs them with a student who demonstrated a stronger understanding of that same material. Working through these questions again with a partner, and discussing the areas that created the most difficulty, helps both students to gain a deeper understanding of the subject.

Encouraging students to learn from each other is a prime objective in organising students in small groups. It is therefore important to consider the way in which students are grouped. Less confident students can learn from the understanding of more confident students, and students with a higher level of understanding can consolidate their thinking through explaining ideas to others. Pairing quiet or less confident students with more outgoing students can often be beneficial to both parties, whereas putting all the outgoing, confident students into one group may lead to conflict and a less than successful outcome to the whole activity.

Top Tip: It is important that all seminar activities are treated as evolving processes – adopting a very rigid approach does not allow for the flexibility often necessary to make an activity a success. If the dynamics of a group are detrimental to the success of an activity, change either the size of the groups or the particular pairings that were originally chosen. This can often revive a flailing activity and might be the only change necessary to turn the activity into a valuable learning experience for the students.

It is important to monitor small-group activity to make sure that groups are not diverted from the task or taken over by one individual. Monitoring is quite demanding, as the seminar leader needs to be aware of how other groups are progressing at the same time as interacting with one group. There is also a danger that the seminar leader will get drawn into ‘taking over’ groups, stifling their discussion. Students need space to initiate and develop their ideas before they are ready to engage with the seminar leader.

During the first part of small-group work, the seminar leader’s time is best spent listening to the ideas being put forward by students as they discuss with each other. This creates opportunities to identify misconceptions, emphases and omissions. Some misconceptions may be shared by several groups, and it is more efficient to interrupt the group work and address these on a whole-class basis. In other cases there will be questions that the seminar leader will want to pose to a particular group, along the lines of ‘Why do you think that?’, so that the onus is put on the students to articulate and expose their reasoning.

Box 1 outlines different types of activity that may be used with small groups in seminars. Different styles of small-group teaching in seminars are discussed in great depth by Brown and Atkins (1990). Chapter 4 provides an excellent review of the possible pitfalls that a seminar leader may encounter and discusses student expectations, group sizes, group dynamics, types of small group activity, and tactics for questioning. Further suggestions may be found in Tiberius (1999), and Light and Cox (2001). The LTSN website also offers valuable examples and a discussion of important issues in small-group work.

Box 1 Activities for individual or small-group work

The following list provides some ideas for tasks to set individuals or pairs of students in a seminar. These exercises could be followed in the second half of the session with a larger group activity.

  • Ask the students to construct a model or create a diagram relating to a technique or topic covered in the lecture.
  • Provide students with a case study to read and discuss; they can identify the main issues, jot down some key questions, write a proposal, take some notes, make decisions/proposals about a case, read and note some ideas for discussion.
  • Ask students to make choices between various questions/scenarios, e.g. true/false, possible/impossible, discuss whether different scenarios are realistic/unrealistic etc.
  • Provide some text for students to read and analyse.
  • Suggest a thesis/proposition and ask students to prepare a case for or against it.
  • Ask students to choose between alternative solutions to solve a problem.
  • Ask students to work through written mathematical proofs/calculations/problems and spot deliberate mistakes in the problems given.
  • Ask students to develop a presentation together and then present to the whole class.


  • Give students a scenario, ask them to discuss the arguments for and against a proposal and then ask them to present their views to the whole class.
  • Ask students to work through old test questions – or essay questions – and discuss the answers.
  • Ask students to solve problems in small groups (each group working through a different problem) and then rearrange the groups so that each student can explain their particular problem (with solution) to the other students in their new group.

  • Ask students to devise a map or solve a puzzle: for example, in a seminar about coordinates and finding the equation of a line, create a map on some graph paper and ask students to find the location of a specific object by plotting a series of intersecting lines.
  • Ask students to match key concepts introduced in the lecture to sentences in a newspaper article.
  • Give each pair of students an answer and ask them to devise an appropriate question drawing on the content of the most recent lecture.
  • Use quick-fire questions, quizzes or team games to test knowledge and understanding.
  • Select a series of quotes about a topic (preferably some that express conflicting views on an issue, e.g. the health service, trade relations, foreign direct investment, economic development programmes) and ask students to discuss their quote with reference to material presented in the associated lecture.
  • Show 5–10 minutes of a video, ask students to prepare answers to a variety of questions and then have them present their work to the class.
  • Show 5–10 minutes of a video and then give students a short quiz that relates some of the video material to the lecture material. This could be followed by a group discussion about the answers, which will enable students to see the relationship between the lecture material and the video material.
  • Ask students to prepare presentations in small groups, taking opposite views on a specified topic.
  • Ask students to work through exercises and compare answers with a partner or group.
  • Ask students to compare essay plans that are clearly different in quality.
  • Provide students with two pieces of text (each about 150–200 words long) which present different views of a topic or situation. Ask students to produce a new piece of text, no more than 100 words in total, which combines the two sources.

Working with the whole group

The start and end of each seminar will typically involve the seminar leader in working with the whole group. At the beginning of the seminar, it makes sense to work with the whole group in introducing the purpose and structure of the seminar. At the end of the session, the seminar leader can consolidate the learning of the students and highlight key points. However, it may be best to work with the whole group during the main part of the session as well.

Whole-group work is well suited to formal debate, review discussions, role-play, having members of each group circulate to inject new ideas into other groups, having students from one group teach other groups how to solve different problems, and organising a formal debate. You can also use a fishbowl approach, whereby a small group of students are given a topic to discuss while other students observe. This gives students a chance to listen to a discussion about a specific economic issue and to hear how other students present differing views and opinions on a topic. Larger groups (4+) can be productive, but these activities tend to be useful only to very specialist seminar activities. More often than not, the group is too large to focus on individual learning. The quieter and weaker students become sidelined and the larger group sub-divides into unproductive cliques.

Top Tips: Get students actively involved. Get them to debate, deliver and present individual or group arguments and ideas. This type of activity gets students away from their ‘comfort zones’ and encourages them to stay actively involved in the activity for the duration of the session.

Keep activities to a maximum of 20 minutes then move on to another topic/method. Continually introducing additional elements to the exercise/activity will keep students interested.

4.5 Working with colleagues in a team

Many seminar programmes are given by a team of people. Such programmes require careful co-ordination and this is facilitated by the following actions:

  • Meet with the group of tutors on a regular basis to discuss how activities should be run and the procedures that should be followed.
  • Ensure that each tutor understands the purpose of each activity and knows what problems to look out for. Also explain how tutors should interact with the students throughout the exercise.
  • Meet with the tutors to review their experience with the seminars in order to identify problems, good practice and ways in which the seminars could be improved. It is also useful to have a short review meeting 2–3 weeks after the beginning of a seminar programme to identify problems at an early stage.
  • Encourage tutors to observe another member of the teaching team. This will encourage consistency of practice and develop the confidence of tutors who are less familiar with the types of activity being used in the programme.