Teaching Seminar Courses

Seminars—small classes typically driven by discussion and other forms of active learning and in which students often take on teaching roles and responsibilities—offer tremendous opportunities for students and educators to make learning experiential, meaningful, and lasting. But seminars don't run themselves, and this kind of learning doesn't just happen automatically. It comes out of organization, planning, and a thoughtful, responsive harnessing of the energy and interpersonal potential in the room.

Why Seminars?

The advantages of seminar courses can be considerable:

  • Seminars' small size, and the resultant possibility of more student leadership, can engender a greater sense of community and belonging; everybody in the room (including you) has the chance to get to know one another better. Names, interests, varied experiences—these might all be on the table. Conversations can reasonably involve everyone. This mutual knowledge opens the door to whole-student education, inclusive pedagogy, and Ignatian pedagogy, all of which are rooted in an understanding of everyone in the learning community as distinct, complex individuals with varied backgrounds and perspectives. Meanwhile, focused discussions and other group meaning-making processes allow for a shared sense of purpose.
  • In larger classes, it can be hard to get every student personally involved in the learning experience; in smaller and more student-driven seminars, it's much easier to foster active learning, whether in the form of discussions, activities and exercises, or even having students take turns leading sessions themselves. And the intensity of these interactions means that you can go beyond the transmission of knowledge to higher-order learning like analysis, application, and creation.
  • Seminars with active student voices give the teacher plenty of evidence of student learning, day in and day out, as well as of the success of the teacher's various pedagogical choices. And a vibrant back-and-forth makes it easy to ask for student input on elements of course design and class activities. (See more on this topic under "Assessment," below.)

How to Get the Most Out of Seminars

Planning and Management

As we discuss on our Planning and Leading Class page, productive class sessions depend on advance preparation. This includes thinking about goals for the session (what do you want students to accomplish, and how will you know they've gotten there?), deciding on your role(s) for the day (e.g., facilitator, silent observer, coach, sometimes-lecturer, etc.), planning any activities, crafting any (ideally brief) lectures, and, in the case of discussions, coming up with sets and sequences of questions (or asking students to come up with questions) to guide the conversation. You may also want to consider the possibility that certain topics can lead to heated interactions—our page on Difficult Discussions can help you prepare for those situations, and manage them when they come up unexpectedly.

Flexibility and Responsiveness

Because they're small, the character of seminar classes can vary quite dramatically; the personalities, backgrounds, and interests of the students in one small class can be very different from those of students in another small class. In seminars it's especially important, therefore, to get to know your students, starting with their names and moving on to their experiences and preoccupations. Some of this will come out in vibrant conversations during class; the rest can emerge during less formal opportunities such as chit-chat before and after the session, as well as office hour appointments.

And so although seminars require planning, they also benefit from responsiveness. Given that you've got a very particular group of students in front of you, is it possible to allow them to shape the course at all? To choose topics or readings or to have a say in course structure? As Georgetown Provost Robert Groves writes in a relevant blog post, "Seminars...are not merely classes with a small number of students. They are pedagogical designs that...reveal to the student the joys of the life of the mind. They succeed when the students conclude that their role is not that of a receptacle into which information is poured. Instead, they are capable of shaping their own learning."

In addition to allowing students some room to guide conversation and some aspects of the course experience itself, seminars also make it possible for students to substantially direct their own individual inquiry. One way to tap into this is to give students some freedom to pursue individual interests. Open-ended assignments can (with appropriate faculty guidance and vetting) allow students to choose topics and foci that genuinely interest them.

Finally, encourage responsiveness in the students themselves. In a seminar, students' relationships with one another matter a great deal. You may need to create structured opportunities for students to build on each other's ideas, such as guided discussions where students have to incorporate previous points into their own, or in small groups where they need to collaborate and bring their different strengths to bear to reach a goal.

Potential Pitfalls

  • Of course, even with the most careful planning, seminar sessions can be (and probably should be) somewhat unpredictable. Activities can go in a variety of directions, and conversations are often driven in new directions by students' interests and insights. Following them can lead to all sorts of productive outcomes, and can give students experience leading. At the same time, you do need to keep an eye on your learning goals; you may need to steer people a bit to keep them from going too far off track. You'll also want to keep an eye on how much time goes into each part of a class session.
  • Seminars only work when students engage, which means that participation is essential. And yet some students—and sometimes whole groups—are reluctant to participate. It's hard for a seminar to succeed when students are passive and silent. Faculty—particularly those used to larger and more lecture-based courses—will be tempted to slip back into a lecturing mode, but that doesn't really solve the problem of student quiet, and may even exacerbate it. Instead you have to work to make sure students adequately prepare for an active conversation, and you have to motivate them to participate when they're there. It helps to assess participation with a clear grading scheme that has real weight (see the Assessment section below). It's also important to set up a classroom environment where people feel comfortable talking, including about challenging issues. (See our Difficult Discussions page for tips.) Finally, getting to know students as individuals can open people up. If you're not getting enough opportunity before, during, and right after class, you can implement mandatory one-on-one appointments at some point in the semester, and use some of that time to talk about participation and what blocks, if any, the student might be experiencing.
  • Another potential pitfall is an unmanageable pileup of work for the teacher. Because these classes are small, and because they invite active learning, students often generate a lot of work, and are depending on feedback to improve. But there's more than one way to get them this feedback—in addition to you, they have each other for peer review, and may even be able to evaluate their own work in a guided in-class exercise where you have them look for particularly defined strengths and weaknesses—but the main point is that you shouldn't assign students to do more than you can handle them doing. And remember that you don't have to grade everything you assign; sometimes feedback is enough.

Assessment

We host a number of pages that could be helpful as you think about assessment in a seminar course. Our Grading page can help you think about how to be efficient and fair in your assessment of student progress; given the prevalence of writing assignments in Seminar courses, the Responding to Student Writing page may be relevant as well. If you're interested in getting input on the course, have a look at our page on Gathering Teaching Feedback. Our Assessment Portal also covers a lot of these topics.

These pages and hubs discuss a variety of issues that are relevant to all classes. But seminars raise one issue that warrants particular attention here: participation. As we mentioned above, seminars rely on participation, so you're going to need a plan for grading it. Perhaps you have a rubric for grading contributions to class conversation (this piece on Faculty Focus offers a good example), or perhaps you just give students full credit for the day as long as they contribute at least one substantial idea. Maybe you only count in-class comments and questions, or maybe you count other things (e.g., visits to office hours, attentiveness in class, and/or online discussion threads) toward the grade as well. However you do it, emphasizing, defining and articulating your expectations for participation and this portion of the grade shows students the importance of participation—and how they can succeed.

Specific Seminar Models

First-Year Seminars

Given the power of seminars to encourage deep learning, many schools require incoming first-years to take smaller seminar courses; in a 2017 anthology on the topic, Tracy L. Skipper of the University of South Carolina reported that 90% of four-year institutions had incorporated first-year seminars into their curricula. At Georgetown, first-year students have several options:

  • First-years in the College can apply to be enrolled in an Ignatius Seminar, in which "small student groups...join their professors in the creative exploration of mind and spirit."
  • These same students can also apply to be placed in a Liberal Arts Seminar, "a yearlong multidisciplinary course exploring the cultural history of the Mediterranean through fictional and nonfictional narratives."
  • Many of our incoming students will take the Writing and Culture Seminar, a writing-intensive course that "provides students with opportunities to connect their writing with critical reading and thinking, inquiry, and analysis."
  • Our McDonough School of Business offers a first-year seminar in which students can "investigate the nature of scholarship, think about important ideas in business, and achieve intellectual and personal growth."
  • In our School of Foreign Service, all incoming students take a proseminar called INAF 100; these proseminars are "small interdisciplinary courses designed to train students in the academic reading and writing skills necessary for success in the SFS program."

Whether at Georgetown or beyond, first-year seminars can take a variety of forms. That said, building off the 2013 work of Kuh and O'Donnell, Skipper argues that, for these seminars to be high-impact practices, they must involve some of the following characteristics in order to lead to lasting positive results for the student:

  • performance expectations set at appropriately high levels;
  • significant investment of time and effort by students over an extended period of time;
  • interactions with faculty and peers about substantive matters;
  • experiences with diversity, wherein students are exposed to and must contend with people and circumstances that differ from those with which students are familiar;
  • frequent, timely, and constructive feedback;
  • periodic, structured opportunities to reflect on and integrate learning;
  • opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications; and/or
  • public demonstration of competence.

Senior Capstones

By the time our students are seniors, they have hopefully already experienced a number of seminar courses. The purpose of a capstone, then, is not usually to give a senior a first encounter with seminar-style learning but to create a learning experience in that mold that's focused specifically on helping the student integrate and make coherent meaning from the four years of education that are coming to a close. In the words of educators Mike Egan, Kristi Kneas, and Michael Reder, "By definition, a capstone project will be integrative in nature. Well-designed capstone experiences also have the potential to be driven by student interests, to be applied to real-world issues, and to integrate knowledge beyond the student's major to include interdisciplinary concepts explored through general education, academic minors, internships, co-curricular learning opportunities, and other sources." Frequently this involves student "signature work"—significant, culminating projects rooted in student experience and interest.

Drawn to these opportunities, a number of departments and programs at Georgetown have instituted senior capstone experiences:

  • All senior undergraduates in the McDonough School of Business take a senior capstone entitled Social Responsibilities of Business. (Starting in 2021, this will be called Ethical Values of Business.)
  • All senior undergraduates in the Walsh School of Foreign Service can apply to be in the SFS Senior Capstone Program, "offering Georgetown seniors the opportunity to digest their experiences on campus as they begin their transitions from college to postgraduate life."
  • In Georgetown's College, capstone opportunities vary by department.

Many of these courses result in signature work, such as a thesis. Our library gathers some of these projects on DigitalGeorgetown.

Senior Capstone seminars often try to help soon-to-be-graduates think about how the college experience points them toward their post-college future. They wrestle with questions like, After all I've encountered here, what do I care about most? In what kinds of work situations do I thrive? What do I still have to learn? What do I want to do with the next phase of my life?

Additional Resources

Please reach out to us at cndls@georgetown.edu if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.