This is the fourth full teaching week of term and we are well into the swing of things at my institution, already counting the days until reading week when we can have a bit of a breather! This term I have been thinking about the importance and use of the academic teaching method known as ‘the seminar’: is it really a good way of encouraging learning at HE level?
Part of my concern with the seminar as a format is that the seminars I teach now are very different to those I had as an undergraduate student. My seminars as a student were 90 minutes long and contained a maximum of 15 people: often it was 8-10 people. These gatherings were held in a lecturer’s own office with everyone sitting in a semi-circle so that eye contact could easily facilitate discussion.
The seminars that I teach now are very different and I can’t help but feel they don’t do the work of a real seminar. They are 50 minutes long, and can contain 22 people (although anecdotally I have heard tell of 25-28 people per seminar). Because of the larger group size they are held in a teaching classroom, often a lecturing room with fixed tiered seating and the ‘teacher’ sitting at the front. The overall feel of the session is more akin to a school classroom.
As teachers we all know how important room layout is to the group dynamic and perhaps this year I have just been unlucky in being assigned inflexible rooms. The numbers issue is perhaps more serious and is a direct result of more students coming to university. It is almost impossible to run a friendly ideas-sharing seminar with more than 20 students. It is harder for students, especially the shy ones, to raise points that they don’t understand and it is easier for the lazier ones to get away with doing nothing. Group work which might get around some of these issues is hindered if not prevented outright by the problem of the room layout.
So, I am mulling over some new ideas for teaching seminar-type classes and I’ll be writing about these over the coming weeks. In the meantime, any comments or suggestions on how to get over this problem would be gratefully received!