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We have ways of making you talk

Badly led seminars can lead to students not participating or not turning up at all. But, says Harriet Swain, there are a number of ways to ensure that attendance is high and that a good debate takes place

Hello? Will anyone talk to me? Is anyone there? They may not be. Get a reputation for poor seminars and your students will start voting with their feet. So how do you keep them coming back for more - and participating once they get there?

First, know your stuff - and don't laugh at your students if they don't know theirs. Cleo Longworth, education officer and deputy president of Warwick University Student Union, says: "A tutor who constantly replies, 'what do you think?' when asked a fairly straightforward question, who fails to get to grips with the chronology of events in a book, who dismisses texts, authors or thinkers in an attempt to look cool, will be undermined immediately, and students will decide that they are better off drawing their own conclusions than hearing them from someone who knows little more than them." On the other hand, she says, the concept of "no question is a stupid question" is important if you want to get students to talk.

George MacDonald Ross, senior lecturer in philosophy at Leeds University and a National Teaching Fellow, says that to encourage talking he forbids students to take notes, except for an official minute-taker who posts them in an electronic discussion room. And to ensure students think for themselves, he tells them to treat anything they get from him or fellow students as secondary sources, requiring proper references and criticism.

Kate Exley, a higher education consultant, says that it is as important to plan how you are going to get students to engage with your material as it is to plan what that material will be. "Clarity of purpose is key," she says. "What do you want students to leave with?" She says you need to set clear tasks and reinforce verbal instructions by writing them up on a whiteboard or flip chart, including giving time frames and expected outputs.

Exley says that students are more likely to respond if they have a working environment in which they feel safe, if they have enough thinking time and a feeling that their views will be valued, even if they are contested.

Asking students to write down ideas and then compare them with a neighbour works, she says, because they have time to collect their thoughts and to rehearse their ideas.

To help students become comfortable with one another, Alan Greaves, a lecturer in archaeology at Liverpool University and National Teaching Fellow, gets them to make an impromptu presentation on a subject for which they have not prepared. He gives students a packet of 20 articles - on what makes a good Christmas cake for example - to read and synthesise in five minutes and to give a presentation on it in ten minutes, using visual aids.

He says this forces teamwork and focuses minds on the need for planning.

Exley says seminars that involve students working in small groups on parallel tasks, followed by a report-back plenary discussion in which views are summarised, are often particularly satisfying for those taking part.

This is something that Chris Megone, senior lecturer in philosophy at Leeds and another National Teaching Fellow, has developed. He runs two-hour seminars in which he separates the class into groups of five or six, and gives each group a reading and set questions. He expects each member of the group to prepare a presentation based on these, although he only reveals who will give it when they arrive at the seminar. The groups then reconvene to discuss the presentations before the chosen individuals deliver them.

Short discussions follow. He chooses one group each week to write up revision notes based on the seminar, and then he marks and distributes these notes.

The technique, which forces every student to prepare for every seminar and involves Megone marking the notes, avoids two problems identified by Longworth. Longworth says that dividing the term's seminars into presentations from different groups of students in turn rarely works because students never feel confident that they are receiving accurate information. In addition, they find the sessions become presentations rather than debates and active participation is necessary only once a term.

Trevor Habeshaw, a higher education consultant, advises preparing new students for the seminar format. When you ask for students' first presentations, have a look at their plans, ask for a list of the questions they are going to pose and what visuals they will employ.

He says it is worth taking in students' notes occasionally and giving feedback on them. It is also worth asking for feedback about how the group thinks the seminar is working, especially if you feel things aren't right.

Exley says tutors should take different roles, sometimes leading and instructing, sometimes chairing and sometimes monitoring group work. She says using case studies, problems and current affairs as triggers for discussion are helpful, if accompanied by clear questions and tasks.

Longworth urges tutors to keep to the subject. "There's nothing worse than a tutor allowing the debate to go off on a tangent," she warns. "Students can feel miffed that their preparation was in vain and begin to neglect preparation for future seminars." She also suggests trying different things each week, such as role play and visual aids. "Any form of contextualisation, particularly when stimulated with visual media, will make students feel more at ease with the subject and willing to comment," she says.

When the seminar ends, Exley says it is important for tutors to clear up misunderstandings and to draw the strands of the seminar together.

At the end of each presentation, Greaves says the lecturer should start the applause. "And look as though you mean it. A desultory two-second clap is worse than none."

Further information Higher Education Academy: www.heacademy.ac.uk

Reg Dennick, Kate Exley, Small Group Teaching: Tutorials , Seminars and Beyond , Taylor and Francis Ltd, 2004

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