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Student Engagement Techniques for Seminars

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The steps students must take to prepare for the discussion encourage them to stay focused in their reading and not to get more deeply into the source, even if they initially find it overwhelming or off putting. The structure of the small-group discussion provides even shy and diffident students and non-native speakers with a platform to practice their voice. Additionally, the passages that each student reads are ones that they found to be most personally relevant and therefore require some degree of individual commitment.



The posting below looks at some interesting techniques to make seminars more effective.  It is from the book, Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley. JOSSEY-BASS: A Wiley Imprint The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. Copyright 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Student Engagement Techniques for Seminars

Student Engagement Techniques (SETs)


THE STUDENT ENGAGEMENT TECHNIQUES (SETs) are fifty field-tested learning activities that one or more college teachers have found effective in engaging students. Each SET promotes active learning by requiring students to participate in activities such as reading, writing, discussing, problem solving, or reflecting. Each SET can also foster motivation because most students find the activities interesting or valuable. The techniques are drawn primarily from the good practice literature. The format is modeled on the schema developed by K. Patricia Cross and Thomas A. Angelo in Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs; Angelo & Cross, 1993) and continued in Collaborative Learning Techniques (CoLTs; Barkley, Cross, & Major,


                                                     Student Engagement Technique #7 Seminar

Essential Characteristics


Primary Mode                                      Collaborative

Activity Focus                                     Multiple

Duration of Activity                           Single Session

Online Transferability                        Medium



"Seminar" helps students prepare for and participate in an in-depth, focused, and meaningful small-group discussion of a text. In preparation for class, students read a document, marking and prioritizing specific passages they want to discuss with the group, and writing a short essay about what they read in response to a

prompt. Students bring their marked-up copies and essay to class, and they use these as their ticket to participate in a highly structured small-group discussion.

The steps students must take to prepare for the discussion encourage them to stay focused in their reading and not to get more deeply into the source, even if they initially find it overwhelming or off putting. The structure of the small-group discussion provides even shy and diffident students and non-native speakers with a platform to practice their voice. Additionally, the passages that each student reads are ones that they found to be most personally relevant and therefore require some degree of individual commitment.


1.  Select a text that is conceptually rich (a journal piece, a book chapter, a newspaper editorial) and duplicate it or provide a Portable Document File (PDF) online so that each student has his or her own copy to mark up.

2.  Craft a prompt for a writing assignment that connects to the reading and will prepare students for participating in a discussion.

3.  Create a handout that provides students with directions for both the reading and discussion. Consider incorporating Exhibit 12.3, "Identifying Good Seminar Behaviors."

4.  Outside of class, students read the document, marking and then prioritizing the passages that they found to be most interesting, provocative, puzzling, and so forth and that they want to discuss with the group. They also write a brief essay in response to the instructor-developed prompt. This preparation is their ticket for

assignment to a small group (although they do not submit the essay until the SET is finished).

5.  The teacher forms prepared students into groups of 4-6. (Either dismiss unprepared students, or allow them to observe in fishbowl fashion, sitting in chairs outside a group, listening to the discussion but not participating.)

6.  In round-robin fashion, each student selects one of his or her high priority passages, identifies it (such as "page 3 paragraph 2") so that other group members can follow along, reads it aloud to the group, and then briefly explains why it was selected. The  other group members listen and take notes but do not respond.

7.  After every student has contributed, students respond to what they heard from one or two of the other participants.

8.  Students enter into a free-flowing discussion, sharing what they learned or found most meaningful, and as much as possible connecting their comments to specific passages in the text.

9.  After discussion, students add further comments, reflections, or insights as a postscript to their essays and submit them to the instructor.


Intro to American Literature

Professor Sal Inas uses "Seminar" regularly to provide a structure for both discussion and in-depth analysis of reading assignments. For example, as students read John Steinbeck's East of Eden, he organizes a "Seminar" around the theme of immigration and American literature, and asks students to mark up the text as well as writ a brief essay in response to the prompt "When Sam and his wife Liza immigrate to America, what is it from the 'old country' that they bring with them, and why? How does living in America change them, and their children? What are the challenges and the opportunities America presents to the


Cultural Anthropology

To help students explore anthropological perspectives on contemporary issues, this professor decided to use "Seminar" to have his students discuss a think piece on the challenges Bhutan, an isolated Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, faces as it opens to the Western world. She asked students to read through the article and mark it carefully, paying special attention to the topics of political organization, language, kinship, religions, and social inequality that they were studying in class. She also asked student to write responses to each of the

following questions:

       Identify three examples the author provides on how tradition

       and change now coalesce in Bhutan.

       Discuss three concerns a cultural anthropologist might have

       regarding the impact of westernization on traditional Bhutanese culture.

Students used their marked-up articles and their written assignment as the basis for small-group discussions. The teacher believed that the activity helped deepen students' grasp of the concepts, theories, and

methods used in the class, and by focusing on the challenges Bhutan was facing right now, that the activity helped give the course contemporary relevance.


This technique is designed for a face-to-face environment. However, the basic steps can be adapted for an online class. For the reading stage of this SET, students can take notes on specific passages and write the essay and then submit these as an assignment. After submission, students can be assigned to a group to participate in an online discussion. To implement the SET without adaptation, students could scan and upload their marked-up documents and talk "in the moment" using synchronous tools such as teleconferencing or chat

sessions---but these modifications are cumbersome and probably not worth the effort.


Most students will need guidance on how to read critically and how to contribute effectively to the discussion. Suggest to students that as they read, they keep in mind the following three questions and underline appropriate passages or make comments in the margins:

1.  What does the text say? (Stick to straightforward facts.)

2.  What does the text mean? (Look for the concepts or interpretations behind the exact words or inferences between the lines.)

3.  Why is this important? (Share your personal analysis, reaction, or evaluation.)

To prepare students for good discussion, consider reviewing with them Exhibit 12.3, "Identifying Good Seminar Behaviors."



When assessing seminar behaviors one can ask, How does a person contribute to the seminar? To what degree does he or she engage in the following three kinds of behaviors?

A.  Introduce substantive points: A substantive point is one that is

clearly a result of thoughtful reading and thinking about the assigned

text and becomes the focus for group exploration lasting several


* Identify essential issues or questions the text is discussing.

* Point to the author's main hypotheses, claims, and supporting arguments and evidence.

* Point to important passages that need to be understood.

* Explain the complexities faced in exploring this text.

* Describe passages that are personally meaningful or connected to some shared experience.

B. Deepen the discussion: Help the seminar process with individual

contributions that lead the group to discover new insights and

understanding of assigned readings.

* Provide additional supportive quotes; explain relevance; ask clarifying questions.

* Share the thought process that was personally used in developing an idea.

* Paraphrase what the author means in a specific passag

* Summarize the arguments being presented.

* Identify similarities and differences in positions being argued.

* Challenge an idea or present an alternative interpretation.

* Connect ideas from several participants or from other texts the group has read.

* Formulate insightful questions that spark group response.

* Introduce personal experiences that illuminate the text for others.

C.  Facilitate group exploration: Focus on what the group is

accomplishing more that on individual students' performance.

* Help to identify the goals and format for the group process.

* Keep the group on task.

* Focus group back to the text.

* Summarize for the group what has been discussed.

* Bring closure to one point and make a transition to a new one.

* Paraphrase someone's comments, identify what you don't understand, and/or formulate a specific question

    asking for clairification.

* Encourage nonparticipants by being alert to who wants to speak, or

   who hasn't spoken, and help them get the floor.

* Indicate support by responding to a person's ideas, or complimenting them.

* Show active listening by means of nonverbal cues like eye contact, nods, and smiles.

* Become aware when dominating the discussion and then modify behavior.

* Defuse a tense moment with use of humor.

Source: Used by permission of Jim Harnish.


Harnish, J. (2008). What is a seminar? Seminar process to encourage

participation and listening. Identifying good seminar behaviors.

Handouts distributed at Collaborative Learning Conference II: Working

Together, Learning Together, Everett Community

College, Everett, WA, February 22-23.