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How to get the most out of your seminars

Seminars can be daunting and confusing - but with careful prep you can get a lot from them. Source: Shutterstock

University is likely the first time you’ll experience seminars, which can make it tricky to know how to get the most out of them.

They’re a common part of courses at university, but without proper preparation and participation, it can feel like you’re listening to jargon without learning much.

Every student goes through the learning process of how to make seminars work for them, but we’ve streamlined it to help you start making the most out of the learning opportunity quickly.

What is a seminar?

Before that, you need to understand how they work and what their purpose is.

Unlike lectures, seminars are small classes with your professor. They tend to work in a discussion format where you focus on set readings and ideas explained in the lectures.

It’s a chance to delve deeper into a topic, with opportunities to ask questions and have group discussions. You will be able to ask complex questions and have direct conversations with your professor.

See these curious lil puppers? Be like them! Source: Giphy

Classes are usually between five and 15 students to allow you to develop your critical thinking skills and teamwork, as you will often be working with or analysing each other’s ideas.

Different professors lead their seminars in different ways, so it’s useful to establish the structure. Your professor should run you through this in your first class, but if not you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your lecturer use the seminar as an additional lecture to give you more ideas?
  • Does your lecturer let students lead the class in an open discussion?
  • Does your lecturer ask students to present their ideas before beginning a group discussion?

By establishing this early on, you can begin to prepare for your seminars in a way that works for you.

How to adequately prepare for your seminar

Seminars can be daunting. You’re in close confines with your course mates and professor, so it’s perfectly natural to feel awkward about ‘saying the wrong thing’ or not sounding smart enough.

If you’re feeling anxious, preparation is vital.

Do the set reading and make notes

Your professor will give you set reading and to really make the most of your seminar, you should try and do it all.

The first step in world domination: doing all your reading. Source: Giphy

It can seem like a lot of effort, but nothing is more awkward than the person who will mark your essay asking what you thought of the reading you haven’t looked at it. 

Cue a few painful minutes of vague babbling and intense blushing until they eventually work out you’ve not done your studying.

Properly preparing for your seminar also means you will come to the class with a good background in the topic and ready to pick up more information. Rather than struggling to keep up because you have no idea about the subject, you’ll be prepared to discuss the theories and gain further insight.

It can be hard to digest academic texts, so if you’re reading the same paragraph over and over, try making notes as you go. Using the margins to summarise main points or writing it out in your notebook should help consolidate what you’re reading.

Try and critically analyse the texts as you go as well rather than just reading. Ask yourself how valid the scholars’ points are: Are there any comparisons to other readings? Is their argument logically sound? What is your opinion on it?

By asking these questions, you will gain an in-depth knowledge of the topic which will help you engage in your seminars as well as smash out a killer essay or exam script.

Make a note of words you don’t understand

Academic texts are likely to contain some complex words you don’t understand, especially if you’re not studying in your first language.

It can be hard to keep up with the discussion if you don’t understand the words people are using, so try to familiarise yourself with any before the class.

Seminars sometimes feel like this – remembering keywords can help. Source: Giphy

When you come across words you don’t know or complicated words that often appear in the text, make a note of them in your notebook. You’ll soon have built your own study dictionary that you’ll be able to use in seminars.

Identify common themes in the text and questions that may be asked about them

Your professor will have set the readings for a reason. The seminar discussion is likely to centre around key themes in the text and lectures.

By taking time to pick out key themes and think about which questions could be asked, you’ll come to the seminar with ideas and points to say, rather than sit there awkwardly.

You’ll be ready if you are called on and can spend the seminar developing new ideas rather than struggling to keep up.

In the seminar, you should…

Now that you’ve prepared for your seminar, which is usually an hour-long, you should try and get the most out of the period.

The best way is by being active in the group discussion. It can feel easier just to listen to other people but to really learn, you should try and participate.

This way, you can engage in a dialogue about your ideas and critically analyse your classmates. Your professor will be able to provide feedback on your comments and understand better how you learn.

This doggo is likely a seminar mastermind. Source: Giphy

Don’t be afraid to share any ideas you have and persevere if people try and talk over you. Some personalities may try and dominate the conversation or feel that only their opinion is right, but continue explaining your point of view and see if your other classmates have anything to say.

It can be scary to speak out but when you’re paying so much for your tuition, it’s essential to make the most of your sessions.

So remember to prepare thoroughly. Even if you don’t have time, still always show up on time. Regularly attending your seminars will help build your knowledge of the course and save you having to play catch up at the end of the year for exams.

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