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Getting the most out of seminars

Participating in seminars and working with other students is an important part of university study. This guide offers advice on getting the most out of seminars and group work. It includes:

Click here for a printable guide on Seminars  (designed to be printed double-sided on A4 paper, then folded to make an A5 leaflet).

What are seminars?

Seminars usually involve group discussion of material presented either in a lecture or in set reading. Developing your skills in working with others and in orally presenting material will help you to take a full and active part in seminar groups. Participation in seminars is sometimes assessed.

Seminars:

  • Offer opportunities to think about and discuss theories and issues in more detail than lectures allow.
  • Encourage the sharing of ideas and enable you to gain extra perspectives and points of view, which otherwise you might not have considered.
  • Help to clarify your own thinking through providing an environment in which you can ask and answer questions.
  • Enable you to develop skills in giving and receiving constructive criticism.

You are certainly not alone if you have any of the following worries about seminars:

- Fear of speaking out in a group, particularly among strangers.

- Having nothing to say or being ridiculed by others for what you do say.

- Being 'put on the spot' and embarrassed by not knowing the answer.

- Fear of being left out when told to get into groups.

Being well prepared and knowing something of how a group works will help you to feel less concerned, and to get the most out of your seminars.

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Preparing for seminars

You will get more out of any seminar if you do some preparation for it, and spend some time going over what you've learned afterwards.

Before the seminar

  • Ensure you have done any tasks agreed for the group.
  • Read around the subject. Think about it.
  • What questions do you want answered?

During the seminar...

  • Be open to hearing something new.
  • Jot down useful information.
  • Jot down questions to ask.
  • If you don't understand something, ask.
  • Link what you hear to what you already know.
  • Make contributions – for example, raise points that interest you
  • BUT try to get others involved too - ask open questions: "did anyone else think that....?" 

After the seminar...

  • Go over your notes and summarise them. Add any new details and thoughts.
  • Make sure you know exactly what you have to do for next time – put new tasks in your diary.

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Speaking in a group

One of the things about seminars that causes anxiety is the idea of speaking out in a group of people that you may not know well, or at all. Working out some strategies beforehand will help you to deal with this anxiety.

  • Get to know other group members if possible, so that you feel more at ease.
  • Make a decision to speak at least once during the group – even if it is only to hear yourself say 'yes' out loud or ask someone to repeat a point that you don't quite understand. Build up from a small base.

When preparing to speak...

  • Sit next to somebody you find reassuring.
  • Write down what you want to say – if necessary read it out.
  • Think of an example or evidence to support your point.
  • If you are nervous, breathe out slightly more slowly than usual.

When speaking...

  • State your view at the beginning of the seminar before the debate is in full swing.
  • Take your time when speaking – aim to speak more slowly than you feel necessary.
  • Make eye contact with at least one person in your audience.
  • Smile!
  • Be brief. When you have made your point – stop. Avoid going back over what you have already said.
  • Be clear. If something sounds confused, say 'I'll make that clearer', or check people have understood.
  • Speak up so everyone can hear. If people have to strain to hear you, they will be less sympathetic to what you are saying – and you may have to say it all over again.
  • Don't apologise – your audience will lose confidence in you.
  • Act as though confident, even if you don't feel it.

After the group

  • Congratulate yourself on any progress.
  • Keep any mistakes or stumbling in proportion – it is not the end of the world.
  • Decide what you will do next time.

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Dealing with questions

Be honest if you don't know the answer to a question asked by other members of the group or by the seminar leader. Similarly, if you have nothing relevant to say on a point, there is no need to pretend.

Some of the following strategies might also help when dealing with questions you are unsure of:

  • Ask for clarification before you answer a question. You can do this by asking your own questions, repeating or paraphrasing (putting it into your own words) the question. For example, "Do you mean…?"  "Could you provide an example?"
  • You could try to steer your response to what you have read or are interested in e.g. "I'm not exactly sure about that but what I do think is…."; "I haven't thought about that particular point but related to it is the idea that…"
  • Try redirecting the question back to the individual (e.g. "What do you think about that?") or to the class. This ensures that everyone has heard the question and may provoke class discussion around the issue.
  • Don't be put off or intimidated by people who always have something to say or are quick to respond. Good seminar participation does not depend on the frequency or length of your remarks; in fact this can be quite disruptive if other people feel excluded or begin to rely on one person for keeping the discussion going.

REMEMBER:

- It is the quality not the quantity of comments that matter in a seminar discussion; interesting and relevant points are the most valuable.

- Seminars aren't to test how much you know on a subject, but to help you learn about it.

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Improving your speaking and listening skills

To really make the most of seminars you will need to both partcipate in the discussion and listen to others.

Consider the following:

Do you talk to people or at people?

- People who talk at you are listening to themselves; they leave no space for a response.

- People who talk to you consider you and your response carefully.

How well do you listen?

- Do you take in what other people say?

- Do you give others room to speak?

- Do you use encouraging non-verbal signals?

- Do you 'switch off' when bored or if you dislike the person?

How to improve your speaking skills...

  • Contribute to the discussion - but don't dominate it
  • Ask questions – but not too many
  • Speak to everyone in the group, not just particular individuals.
  • Indicate when you agree with someone's point: 'So do I…', 'Yes, that's true…'
  • If you disagree with something, instead of just rejecting the other person's ideas, explore them: 'What makes you think that…?', 'Have you thought about…?'
  • Acknowledge your own errors and apologise: 'Sorry, my mistake'; 'Oh, I see! I misunderstood…'

How to improve your listening skills...

If you struggle to tune in to speakers try some of the following techniques:

  • Consider the speaker's feelings
  • Focus on the content; think of some way it could be of value to you
  • Listen for key words and jot them down
  • Link what they are saying to something you already know
  • Think of a question you could ask (when they have finished speaking)

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For more on aspects of this topic, see...

Effective group work

Getting the most from lectures

Delivering presentations

Making Groupwork Work (LearnHigher)

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