Seminars: How to get the most out of them

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This article was co-written with Elizabeth Miers (@ElizabethMiers4). 

I was reading an article in the New Statesman (I will be writing more about this article later in the year) about the “Great University Con.” One sentence that stuck out to me was this:

‘“And then you sit in these silent seminars, with people who don’t want to be there, taught by someone who doesn’t really want to be there. Everything I learnt at university I taught myself.”’ (Lambert (2019))

I think seminars can be incredibly useful for learning, the issue is that the skills needed for them aren’t ones that are emphasised in schools. This is going to be a quick guide on how to get the most out of seminars and how they can help with learning and revision.

What is a seminar?

A seminar is usually a small group of students who discuss the research they have undertaken under the guidance of a professor or grad student. The research undertaken might be commenting on an article or an extract from a primary source or creating a presentation on a theme given by the instructor. Discussion might include commenting on different aspects of the research your have done and any differences that have appeared in the research of your colleagues.

Some Seminar Tips

I would recommend undertaking research how you would go about an essay or a dissertation (more on this in the other study guides)

– Although it is best to approach a seminar like an essay, it has to be emphasised that this is a learning curve for all undergraduates. It is a new way of learning and developing the skills needed for your discipline, seminars should be a safe place to try new things and to express your ideas with your peers.

– Most people coming from sixth form won’t have had a teaching experience like a seminar before, and although there might be some awkward silences, the important thing is to try and have fun; this is a chance for you to really have some fun with a topic and to express your interest in the subject and to develop ideas with the material.

– When it comes to preparing for a seminar, try new ways of approaching your reading and note-taking. A seminar is a controlled space in which to experiment with your ideas, along with the guidance of an academic. This is your space to learn, and isn’t structured like A-Levels, so approach each source/article/extract critically and comment upon the themes, tone and content, whilst considering the overall message. For example: did you like the piece did you agree with it; was it the whole story; what are the opposing views, if there are any; and what did you find interesting or confusing?

– Building on that, if you don’t understand something, this is the perfect space in which to gain a greater understanding of the topic. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t understand it.

– The minimum you should do is read the main text and make notes on it, thinking about the tone, message and content. Writing down short snappy quotes is useful when discussing the text and are useful for when a silence falls in the seminar, to help create a new talking point.

– It can feel overwhelming to talk about a text with an academic. Imposter syndrome is something a lot of people feel when they go to university, and in in a seminar you can feel this strongly. The important thing to remember is that everyone starts at a different places, and everyone can work towards success. Self-validation is essential for this and setting goals to understand how much you achieved and what can be achieved.

– And finally! Don’t be afraid to speak during the seminar, the lecturer/professor is there to help everyone and shouldn’t judge you for anything you say. The lecturer wants the seminar to go as well as you do and will help you make your point better.

Seminars are a chance for you to examine what you love about the topic and to make the research your own. The most important thing is to be yourself and have fun with it, this will help you get the most out of them.

This post is part of a series, Study Guides

Recommended reading


Miriam-Webster Dictionary [Online],

Lambert, H (2019) The Great Univdersity Con: How the British Degree Lost its Value. New Statesmen [Online]

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