Behold the Seminars: Reflections on Student Feedback

Maria Hadjimarkou is a Lecturer in Biological Psychology at the University of Sussex School of Psychology.  She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a member of the SEDA Community of Practice for Transitions. She has several years of experience in Higher Education in the UK and abroad. At Sussex, Maria is involved in activities that promote public awareness of the role of sleep in health and wellbeing and encourages her students to get involved in scholarship activities such as co-authoring articles on sleep and wellbeing for young readers.  

It is challenging for students to feel part of a community when they find themselves in a large amphitheatre among hundreds of other students. Convenors of these large modules like me acknowledge this as the downside of large cohorts. But here come the seminars! Based on student feedback, seminars can become instrumental in shifting things around. 

A feedback survey was launched during the second and third week of the Spring term in a large second-year core module. The module consisted of weekly lectures and bi-weekly seminars that focused on features of the material delivered in a lecture the week before. For these seminars, the students were split into groups of a minimum of 20 and a maximum of 50 students. The survey included module-specific questions but also tapped into various aspects of student experience. 

Based on students’ responses it became clear that we should be investing more in our seminars as they have the potential to be transformative. The overwhelming majority (84%) of the students who took part, reported that the seminars were a positive experience and 74% reported that the seminars offered the best opportunity for them to interact with their peers and to develop a sense of community. As they pointed out, interacting with each other may not come naturally to some, but if the conditions are right, they will discuss ideas and experiences and feel connected. 

In addition to encouraging peer interaction and a sense of community, seminars were identified by students as helpful in understanding the lecture material and gaining a broader understanding of the concepts covered in the lecture. They commented on the seminars saying that they were rewarding and interesting and used adjectives such as ‘great’, ‘fun’, ‘thought-provoking’, ‘inclusive’ and even ‘excellent’. 

Of course, not all seminars are created equal, and this is something that also came through in the survey as students made references to other seminar experiences that were not useful or fun. So, it is up to us the convenors, to structure seminars in a way that will foster interaction and inclusion. Good seminars have the potential to engage students and enhance their understanding of the lecture material as well as the greater context in which the material relates to, as in how it may apply to society or a particular field. Moreover, seminars allow students to express themselves and interact with their peers in a relaxed environment. It has been argued that seminars may help to ‘level the playing field’ in the sense that they help eliminate any disparities between students who face disadvantages (Betton & Branston, 2022). In addition, attending seminars has been linked to better student performance (Betton & Branston, 2022; Marburger, 2001; Stanca, 2006). 

Based on student feedback from this survey, successful seminars need to have a few key ingredients:

  1. Appropriate readings in terms of both quality and quantity: too much material or readings that are too difficult are likely to demotivate students and result in a negative experience or disengagement with the material altogether.
  2. Appropriate activities which students will find fun and at the same time interesting, as they get to explore material that is relevant to the lecture, and beyond.
  3. Approachable tutors. Their approach, energy and demeanour are crucial, and they can greatly influence the climate in the room and the degree to which students feel comfortable to participate or not.
  4. All the seminar components (i.e. structure, activities etc) should allow space and time for interaction in a relaxed environment, which is what ultimately makes seminars fundamentally different from lectures.

So, it seems that the humble 50-minute seminars may hold the key to a lot of the ‘plagues’ that we have been facing in Higher Education, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic and the general drop in student engagement. It is worth our time to plan and structure seminars carefully, as they may be the unsung hero of these large cohorts such as mine. Moreover, feedback surveys are vital in helping us understand how students perceive our teaching approaches, so that we can adjust and steer our efforts towards more effective learning and better teaching experience.


Tagged with:
Posted in Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *