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How to Run Your Own Seminars

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The most important thing for you to do is to enjoy your seminar. Relish the opportunity of running an interactive learning event that will engage your fellow students – and hopefully take your own research or writing forward in the process. 


The posting below looks at key elements in conducting successful seminars.  It is from Chapter 12, How to be Creative in Your Learning, in the book, Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at University - Sage Study Skills, 4th edition, by Tom Burns & Sandra Sinfield. Published by SAGE Publications Ltd, 1 Oliver’s Yard 55 City Road , London EC1Y 1SP © Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield 2016. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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How to Run Your Own Seminars


Seminars and workshops (discussed later in the chapter but not presented here) are more interactive than a typical presentation – this is how to do them well.

-       Introduction                                                               

-       What is a seminar?                                                     

-       Why engage in seminars?                                           

-       Seminars: five top tips                                               

-       The advantages and disadvantages of seminars                     


Typically students at university attend lectures and seminars – and the seminar is where you are encouraged to discuss and engage with the ideas in the lecture. You may have to prepare by reading or watching videos – and in the seminar you are supposed to be active, to take part. If you are asked to run a seminar or workshop, take these things into account for you will have to get your participants actively engaged with your information; and you may be assessed on how well you managed to get your audience to participate and do things – rather than just sit and listen to you.

You may be asked to run a seminar as a postgraduate or as part of a third year project or dissertation. You may be expected to share your research findings with your audience – in the hope that feedback from your audience will develop the ideas you already have so that your final project or dissertation is improved.

However, many university courses now want their students to be more active in their learning overall and students may be asked to run seminars or workshops as alternative assessments – for we learn best when we teach something to another. There are also projects like Students as Partners or Students as Producers where you may be expected to take much more of an active role in the life of your university and in the teaching and learning of your course (search online for more information on these projects).

— TIP –

Whatever the reason for your seminar or workshop, remember, you are usually being expected to teach your fellow students something, not by presenting information or by telling them something – but by getting your fellow students doing something to help them learn. Organizing this is a powerful learning opportunity for you.

What is a seminar?

“Giving seminars and workshops is also common when participating in extra-curricular academic and students’ union activities. Our SU used to train people to give seminars and run workshops. They help to develop transferable skills and help make you employable. Have a look at the SU packs on ‘Key Skills’ and their ‘Training Games Guide.’”

Typically a seminar is made up of four parts: paper, presentation, discussion, conclusion.

-       Paper: prepared by you, the seminar leader, and circulated in advance to all participants. Check with the tutor as to what form the paper should take – essay, report, journal article. Can it be something creative – poem, animation, other?

-       Presentation: given by you on the seminar topic. Not just the paper read aloud, but a proper presentation that captures the key aspects of your research to date.

-       Discussion: this is not just the question and answer session that normally follows a presentation. You must make sure that the audience engages with your ideas in some way. Give your audience questions to discuss. Divide them into groups and give each group a different question. Allow time for discussion – and hold a plenary where you collect all the feedback.

-       Overall conclusion: you, the seminar leader, have to draw together everything that was covered in the paper, in the presentation and in the group discussion. If this is part of a research process, you should also say how the seminar will help to shape the next step of your research.

Why engage in seminars?

The seminar is highly interactive, engaging and productive; designed to enhance both individual and group learning processes. If you are giving a seminar you will have to work out how to manage each part of the seminar process: paper, presentation, discussion and conclusion. This develops your active learning and communication strategies. For those attending a seminar, it is a chance to participate in learning with their peers; it can be an interesting and intense active and interactive learning experience. It can model good practice for participants as they get to read other students’ papers, hear other students’ presentations or participate in their workshops and engage in lively discussion on a range of topics.

As a seminar leader, you will have to take control of your own seminar and then think how to manage the learning of your audience. You will have to make your discussion topics useful – to your audience and to your own thinking. If running a workshop you will have to plan a range of activities to get people involved and to help them learn something from you. The audience has to commit to engaging generously and enthusiastically with the teaching and learning situation that you create.

You will have to develop interpersonal skills to manage the discussions and make sure that everyone participates positively. They have to learn how to act like enthusiastic and engaged participants. By the end of a seminar or workshop you should have enhanced your analytical and critical faculties and your communication, team work, interpersonal and leadership skills – and your participants should have had an interesting, engaging and intense learning experience.

Seminars: five top tips

1.     Know what you want

“When I gave my seminar I put people into groups and got them discussing different subjects — I got some great ideas – and it meant I was able to work more closely with the people in those smaller groups whilst they were talking.”

You can run a seminar early in your dissertation process – to get feedback on what you are doing, and how you are conducting your research. You can run a seminar later – and get feedback on your writing – your audience can comment on how you are presenting your information, or on how you are interpreting it.  So, if you are weak in process – go early – if you feel you are weaker at writing – go late.

2.     Plan the whole seminar

-       Plan the paper: if you are delivering early, your paper may consist of quite brief notes of what you are going to do in your research and why. You might note the context of your research (what makes it a valuable or interesting topic and what gaps there are already in this field) and the reading and other research activities (interviews, questionnaires, mindmaps, drawings, collage-production) that you have already undertaken. If you are going late, your paper may very well look like a nearly finished draft of what you would expect to hand in.  Think about highlighting areas of the paper upon which you would appreciate critical feedback. 

– TIPS –

·      Do you have to present papers that look very similar to journal articles – or can you be more creative? We have papers presented as poetry or proclamations; whilst this was a very creative strategy it might not be appropriate for you.

·      Write your ‘discussion’ questions on your paper. As the paper is typically circulated in advance, it means that your audience will have already read and thought about your questions before they attend your seminar. 

-       Plan the presentation: whatever style of paper you have circulated in advance, you should expect your audience to have read it: thus there is no need to cover the whole paper again in your presentation. So, in your presentation you need to focus on the interesting bits. Outline the aims and purpose of your research, say why you were interested in that topic, why you took the approach that you did, highlight any problems that you encountered. You might describe how you overcame your problems – or invite solutions from your audience. 

– TIPS –

·      Be interesting! Keep your voice lively, display enthusiasm for your subject and invite real collaboration from your audience.

·      If you have managed to engage your audience they may well give you really good advice about how to extend, develop or refine your research or how to improve your paper.

-       Plan the discussion topics and discussion strategy: it is very easy to waste the seminar opportunity by just seeing it as an ordeal to get through rather than the collaborative learning event it can be. If you want to benefit from your seminar, think really hard about your discussion topics. Set real questions upon which you want your audience to think – and the answers which could take your own research further forward.

– TIPS –

·      Do set questions that will help your own research.

·      Do divide the audience into small groups and give each group a question to discuss.

·      Do allow a set time for discussion. Hold a plenary to get feedback from the groups.

-       Plan the overall conclusion: remember that you will have to sum up your whole seminar at the end. Prepare most of your summary in advance: key points from paper; key points from presentation; discussion questions. Then the only thing you have to capture in the seminar itself will be the discussion points raised by your audience.

– TIPS –

·      Give flip chart paper to your audience. Invite people to write key points on the flip chart pages and collect these at the end.

·      Sum up these key points and keep the pages to make sure that you have the ideas to use in your research.

3.     Practise, practise, practise

Refine your paper – rehearse your presentation – draft and re-draft your work.

4.     Have confidence and enthusiasm

The most important thing for you to do is to enjoy your seminar. Relish the opportunity of running an interactive learning event that will engage your fellow students – and hopefully take your own research or writing forward in the process.

 – TIPS –

·      If getting students to discuss your questions in groups, move amongst the groups to check that they are discussing your topics.

·      Give flip chart markers out as well as the paper, so they make notes that can be seen.

·      Allow a plenary session where everyone can briefly discuss each other’s points.

·      Think about how what you have learned really will help you with your research.

5.     SWOT it

What were your strengths and weaknesses? What will you do next in your research project? Make notes.

The advantages and disadvantages of seminars

As with any group or collaborative learning experience there are advantages and disadvantages to the seminar.


-       Collaborative, collegiate experience.

-       Active and interactive learning.

-       Intense learning experience.

-       Extends knowledge of a topic.

-       Models good practice – rehearsing your writing, presentation and discussion techniques.

-       Develops research angles.

-       Improves grades in associated dissertation and essay work.

-       Develops personal, interpersonal, and communication skills.

-       Develops organization and time management skills.

-       We learn best when we teach other people.


-       Lack of commitment in the seminar leader produces an uncomfortable event.

-       Poor techniques – e.g., reading a paper instead of giving a presentation – switches audience off.

-       Ill-prepared discussions become embarrassing.

-       Ill-managed discussions can become exclusive, alienating or confrontational.

-       Lack of commitment in an audience can mean that little or no learning actually takes place.

Obviously all the disadvantages can be turned into advantages with the proper planning and commitment.