Teaching and learning
Designing and leading seminars and discussion groups
Introduction -- why seminars and discussion groups?
Much valuable learning occurs in discussion. We learn by testing our ideas, and by testing the ideas of others. This is as true of undergraduate students as it is of research students, and indeed of primary school children.
In providing effective support for student discussions in small groups, you are helping some of the most powerful and effective learning which the students will experience. You already have many of the necessary skills, though you may not be conscious of having them.
This section will make some of these skills explicit. It will help you develop and extend your skills at facilitating student learning in small groups.
What will this first word do?
It will help you to plan and conduct seminars and discussion groups which will enable your students to achieve the learning outcomes set by the course or module leader. In a little more detail, it will help you to lay out a room to facilitate small-group discussion; choose or devise appropriate learning activities; collect or prepare necessary support materials; and schedule a teaching session.
A checklist for planning a seminar or discussion group
- Have you got the lecture outline, or can you go to the lecture on which the small group is based?
- Have you read the key references, the course guide, handouts, problem sheets, past exam papers?
- Have you checked out the room you’ll be using?
- Have you asked the course or module leader what they would do in the session?
- What are the learning outcomes for this small-group session you are to conduct? That is, what should the students be able to do at the end of the session? (These may be in the course or module handbook; you may need to ask the course or module leader, or you may need to write them yourself.)
- Are you clear what these outcomes mean? Could you explain to the students what the outcomes mean? (If not, ask someone else who teaches on the course.)
- How does the session you are planning contribute to the course or module assessment -- for example, are seminar presentations assessed?
- Does the discussion in the seminar inform the answering of exam questions? (If so, you could formulate exam-type questions for discussion in class.)
- What learning activities might help the students to achieve the learning outcomes?
- Do you need an 'icebreaker' activity to begin the session?
- What review activity will you use at the end to help you plan for the next session?
Scheduling a session
- What is the total session length? What time do students actually arrive?
- Do the students (and you) need a break during the session?
- Are there other things you have to do during the session -- for example, take a register, give things out, remind about assessment, collect in work?
- Have you produced a timetable for the session?
- Which activity can you ditch if the others overrun? Which additional activity will you have ready, just in case?
Planning the room layout
- How many students are registered in your group? What is the likely attendance? (There should be a chair for each registered student, but lay out only for the number you expect to turn up!)
- Do students need tables to work on materials? (Discussion may flow better without tables.)
- Will you (or the students) be using the white board / black board / flip chart / overhead projector? (if so, make sure everyone in the room can see it.)
- What lecture notes / handouts / reading lists are students working from?
- Which parts of the recommended texts work best for this session?
- Are there additional articles or handouts which you want to use? Have you prepared them?
- Have you prepared any overhead transparencies you plan to use?
- Have you got the appropriate pens / flip chart paper / blank overheads for use 'live' in the session?
Some planning principles for a seminar or discussion group
Appropriateness It should be clear to you and the students how each activity contributes to the purpose or learning outcome.
Variety Students get bored easily. Vary the activity type, the pace, and the grouping of students for tasks.
Predictability If you usually start with a review of last week and usually end by reviewing how it went (see 'feedback' below) and checking the students clear on what they’re doing next, they'll feel more secure, and be more willing to take risks when you do different things.
Consultation Tell them what you propose to do, and ask them for their suggestions. They'll have some good ideas, and the session will work much better if they have bought in.
Feedback Ask for their views on how well the session went, whether they achieved the intended learning, what you should do different next time, and even how much they enjoyed it.
Some learning activities suitable for small groups which contribute to students' attainment of learning outcomes
A good way to learn to do something is to do it. In a bit more detail, students should first plan what they are going to do (within a framework you have provided); then do it, preferably in a group (to allow discussion about it and mutual learning); and finally review how well they did and see what further work they need to undertake.
For example, if the learning outcome is that students should be able to use a theory to make sense of a given set of facts, then a good learning activity would be to give them some facts, get them to work on how the theory makes sense of them, and share and test their different accounts.
Doing some of it
There may not be time in the session for the students to do everything involved in achieving the learning outcome. Sometimes you can break down the activity into smaller activities, or you can apply the technique to a small or simplified problem.
Doing something similar to it
A trainee lawyer can interview a simulated client. A science student can pretend to be a referee for a journal, and review or edit a paper. A social sciences student can analyse made-up survey data or design an experiment they don’t have to do.
How similar need similar be for the simulation to be useful? The simulation only has to represent those features of the task described in the course learning outcomes and the course assessment.
Plan how you would do it
Another way to cope with large scale learning outcomes is to plan how to do one or two examples. For instance, the learning outcome may be that students should be able to compare and contrast half a dozen theories, models or approaches. In this case in the session you can help them to plan how they would do this. (They will probably find it helpful to compare just two of the theories, as suggested in 'Doing some of it' above.)
Comment: Thus far we've been talking about ways of helping students to achieve certain kinds of learning outcomes. Students (and lecturers) don't always think in terms of learning outcomes. Sometimes they concentrate on content, on subject matter. So . . . .
Asking and answering questions
Questions are powerful tools for learning. Formulating good questions is a valuable skill, for teachers and learners. (More on questions in first word 1.7.) So -- encourage the students, alone or in pairs, to come up with questions about the subject matter they’re studying. Agree with the students which questions you'll work on together in the session. Answer some of them yourself. Ask the students to try to answer others by pooling their knowledge. Help them to plan how they will complete their answers with research outside the session. And, while you're doing this, encourage students to consider what makes a good question, and what makes a good answer.
Room layout, AV and handouts
The ideal room for small-group sessions has chairs and small tables which can be moved easily.
A good arrangement has exactly the correct number of chairs arranged in a circle or horseshoe. (This is good because everyone is in the front row and no one can hide.) Too few chairs and you have to stop, reshuffle chairs and start again each time someone else arrives late. Too many and you'll probably find yourself surrounded by empty chairs while the students gaze across at the circle at you. You may want to keep an empty seat either side of you for safety. Putting books and papers on them generally works. Or you may want to put the OHP or flip-chart stand next to you.
When you want students to work in smaller groups they can then quickly turn their chairs to form twos, threes, whatever.
Your university may have guidelines about leaving rooms as you found them, or tidy.
Audio-visual materials (mainly overhead projector slides)
All of the following would make useful visual aids:
For a small-group session these can be kept simple -- hand-written overhead projector transparencies or flip-chart sheets are fine.
- the timetable for the session
- the learning outcomes for the session
- three (or four or six) key points from the previous session
- three (or) key points from this session
- short samples of text for all to study
- images, diagrams or formulae
- instructions for activities.
If you do print OHP transparencies, make sure the type size is large enough for the room and equipment you use. 18 point (1/4" high) is the smallest size recommended except for very small groups with a big screen. For more on this see "first word" 1.13, 'Choosing and using audio-visual aids'.
There are many other possibilities -- sound recordings, clips from TV programmes, even (shock horror) real objects. Let the learning outcomes and the subject matter and your own imagination guide you.
Have a few spare copies of the handouts for any lectures or practicals on which the session is based, for any students who missed the lecture or left their handout in the other briefcase.
Handouts can be useful for small group sessions, although you don’t want to face the students with too much material and you don't want to give yourself too much work. But giving them a page or so to read in class, and then working with it in class, can be a useful (and peaceful) learning activity.
The following kinds of handout might be useful:
- an overview of the session
- a time schedule for the session
- materials for any activities you have planned for the session (including texts or articles to be discussed)
- a list of questions which, as a result of the session (and any associated lectures or practicals), the students should be able to answer.
Seminars and tutorials can be among the very best and the very worst learning experiences. A bad lecture can probably only be boring but a bad seminar or tutorial can also be embarrassing. A good lecture can be stimulating, even exciting; a good seminar or tutorial can be exciting and engaging and provocative and transforming, and can help the students make important breakthroughs in understanding and in confidence.
This"first word" has been very practical and hands-on, with more than the usual number of checklists. As you get the mechanics of the tutorial or seminar right, it becomes more likely that the learning breakthroughs will happen. A seminar or tutorial is a place where students learn very actively, where they learn through dialogue and exploration and risk-taking. Your first job is to make it safe and possible for them to do this. Your next is to join them in the exploration and discovery. One test of a good seminar or tutorial is than you learn something from, or with, the students.
Last modified: Wednesday, 27-Jun-12 10:24:19 BST