Teaching skills: Successful seminars

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New to teaching undergraduates? Getting the best from small groups

Some of the most exciting and dynamic learning can take place in small groups including field work, laboratory practicals and project work as well as the more traditional seminars. For many Postgraduate Teaching Assistants (PGTAs), this might be their most common teaching activity and for some lecturers (and students) new to the UK, small-group teaching may well be a new experience.

Be prepared: understanding the background and context of your session will ensure that you deliver relevant, challenging, dynamic and accessible learning.

  • How do your sessions fit in with the overall module or scheme of work? What has gone before; how will your session move your students on?
  • What is the general profile of your students? If you will be meeting them fairly regularly, consider getting an idea of their background, academic achievements and even learning some names beforehand.
  • Attend the lecture that your seminar supports; chat to students afterwards to get instant feedback concerning which issues need further development

Planning the content: be clear about your aims, objectives and learning outcomes. Have a structure, but build in flexibility so you can work with and around the students’ varied knowledge, questions and different learning styles.

  • Decide first what you want them to learn, and then how you can help
  • Consider discussing ‘ground rules’ with your students –  what conditions you can all agree on to make for the best learning experience?
  • Be explicit about your expectations, especially those which may not negotiable e.g. health and safety, punctuality, confidentiality, pre-session preparation.
  • Don’t try to cover everything: focus on key concepts
  • Draw on the students’ expertise and individual experiences
  • Vary the activities: pair discussion, group presentations, role play, reporting back, input from you.
  • Think about the interplay between PowerPoint and handouts
  • Timing: have more material than you need.
  • Decide how you will find out during your session that significant learning is taking place
  • Ensure the students are working at least as hard as you are

Delivery: small-group teaching is not just an opportunity to lecture to fewer students in a smaller room, but a chance to work closely with students, to delve more deeply into the subject. And as a facilitator and mentor to develop their skills and to provide the opportunity for interactive learning. So:

  • Build rapport: greet students as they arrive, try some low-key ice-breakers (e.g. do ask them to introduce themselves and think of one question they’d like answered by the end of the session; don’t get them to hug each other)
  • Stress the benefits of participation
  • Start with a simple, 5 minute activity (question on board or on handout)
  • Talk to every student within the first few minutes: it establishes your tone and expectations (welcoming, supportive, questioning, challenging), gets everyone involved and you can ‘take the temperature’ and check out their expectations and what they already know.
  • Unless everyone is relaxed, articulate, keen to question and contribute, it’s best to avoid open questions to the whole group to start with; it’s rarely successful and the answers don’t necessarily advance learning or let you know what the whole group has understood.

And most importantly: don’t underestimate the importance you have as a role model and someone they may aspire to both in terms of how you approach learning and what you have to offer them.

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