Seminars at Evergreen
Seminars are open-ended, loosely structured conversations between students and faculty within a program or course. They are central to our teaching at Evergreen because they allow students to delve into the problems, issues, and themes that we are studying in a collaborative learning environment. Their structure promotes another of our five foci, helping students take responsibility for their learning.
Most often seminars provide time for exploration rather than arrival at a consensus about an issue or question. For students, they are exciting because of the many perspectives that are offered; they are challenging because they may find their long held views challenged or questioned. They can be hurt by thoughtless comments or jokes. For faculty, seminars can be challenging. How do we help students critically understand the text? How do we help them work collaboratively? How can we make space for multicultural conversations? When do we step in when things get uncomfortable? We need to keep in mind that teaching and learning across significant differences poses challenges and we need to learn how to meet them.
In effective seminars, students discuss ideas in depth, pay close attention to each other’s contributions, develop a thread that leads to deeper understanding, and everyone experiences collaborative learning. Having effective seminars takes careful planning—they don’t just happen.
It is important to plan each seminar so that there is a stated goal and a particular structure that will work well with the text. The texts chosen should be open to interpretation. There can be several types of “text”; for example, it could be a film or experience. If the focus is a written text and it is long, you can suggest chapters or pages for students to read with more attention, or you can divide students into groups to focus on different chapters or sections of the text. Asking students to read 250 pages a week for seminar is fine. Be careful with quantity if the material is dense, especially if you have other reading required.
With your colleagues, decide whether you will have faculty facilitation or student facilitation. It is best if all seminars are run in comparable ways. Decide in advance what your goal and structure should be (see below for more information). The best preparation for teaching effective seminars is to have faculty seminars. Our practice has been that we gather to discuss each seminar text and then have a business meeting, keeping the two separate. It is often useful for the person who chose the text to explain the key points they saw when they made that choice.
Before seminar we usually arrange the tables in the room to form a rectangle or circle so that seminar members can see each other and have a conversation. The faculty member joins the group as a member. If students sit away from the group, encourage them to join and explain why.
You should give students a goal for each seminar. Will they be analyzing an argument, comparing the text to another, contrasting the ideas in the text to those raise in a lecture?
In any of these cases, it is a good idea to tell them not only what the goal is but make suggestions about seminar structure. For example, you can have students meet in groups of 8 to discuss questions they have generated or complete a task, then ask them to report out in the larger group so that everyone gains from the small group discussions. More suggestions follow:
- Start with a round robin in which each student cites a quote from the text they would like to explore or each writes a question on the board
- Ask students to meet in small groups of 3-4 to generate one question in about 10 minutes. They write this question on the board, and the seminar proceeds by moving through these questions
- Divide the students in groups with an assignment: each group can work with a particular chapter or section of the text, each group can write a summary of the argument, or each group can compare the themes, argument, or style to previous texts they have read.
- Have a “progressive” seminar: students meet in groups of four, eight, and then the whole group. Each configuration has a particular assignment, or they are tasked with getting to the heart of the matter by progressively moving deeper and deeper into the text.
- If you have a few students who talk all the time, try the 3 penny rule. Bring three pennies for each student, and tell them that each time they speak, they spend a penny. They need to slide that penny forward on the table. This can be very frustrating for those who talk often. You can talk to these students individually and explain that you’re trying to encourage participation by more students and allow pauses for students who need that time to reflect.
- Another structure that can encourage a focus on listening is the jig saw seminar. You divide the seminar into two groups. One group forms a small circle in the middle of the room; the other group sits in a concentric outer circle. The role of the students in the small circle is to hold a seminar and the outer group only listens and takes notes on the dynamics of the seminar: who is talking to whom, who is asking questions, who is encouraging deeper discussion. They also take some notes on the questions and issues addressed. After a given amount of time (20-30 minutes), the groups switch roles. In the third part of seminar, you discuss the group dynamics and then move to discussion of the topics that were raised in each group’s seminar. This can be daunting to students—to know that others are taking notes about their interaction—but it can also help students recognize patterns of discourse.
- If you want to invite more participation in seminar, you could ask students to generate a list of roles in seminar. Then ask students to adopt a role they do not usually play. Follow this seminar with a round robin in which each student in turn tells the group which role they chose and how well they played it. This can help students become more aware of their patterns of interaction and realize that they can change and/or improve those patterns.
- Have a round robin at the end of seminars (10-12 minutes). Each student in turn can either contribute an idea that they didn’t have a chance to say earlier, or one that helps to summarize the discussion. Students can pass, but encourage those who have not spoken to do so. This gives everyone an equal opportunity to speak, and students who are more reflective have usually formulated a comment by the end of seminar.
- At the end of seminar ask students to write what they learned in a one-minute paper. Collect these and address any useful ideas that were not mentioned in a later lecture or workshop. This exercise helps put the focus of seminar on learning.
Helping Students Prepare
Preparing for seminar is not a matter of just reading the assigned text. Students should do some reflecting on the reading prior to seminar. Encourage students to work with a seminar partner or seminar study group. Assign some low stakes writing (PDF) that is due prior to seminar to help students begin to think about what they have read.
In order to inspire students to read the assigned text, consider introducing it the week before, explaining why you chose it and how it fits with the questions or issues you are examining in your program.
Try to limit the reading to 250 pages or less. You can make selections in a longer text, with suggestions for further reading, but it is important to realize that most students do not spend the recommended 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour they spend in class. Consider doing close reading in seminar to help students see its value in deciphering the author’s ideas and/or the richness of the language. If you need more strategies to get your students to read, consider these fourteen tips (PDF).
Some other strategies are to have pop quizzes on the reading (Don Middendorf is a fan of this approach), ask for reading notes, and/or show students how you have marked up your text to prepare.
Seminar can be daunting to students who have not had serious conversations about texts prior to your program. Some may be underprepared for college work or shy or both. Some may feel that they don’t have the academic language that others have. It is also difficult for some to understand the notion of critical thinking. For some students, all conversation in seminar should be persuasive in the sense of winning an argument. This is the way they talk with friends, family, and outside of class. It is our job to help them see that a persuasive argument in seminar is one with evidence from the text and other program materials. Provide your students with some guidelines for seminar:
- Begin each quarter by generating the rules for seminar (or seminar covenant). It is good to have students generate the rules and then add some you find important. Here is a list of possible rules for seminar (PDF) you could use.
- Provide your students with guidelines for how you will evaluate them. Here is a rubric for assessing (PDF) seminar that you could use. These will help them understand what sort of critical thinking you are expecting.
- In your evaluations, avoid writing about how much a student talked or contributed in seminar. Since students can spend a lot of time in groups, it is hard to always know a lot about the quality of their contributions; instead, list learning outcomes (PDF) in your syllabus and look for how the student met them in seminar and in other areas of the program.
The most cited reason for going to the Counseling Center is seminar. For that reason, faculty should model good facilitation strategies and provide students with guidelines if they will be facilitating seminar themselves. If you choose to ask a small group of students to facilitate seminar each week, they could present an analysis of a portion of the text, they could do a role play based on the ideas in the text, and they could suggest a seminar structure. Whatever they decide to do, you should still help facilitate. The reason for this is that conversation is not just about information, analysis, or critical thinking; it is also about creating identity, solidarity, and power. Lots of things are going on in seminar. Students will look to you for guidance in all of the things that are going on in seminar and some will be very disappointed and/or disillusioned if you don’t step in.
Explain to your students that the seminar is a time to test ideas, to explore, and to really listen to other points of view. They will not be evaluated positively merely for talking a lot. Model this behavior to them by your statements or questions: “how does this idea fit with Merry’s?” “What are the implications of Ben’s idea?”
Being open to new ideas and perspectives is a value in seminar and it can be hard when those ideas run counter to your own or other seminar members’ deeply held values. Work on staying open in your own responses to students to encourage discussion, and don’t be afraid to point out when the conversation is off-topic or that it might be useful to move to another topic. Try to use “we” in commenting on topics.
Some students draw primarily on their own experience in evaluating a text. You can make time for this sort of exploration, and then tell students that the rest of the seminar will be dedicated to weighing the ideas in the text using their background as students in your program. What do they know that will help them understand the text and find links to other program materials? If you decide to allow a time for personal anecdotes, it is important to value everyone’s input.
If a student makes a comment that you find racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive, it can be hard to act immediately. For example, you may not realize that the comment was offensive until a little later in the seminar. If you do immediately recognize what happened, you can address it by saying, “what just happened is… [Explain what you heard in an objective way.]. You could then ask for a pause for writing about what just happened, or you can say, “We need to be careful not to generalize about groups” or “we need to value everyone’s point of view.” If the comment is disruptive or upsetting, you may want to call for a break and talk individually to the student. More ideas can be found in the summary for the Academy Event winter quarter, 2015: Creating Space for Multicultural Voices in Collaborative Work (.doc).
For more information about best practices, consult A Guide to Teaching Effective Seminars: Conversation, Identity, and Power by Susan Fiksdal. It’s in our library as a book and electronic form.