Last week was our first full teaching week at MMU and mostly involved sorting out registers and finding rooms to be double booked. Chaos reigns everywhere until the second week when, in theory, all such problems have been ironed out. Hmmm, we’ll see! But if all goes to plan this week I will be doing some proper work with my students, not simply sorting out admin issues. So my attention has turned to small group work and how to encourage students to participate as much as possible: not easy when they would much rather shrink into the background and be talked to for an hour!
The seminar and the tutorial are key parts of a student’s learning experience in an humanities subject. But many students don’t get the full benefit from them. As an undergraduate I rarely spoke up in seminars, even though we usually had small groups of 8-10, simply because I didn’t have the confidence. And if you don’t start talking at the beginning of the year, as time goes by it becomes harder and harder. So, part of the responsibility lies with the tutor to draw students out of themselves and encourage even the quietest ones to get involved.
This can be challenging because seminars are often taken by postgraduate and part-time tutors, some of whom (but not all) may never have received any teacher-training advice at all. Often postgrads and part-timers make the best tutors because they are the most enthusiastic and devoted to their jobs. However if you haven’t been taught techniques to bring student conversation out, it can be a real challenge to be faced with a silent room, and in that case many seminar tutors simply end up repeating the lecture, knowing that this is not really what seminars are for.
So, how to get the students to open up: ice breakers are horribly cheesy but they do work. Get the students talking to each other from day one and they will be more comfortable in formal discussions and when talking to you. An example I use is ‘the Michael Parkinson’…pair students off and ask one to interview the other using set questions. Get them to note down the answers and then feed them back to the rest of the class. Include a fun or jokey question as well as serious ones. This can help students learn each other’s names (and you too!)
Seminar activities can be benefitial too. Break students up into groups of 2-4 and give them a set task or question. This allows everyone to contribute, even those who wouldn’t feel confident about speaking in front of a larger group. Perhaps assign one student to be scribe/recorder and one to be spokesperson; there’s nothing like feeling you have a vested interest in the process (being a ‘stakeholder’ as New Labour would put it) to engender enthusiasm.
And finally, one that can be useful in some circumstances: the tutor leaving the room! Set your students a task, and then leave them to get on with it, don’t hover or sit quietly at the front, literally leave the room! This can be a recipe for disaster as their conversation descends into talk about pubbing and clubbing the night before! But, at least they are talking, and the more diligent ones in the group will try to steer the conversation onto the set topic. After all, university is about independent learning; show your students that you trust them to be independent!