How to run a successful seminar

Seminars are not simply about learning in a given subject discipline they are also about learning to learn. All participants bear some share of responsibility for the success of the individual session but the tutor has a particular responsibility to structure the seminar in such a way as to enable participation


Students introduce themselves to each other in pairs, according to some formula such as ‘three things you want other people to know about you’. Pairs then introduce each other to the whole group.

Buzz groups

If the discussion is flagging, ask the students to break into twos / threes to collect points on a particular topic (or to find three quotations that bear on the discussion). An alternative is to stop the discussion and announce that there will be five / ten minutes for silent individual note-making (helps to give out a subject – e.g. find a quotation which illustrates, or counters, the last point made).

Agenda setting

When starting on a new text or topic let the group know you will be doing this the week before. Informal buzz groups agree a shortlist of areas they think the class should consider. You then collect these ideas onto a whiteboard / flipchart. (You can of course slip in your own ideas as well.) The group then prioritises the topics and discusses the order in which to approach them. These could then either be pursued in the whole group, or you then break the class into groups and allocate (or let them choose) one of the identified topics to each group, with a task (e.g. find three quotations which illuminate this subject and put up an argument for your choice).

In small groups: give out on handouts a critical extract, or a set of propositions, which encapsulates a particular approach to the subject in hand. Each group has to prepare (on the spot) an argument either for or against this case. Debate then held in the main group. Allocate to pairs different quotations from the text you are using ….Pair then has to make a three minute case (to share later) for the significance of this quotation.Posters. Small groups make a poster of their main points. These are then pinned up for the groups to circulate and read

Debate around the room

Before the class, prepare the room by putting up  big notices in three corners of the room: ‘Agree’, ‘Disagree’ and ‘Don’t Know’. Think of a provocative comment on or interpretation of the text or topic you are teaching.Ask students to consider the assertion on their own for a short period, jotting down a few key points. Without discussing it with each other, ask your students to go and stand in  the appropriate corner of the room, under one of the notices. If they are, at this stage, undecided, that’s fine: nevertheless, all students must physically move to one corner of the room. Tell them to present their arguments to each other, trying to argue other students out of their corner. If they hear an argument that is highly persuasive, they should move. They are entitled to move as often as they like, on the basis of the arguments they hear.If you want to, you can join in, either contributing your own views, or moving when you hear strong arguments or acting as devil’s advocate in support of a viewpoint that isn’t being strongly advocated but for which there are good arguments.


Set up small group discussion on whatever topic you’re working on, perhaps with a target in mind e.g. the 5 most important aspects of a literary movement, or writer’s techniques, or the key contexts for understanding a particular literary development. When the groups have come to some decisions, ask each group to send an ‘envoy’ to another group, to find out what their views/decisions were. The envoy should be prepared to go back to their own group with fresh ideas to see whether they want to stick by their original thinking, or temper it in the light of the ideas of another group.You can add in a third reconnaissance trip to a new group if this seems likely to yield fresh ideas.

Write before you talk

Sometimes students are thrown into discussion before they have had the opportunity to think.

Do some of the following:

  • Ask a question
  • Set up the parameters of the discussion and ask students to identify a few questions they think it would be important to discuss
  • Baldly state what the seminar will be about.
  • Now ask students to either jot down their thoughts (writing freely and for themselves only) or write down the questions they want discussed. Give them roughly five minutes.
  • Now start the discussion, or address the questions they have raised as a whole group.

The above tips are adaped from the Higher Education Academy English Subject Centre (visit the seminar teaching home page for the full version)