Seminars are often defined as small, discussion-based courses. Typically, students complete readings and assignments before the class and discuss major themes or topics during class. The flexibility of class discussions stems largely from grounding in the Vygotskyian social learning theory, which emphasizes knowledge and conceptual gain through peer-to-peer dialogue. Vygotsky understood peers to coexist in the “zone of proximal development,” where knowledge could be shared and misconceptions clarified through dialogue (Vygotsky, 1962). Moreover, this kind of semi-public dialogue can facilitate better speaking skills and human reasoning (Hollander, 2002).
When an instructor effectively facilitates rich discussion during class, their students are more apt to build upon the existing knowledge frameworks they continue to develop, and achieve better learning outcomes. One study suggests that students prefer the intimacy of small group discussion over whole-group discussion (Fox-Cardamone et. al, 2002); instructors should consider group work and other activities that integrate both practices, and evaluate the preferences and needs of their specific classes.
With the transition to remote learning, seminar courses and effective class discussions need reconsideration in their structure and approach in order to establish new channels of energy and interactivity in an online seminar classroom.
To plan for the academic year, a Seminar Task Force was formed from the Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) to provide guidance for Yale seminar instructors. Below we highlight a sample of pedagogical strategies developed by the Poorvu Center and the FAS Task force to inspire creative solutions to teaching seminars remotely. You may also view the full list of recommendations from the Seminar Task Force.
- To preserve the dynamism of seminar discussions, make real-time interactions the centerpiece of a seminar course by scheduling synchronous Zoom sessions that invite dialogue between instructor and students and among students.
- Be flexible about when real-time interactions occur. It may help to create smaller tutorial groups to accommodate clusters of students in different time zones or with different schedules.
- To encourage students to ask questions freely and to experiment with new ideas, do not record via Zoom student discussions in seminar. If you need to record for some reason such as an absent student from seminar, obtain students’ permission first and try to limit the recording to the didactic portions of a session.
- Cultivate a sense of community in your seminar by arriving early and staying late to each Zoom session to invite students to informally check-in, inviting all students to attend office hours a few times during the course, and gathering anonymous feedback from students periodically throughout the course via Canvas. Encourage students to build relationships with each other through platforms such as Groupme, Slack, or Discord.
- Consider digital tools to encourage participation and to supplement live discussion with asynchronous modes of participation. Pose the discussion questions you would have asked in class on a Canvas discussion board, using VoiceThread, or through readings with Perusall.
- Assign students to pairs or small groups to discuss the assigned topic through Canvas Groups. You could ask them to report key takeaways or summary points from their discussions during real-time interactions with the entire class.
- Keep in mind that when you shift discussion-based communication online, students will benefit by having clear expectations for participation synchronously (e.g. videos are encouraged to be on unless doing so creates issues of access and equity) and asynchronously (e.g. that discussion posts should be well-written and meet established course norms for collegial exchange; length or number of responses expected).
- Use a series of short reflection assignments to help students think through readings and show their effort. The prompt for the reflection pieces can be simple (“Analyze a key idea from today’s reading”) or more complex (“Contrast a key idea from today’s reading with one from last week’s reading”). Let students know that this is a low-stakes assignment meant to spur their thinking.
- Research papers and final projects are important features of many seminars. Consider whether students will have access remotely to the materials they need for their final projects.
Fox-Cardamone, L, and Rue, S. (2002). Students’ Responses to Active-Learning Strategies: An Examination of Small-Group and Whole-Group Discussion. Research for Educational Reform 8 (3): 3-15.
Hollander, J. (2002). Learning to Discuss: Strategies for Improving the Quality of Class Discussion. Teaching Sociology 30 (3): 317-327.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).
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