Using group work within seminars

When I first started teaching back in October of last year, one of the things I found most difficult was thinking of activities to do within seminars. An hour doesn’t seem like a very long time, especially when you have to introduce a topic which may be new to students (and in some cases, new to yourself too), but knowing exactly how I was going to fill the time with activities or discussions that would be both interesting and useful to students was more difficult and time consuming than I was expecting. I am now coming to the end of my first year of teaching, and over time it has become easier to think of what to do within each seminar and I have also cut down the amount of time that it takes to prepare each session. I think this is partly through experience, as well as through talking to various people about teaching and the kind of things that they do in their seminars.

One piece of advice that has been given to me at several times and by several people, has been to make use of group work. Nearly all of my seminars, therefore, have contained some element of group work or discussion within them. This has taken several different forms. From quickly discussing with one or two other people a few ideas at the beginning of the seminar to a large, group based activity which take around half an hour. By including different types of activities, students do not get bored of doing the same types of activities week after week, as well as getting them talking to a range of people within the group, which I think is important, especially during first year seminars.

Amongst the different types of group activities and class based discussion that I have used, one of the most memorable, in terms of engaging the group as a whole and producing the best overall discussion, was a class debate. The theme of the seminar was ‘Monarchy and Court in the Early Modern period’, and one of the key questions to be considered was who held the power within the court- the monarch, or the nobility? I separated the class into two groups and got one group to argue the case for the nobility being the ones who had the power at court, whilst the other group had to argue that it was the monarch.

I allowed about 15 minutes for each group to plan their case and to think of questions to challenge the opposing group with and about the same amount of time for the actual debate. Everyone got involved in thinking up reasons why their particular side held the power and the questions that they posed to the other side were also interesting, especially as they came up with ideas which I had not thought of. By thinking through these ideas, and examining how power at court can be viewed, it also meant that the students were aware of the historiography and the different types of interpretations of the debate. At the end of the debate, I got students to vote on who they felt, overall, had the greatest power. Each student voted for the side on which they had argued. Perhaps in hindsight this wasn’t surprising, but I had expected at least a few students to perhaps have been swayed by the arguments of the opposing side. If I was going to do this activity again which, if I teach this same seminar again, I am likely to do given that it worked well, I would divide the group into three- with the third group acting as a kind of jury to ask questions to both sides and to come up with a decision based on persuasiveness of each group’s argument and defence.

Another activity which I feel was particularly successful was where students were thinking about who in the early modern period would have been classed as ‘poor’. The seminar also considered who would have been thought of as being deserving or undeserving of charity or poor relief, and what kinds of poor relief would have been available to them. I divided the class into smaller groups, of about 3 and 4 people in each. I gave them a number of case studies of different types of people could possibly have been classed as poor. I asked each group to think of themselves as being the people who had to decide who was and who was not deserving of any kind of help, and if so, what kind this would be. I also asked them to think up a range of questions that they would ask of the people to establish their situation.

In preparation for this seminar, I had gathered a range of different types of sources to provide the information for the case studies. I used contemporary drawings of paupers, pauper letters and petitions, as well as descriptions of cases provided by parish officers. I felt that this seminar worked well in getting students thinking about the different issues surrounding the idea of poverty. It was also helpful that most, if not all, of the cases, came from primary sources and so were real people, rather than ones I had invented for the purpose of the activity. This allowed students to see the problems that overseers of the poor and parish officials had when deciding who to help, and how. Although the discussions that came out of the activity were good, and the students considered a range of different issues, if I repeated this activity, I would assign certain roles to each student within the groups- such as a catholic priest, protestant minister, head of the parish etc. This would allow students to think about the different types of viewpoints that people would have held with regards to poverty during the period 1500-1789.

In general, I have found group activities to be an enjoyable and useful way of getting the group as a whole to think of and discuss a range of different ideas within seminars. Using a range of different types of activities and varying the size of groups each time mean that sessions are not repetitive and students do not get bored. By getting students to discuss and debate ideas amongst themselves has meant that even those who perhaps do not always want to share thoughts with the group as a whole get some opportunity to express their ideas with others.  So far, I haven’t used class presentations within any of my seminars, and this is certainly something I will be considering introducing into my seminars in the next academic year.



2 thoughts on “Using group work within seminars

  1. Hannah, it’s great to see you reflecting on and refining what you do in class as you go through your first year teaching. And, as you say, getting students to work in (small) groups within a seminar is a good way to get them engaged and make them more confident about discussing (sometimes quite difficult) topics. When I started teaching the norm was for a student or students read out a ‘paper’ which was then supposed to be followed by class discussion but was usually followed by heavy, depressing silence and/or long periods of tutor talk. Now things are different, thank goodness: variety is the norm with several different activities going on and a lot more emphasis on the students thinking for themselves and discussing with each other (the foundational principles of active learning).

    I too have always also found debates a very useful device – provided they’re not done too often and run, as you’ve done, in a way that encourages critical reflection about ‘the evidence’ (the primary and secondary sources). Students like debating issues. Of course debates can, if you’re not careful, lead to polarised rather than nuanced views, though that too is something to talk about with them. Debates can be a good way of leading students into perhaps the most important task in year 1: thinking more carefully about the nature of historical evidence and interpretation (not least getting them to avoid the ‘bias’ cul-de-sac that they often resort to). The ‘jury’ idea also works well in my experience – though the jury needs to be particularly well-prepared and might need some help forming/honing their questions to make it really work well. When the group is a bit more experienced you can also make the sides argue against a position they feel most comfortable with: they moan a bit but it soon passes and they get engaged in the task. Allowing time for each side to plan their case is good, as you found. It gives them time to think and you to nudge them a bit if it feels they’re not on track and you can see if someone is not participating. Sometimes, although a group will become invested in their case, there can be differences within it in terms of which factors are most/least important and you can tease these out, certainly in a concluding section of the seminar.

    There are all sorts of ways to form sub-groups: they form themselves; do it alphabetically; random etc. And you’ll find different sizes of sub-groups work better at different times in the seminar and stages of the semester. It’s important to remember that each seminar group is different – what will work well with one might not do so with another, so adaptability is important. You mention presentations at the end and these can be useful but in my experience need to be short and if more than two are going on in a seminar they can be boring for everyone, especially if they proceed one after the other. Students are easily bored but also inclined to talk too long in their own presentation – which then becomes like a dull lecture.

    Debates are popular, I think, because there’s a competitive element as well as collaboration, and there’s a chance to prepare a convincing case. It’s important though to remind the groups this is a historical debate not all-out war in which their only task is to ‘defeat’ the other side and emphasise that evidence (and how they use it) matters (most).

  2. Interesting post Hannah. I think that another important issue is the balance between student and tutor involvement in any seminar. In end of module feedback on seminars one often comes across the comment that ‘I don’t see the point of being taught by other students’, particularly with reference to student-led seminars. That sort of comment suggests that the tutor is not facilitating the seminars to best effect.

    It is crucial to explain to student why they are doing the activities they are asked to do. I begin all of my classes these days with a basic sort of learning contract. I ask all the students to agree, after discussion, a series of points about how the seminar should run and what everyone’s roles are, including mine. The the agreed ‘rules’ are circulated to everyone. All groups of students are different and the dynamic in each group is unique, so I am increasingly aware that formulaic class activities should be avoided where possible. This is quite difficult sometimes when assessment is brought into the equation, as all students of course have to be treated equally in that regard. Hence the need to have students giving individual presentations in some contexts.

    I would encourage you, therefore, to keep experimenting with different ways of running seminars, always keeping the students on board with what you are doing, not assuming they understand why they are doing something and, of course, involving them in decisions about what they are doing. That way their confidence develops and, as importantly, so does yours.

We would love to hear your own thoughts and experiences, please submit below.

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