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.