Participating in Seminars

[Last modified 09.01.09]

General Remarks

A seminar is a small group of people (usually less than 20) who meet to discuss a particular subject. It is, first and foremost, a conversation among people who share a common interest in expanding their understanding of idea, a book, or some other specific topic.

The seminar session has a number of specific purposes. First, it is designed to create a situation where the participants share their views about something very specific, so that everyone's understanding of that focus is expanded, improved, and deepened. Second, a seminar seeks to promote the skills of conversation, a complex set of habits and attitudes which, in large part, determine our abilities to deal with others. And finally a seminar tries to foster an ongoing discussion which will continue outside the classroom. This third aspact means that there is no definite end-point to our seminar discussions and that they are intended to continue beyond the classroom.

In the setting of an educational institution, the rationale for seminar style learning rests on the well-known fact that students learn far more from talking and listening to each other than they do from listening passively to a lecturer. And, more importantly, they remember what they learn in a seminar far better than they do with lectures. In addition, the seminar seeks to enrich the student's social experiences at the institution, to make sure people have the best opportunity for forming friendships of various kinds and for discovering others with whom they can carry on meaningful conversations (and not just about school work).

Successful seminars, however, do not just happen. Because of the complex nature of the social interactions, those participating have to work to create and sustain a conversational setting in which, individually and collectively, the aims of the seminar are realized as fully as possible. This demand requires from each of the participants a continuing commitment to making the enterprise work.

The Ground Rules for a Seminar

While a seminar, like a conversation, is in many respects a good deal more relaxed and free-wheeling than, say, a lecture, it does nevertheless have some unwritten rules. Participants need to be aware of these in order to understand the procedures and responsibilities of all seminar participants.

1. The seminar is, above all, a gathering of equals. That means that everyone has an equal right to be heard and an equal responsibility for keeping the seminar working properly. While the seminar has a leader (whether the instructor or a fellow student), that leader is one among equals. The leader's duties usually involve getting the seminar started, occasional prompting and/or clarification, and winding things up and the end. Beyond that, however, the leader has no particular duty greater than anyone else's for keeping the conversation going in a useful manner. Hence, if you are experiencing some problems in the seminar, the first question to consider is this: What can you, as an equal member of the group, do to help remedy the situation?

2. Seminars should be informal, but also polite. That is, people's views should be treated with respect (which does not mean that they cannot be challenged), and the normal courtesies of polite conversation should be observed. If there is a breach of such politeness, each member of the group has the responsibility for pointing it out and helping to remedy it. It is important to remember that courtesy is not just a matter of verbal niceties. One's courtesy also manifests itself in one's tone, bodily posture, and particular activities while someone else is speaking (e.g., slouching, sitting away from the table, eating, yawning, conversing with others, and so on).

3. A seminar conversation involves everyone at the table. Therefore, remarks are directed to all participants, not just to the leader of the seminar or to any other person in particular.

4. While seminars have no predetermined structure, they usually have a very specific focus (in our case a text). Hence, the business of the seminar is to stay on that focus. Digressions are not unusual (and sometimes useful), but often they need to be controlled and, if necessary, ended, so that the attention of the participants may direct itself once again onto the specific focus. Here again, all participants have an equal responsibility for dealing with any problems of this sort.

How To Be a Good Seminar Participant

Participating well in seminars is not easy. Most students require a good deal of practice in order to improve significantly. The following points should help you to focus your attention on some things directly relevant to good seminar participation.

1. To begin with there are some obvious basic points. Participants should arrive on time and stay for the length of the seminar (interruptions are irritating, and missing part of the conversation can lead to repetition). You should have the correct text with you in the proper edition (working with different translations or with editions having different page numbers can make providing references difficult and slow down the process). Participants should also attend carefully to what is going on, ready to contribute and displaying interest in the proceedings.  You should not use the seminar as your lunch hour (i.e., by bringing in something to eat while others are speaking) or as an opportunity to catch up on some sleep or to write a letter to your relatives.

2. Seminars require preparation. To be a good seminar participant you need to have read and to have thought about the text. You should be bringing to the meeting some considered reflections about the topic under discussion, perhaps even some notes you have jotted down. It is particularly irritating for those who have so prepared themselves to have to listen to someone who has not read the material but who wishes to deliver a series of opinions on it anyway. One of the best ways to prepare well for a seminar is to meet with one or two people beforehand to discuss the material (perhaps over lunch or the evening before).

3. In preparing for the seminar, think carefully about the lead-in focus question, if there is one. You might jot down a couple of points you could raise in connection with it. In addition, as you read the assigned text, make a note of anything you find really puzzling or irritating or exciting, something that might form the basis for a question or comment you would want to ask the seminar participants to respond to. You might like also to think about any useful comparisons with other books or characters from other books which you might like to introduce. You do not have to come to the seminar with your mind absolutely made up about the text under discussion (that's probably not a good idea). But you should bring a record detailing some aspects of your engagement with the text. You might not get to use these, but you should have them available.

4. The most difficult and important skill in effective seminar participation is good listening. You need to attend carefully to what others are saying. And then you need to learn to respond intelligently and helpfully. A seminar is not just a collection of individual points of view declared one after the other. It has a rhythm, often an unpredictable rhythm, which is established, above all, by the ways in the which the participants respond to each other. If someone's contribution is puzzling, then ask him to continue, taking care of a particular trouble you have with a point he raised. If the contribution is very good, tell the speaker so. If you disagree or have an alternative point, then put that on the table. As in a conversation, in a seminar the participant has to be prepared to be flexible, adjusting her participation to what is happening moment by moment throughout the seminar. This is the major challenge of the process.

5. Participants need to be careful of interrupting someone else before he is finished. This habit can close some participants down so that they are reluctant to contribute. By the same token, participants should recognize that they have the responsibility for keeping the discussion focused on the matter at hand. Thus, you should, when necessary, challenge the relevance and the direction of certain remarks. Just because you need to be polite does not mean you cannot be firm in requesting a return to the main point or to a previous point which has been abandoned too quickly.

6. It is entirely appropriate in a seminar to decline to respond if someone asks you a direct question. If you have nothing relevant to say on the point, there is no need to pretend. Simply decline the invitation, and let the seminar continue.

7. Good seminar participation does not depend upon the frequency of one's remarks. In fact, the person who is always ready to jump in at the slightest opportunity can often harm a seminar, first, by excluding others and, second, by encouraging others to rely on her to pick up any slack moments. Hence, you should constantly assess the nature of your contributions. Are you speaking up too much? Is the group getting to depend upon you too much? In this regard, you need to consider what one might call one's conversational "trigger finger." This phrase refers to the time people take to react to a question or to someone else's point. Some people react very quickly and are ready to jump in with their views almost immediately; other people need some time to reflect on how they are going to respond. If those with a quick conversational trigger finger take over, then the others rarely get a chance to speak up, because by the time they are ready the subject has shifted to something else. So you need to assess how you, in your keenness to respond, may be closing out someone whose reaction time is slower than your own.

8. It is particularly important for good seminar participation that you remain alert to the group dynamics in the seminar. For example, some people find it difficult to speak. Perhaps you could invite them to state their views on something, encourage them to pursue a point they have just introduced, or encourage them in some way to join in. The best participants in seminars are those who not only provide interesting and relevant comments themselves but also encourage others to join in.

9. Finally, a good seminar participant will reflect upon the nature of her seminar activities, paying particular attention to any habits she is falling into. Are you always sitting in the same chair? Do you always speak up early? Do you have one particular form of comment which you always use? And so on. To derive the best learning from the seminar experience, you should learn to experiment with different styles. For example, if you like to speak up and generally do so quite early, try for a couple of sessions not saying anything too early on, reserving what you have to say until later. If you are by nature someone who initiates the discussion by putting new points on the table, why not try for a few sessions being reactive, that is, taking your cue from points others have raised. And so on.

Some Problems Which Can Arise

Because seminars are in many respects unstructured and the power is distributed equally among the participants, certain problems can arise. As mentioned before, these problems belong to all participants, and it is thus the responsibility of everyone to remain alert to them and to work to mitigating them, if they do arise.

1. Certain people find putting their own comments into the discussion very difficult and thus tend to remain quiet for the entire class, often repeating the process all semester. If you are one of these people, you should really try to break your silence. Often a good way to do that is to prepare an answer to the focus question or raise some issues about it in advance and then put your view on the table immediately, before the conversation gets up a full head of steam. Alternatively, you might at some point ask someone to explain a point further, because there is something about it you do not understand. Remember that the seminar is the best educational opportunity you are going to have to learn to speak up; you are among friends and peers and there is no threat in the situation. So make the most of it, even if you have to force yourself the first few times. Beyond this, those who do not find speaking up a problem have a responsibility for encouraging those that do. If there are people who never speak at all, then everyone is the seminar is failing in some way.

2. A different problem can arise from people who talk too much, who insist on taking up more than their share of the common time. Here again the best solution to this is some self-assessment and self-control. However, if the situation gets out of hand, it is entirely appropriate for someone to point out to the participant that he is taking up too much of the time (perhaps a private word first, rather than as a general group comment). The same is true for people who constantly speak up with irrelevant digressions, taking the attention away from the specific focus of the discussion. Everyone has the duty to pull the discussion back.

3. If there are serious problems, like severe clashes of personality, which you feel are inappropriate to bring up in front of the entire group, then you should talk to the instructor as soon as possible. You should never continue to participate in a seminar with concealed feelings of frustration or anger. The instructor may be able to do something to help you. Often it may be helpful to talk the matter over with someone else in the seminar first.

Grading Participation

The criteria that I consider include, above all, the following points (which should be obvious from the above remarks):

Some Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Seminar Participation

As you continue to participate, you need to be careful not to fall into a similar routine each time, relying only on what makes you feel comfortable. You need from time to time to assess what you are doing and, if necessary, to make an effort to improve in some areas which you may be neglecting.

To assist in this self-evaluation, I list here some important questions to think about:

1. Are you always sitting in the same place, more or less next to the same people? How is this affecting your seminar behaviour? Why not try changing to a completely different spot?

2. Do you normally talk to the same people when you have something to say, or do you make an effort to include everyone (e.g., by looking around the table as you are speaking, by addressing those who have been silent)? Are you routinely talking too much directly to the instructor present or to one or two other students?

3. When you speak up do you confine yourself only to commenting on your points of view or do you ever respond to what other people have said, encouraging them to say more or developing an idea that someone has put on the table? Do you ever compliment people for saying something useful or try to include others in the conversation by inviting them to speak?

4. Do you normally jump in quickly into a conversation or do you allow a pause to take place first? Remember that people who normally jump in quickly, immediately the previous speaker has finished, have a tendency to close out of the discussion those who need a longer pause before they will speak up. If you are one of those who likes to jump in quickly and you do so frequently, why not try holding back and, for a while anyway, not entering the conversation except after a significant pause?

The important point in all of this is to remember that everyone in the seminar has a responsibility for making the conversation as useful, inclusive, and intelligent as possible. These goals will not normally be reached, if people all fall into the most comfortable patterns, where some do all or most of the talking and others just sit and listen. If people are sitting silently in the seminar, session after session, then that may very well be the responsibility of those who do the talking and who are not giving the others the encouragement and opportunity to speak up.

If, at any time, you wish to have an informal assessment of your seminar participation, talk to me.


Once you have read these guidelines, e-mail me at john dot lynch at asu dot edu indicating that you have done so.





This document is a modified version of one released into the public domain in July 1998 by Ian Johnston