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.
The advantages of seminar courses can be considerable:
Georgetown professors Christopher King, Alex Theos, and Rhonda Dzakpasu on the opportunities and challenges of teaching seminar-style courses.
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.
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.
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.
Georgetown professors Alex Theos, Christopher King, and Rhonda Dzakpasu with tips on getting the most out of teaching seminar-style courses.
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:
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:
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:
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?
Georgetown professors Alex Theos with ideas on how to best approach first-year vs. senior seminars.
Please reach out to us at email@example.com if you'd like to have a conversation with someone at CNDLS about these or other teaching issues.