Focus on Research: How to Prepare For and Participate in Seminar/Tutorial Discussions

The Socratic Circle is the foundation for a good seminar/tutorial discussion

As the new academic term unfolds, it is useful to assess how well you are utilizing your time and efforts to prepare and participate in seminars and tutorials. These are special classes that stimulate critical conversations and introduce specific themes and ideas related to the course content, but seminars and tutorials are also designed to help students prepare for the art of reflective reading and shared inquiry and debate. As academics, your professors have spent years of their professional lives reading and analyzing important core texts in their field and contributing to the ongoing debates through their own published work. The seminars and tutorials you find yourself in are often organized around many of these specific readings, and so in order to get the most out of these classes, it is helpful to have something of a game plan in place:

Pre-Seminar Work: 
In my experience, I have found that many students believe they have prepared adequately for seminar by simply reading through the assigned text(s). This is a common misconception since reading for an academic discussion is very different from reading for a lecture class or even for pleasure. Simply put, you must read the assigned texts a number of times, and with a series of goals in mind including: 1) isolating of the main argument of the reading in a few short sentences; 2) determining how the author uses evidence and examples to make their point; 3) figuring out how the reading is intervening and placing the topic at hand in a new light; and 4) getting some sense of how the reading fits into the larger conversation occurring in your class around the topic. Once that is done, you can go back and begin pinpointing parts of the reading the surprised or intrigued you, flagging parts of the reading that can be usefully raised in a discussion. This is also the point at which note-taking and engaging in your own dialogue with the reading enters the equation (if you have been assigned questions ahead of time, think about how you can answer them by pointing to places in the text as your own evidence).

A wonderful post by educator Jo Van Every describes how she placed the process into some perspective for her students, providing clear guidelines for how to approach pre-seminar work:  

“I had to explain what a journal article was doing. That it was a contribution to a debate. That the author is making an argument and supporting it with evidence.  I told them they should put down their highlighters and read the whole article through once first and try to summarize it in one or two sentences. Then they should read it a second time, more carefully, focusing on the evidence and other details presented. Just the idea that it might be necessary to read the assigned article more than once is a surprise to most students. Many of them think that if they don’t get it on the first reading, it is too hard.”
Planning how to read the text and taking targeted notes
will prepare you for seminars and tutorials
During the Seminar: 
If you do your preparation work effectively, you will feel confident and ready to contribute and listen to others once you attend the seminar. In most cases, your seminar will follow the Socratic Method, which involves a form of critical inquiry, reflection, and debate among individuals through the process of asking and answering questions. Often times one person or a group will lead the seminar, but it is important to participate in the discussion with the following useful guidelines from
  1. Refer to the text when needed during the discussion. A seminar is not a test of memory. You are not “learning a subject.” Instead, you our goal is to understand the ideas, issues, and values reflected in the text.
  2. It's OK to "pass" when asked to contribute, but plan to make a contribution later on.
  3. Do not participate if you are not prepared. A seminar should not be a bull session. 
  4. Do not stay confused; ask for clarification.
  5. Stick to the point currently under discussion; make notes about ideas you want to come back to.
  6. Avoid raising hands; take turns speaking.
  7. Listen carefully.
  8. Speak up so that all can hear you.
  9. Talk to each other (not just at each other), and not just to the leader or teacher.
  10. Discuss ideas rather than each other's opinions.
  11. You are responsible for the seminar, even if you don't know it or admit it.

Keep in mind too that quality over quantity also applies to seminar participation. If you are the kind of person who naturally likes to talk and share ideas, sit back at times and allow others a chance to reflect and give opinions. Silences and gaps in the discussion are also OK, as is the skill of knowing when to let someone else answer a question if you have already taken your fair share of air time. On the other hand, if you are a bit shy and more reluctant to speak up, get into the habit of planning where you could make a contribution and work on finding the confidence to speak up. Remember that not participating in a conversation prevents your valuable input and ideas from reaching your fellow students, and could also hurt your final contribution mark in the class.

After the Seminar: 
Once the seminar conversations are over, it is always a good idea to look over your notes and see if you can add any further summarizing reflections to help you when it comes time to study for an exam (if the readings are examinable) and/or when you return to the reading for future assignments. In the latter case, I often tell students that the readings they do this term could spark ideas in later years which will return them to the notes and ideas they had originally taken in their seminars. Do your future self a favour and create clear and focused notes to help flesh out the most important bits of the readings at hand. As always, the extra bit of effort you put in today will pay greater dividends in the future.