The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

1 Introduction

Although the terms ‘seminar’ and ‘tutorial’ are sometimes used to distinguish different ways of working with students, the words are often used interchangeably. In this chapter the term ‘seminar’ is used to refer to all teaching in which small groups of students meet regularly under the guidance of a tutor to discuss a particular topic. Typically, students are expected to do some preparatory work prior to the session. This chapter provides information and guidance specifically related to seminars that are supported by lectures. It explores the benefits of incorporating different seminar styles into a teaching programme and presents different formats that may prove useful in developing student interest. The chapter also provides suggested activities and discusses advantages and disadvantages of incorporating assessment into the seminar.

Traditionally, seminars have been used by universities in two ways. First, they have been used to reinforce content presented to students through a lecture programme. Discussions in these sessions tend to explore the lecture material in more depth and are expected to enable students to recognise the relevance of the material to current issues and evidence. The format is often fairly rigid, with discussion guided by a set of prepared questions on the lecture. In the case of quantitative modules, the focus is often on worked examples. For example, students may be guided through answers to a set of problems they have worked on prior to the session. Such sessions aim to show students the level of understanding they are expected to demonstrate and the activities give them an opportunity to evaluate their progress. Second, seminars have been used to develop students’ ability to synthesise viewpoints and evidence on a particular topic. This objective has usually been pursued by requiring one or more of the students in a group to prepare a presentation for the session.

Whilst these traditional styles of seminars have an enduring place in most courses, they offer limited opportunities for students’ involvement. Alternative approaches to the organisation of seminars are more capable of helping students to learn from each other, more able to accommodate different learning styles, and more likely to encourage students to participate in the learning process. In addition, variety within a programme of teaching and learning will help to sustain students’ interest. To that end, the format of this chapter is intended to make it fairly straightforward for a lecturer who is more familiar with traditional formats to identify one or two alternative approaches that could be introduced into a programme of seminars. The chapter also offers some guidance on how the effectiveness of seminars may be evaluated.

The case for alternative approaches is not clear-cut and it is important to evaluate whether net benefits are likely to justify the costs of change. The preparation and management of more interactive tasks is more time consuming and more demanding on teaching skills than working through a problem sheet or leading a discussion on economic issues. The evaluation of any format for seminars must acknowledge drawbacks as well as advantages, and this is the approach adopted here.

Evaluations of seminars also need to take account of students’ familiarity with the approach to teaching and learning being employed in a session. New approaches may cause students to feel anxious if they do not feel that they understand the process being employed. These fears can be addressed by ensuring that students understand the objectives of the session and the assessment criteria. More fundamentally, it may be necessary to develop some students’ conception of what it means to be a learner, and this is a more difficult and more long-term task.