Preparing a Seminar


While a poor lecture is pretty much the fault of the lecturer a poor seminar is pretty much down to you...

We are all quite used to sitting around with a bunch of friends and having a chat. Indeed, one of the most rewarding social experiences we can have is a rambling conversation with friends. We may do this face to face in our homes, or while out somewhere. It might be at a bar, or a party, or sitting on a bus. Many of our conversations take place online via instant messaging services such as WhatsApp, or Facebook Messenger. Today there seems to be nowhere where we can't talk to friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even total strangers about pretty much anything we like. Developing conversational skills and the confidence to use them is an important part of our social development and it is something that your university courses are designed to support and enhance.

Of course, an academic seminar has some significant differences to a general group chat with friends. Just as a university essay goes beyond simply writing what comes into your head in a Facebook post or blog, so too does a seminar require more than simply showing up and saying the first thing that comes to mind. As with so many things in life, the seminar follows the basic RiRo rule - rubbish in, rubbish out.

Checklist Guide:

  • Preparation: This is pretty much a no-brainer, unless you actually prepare a seminar then it will be very difficult to be involved in a meaningful way. At best you will find yourself sitting quietly and hoping nobody asks you anything, at worst you will actually say something and run the risk of looking foolish and uninformed. Remember, in academia there are no 'alternative facts', you have either studied the relevant information, or you haven't. Your tutors will invariably set you preparatory reading and research to do prior to the seminar, make sure you read this well before the event.
  • More preparation: As a general rule, preparation works best when you give it enough time to sink in and for you to become comfortable with it. Effective preparation is not merely a last minute memory test. Reading the article your tutor set as seminar preparation 30 minutes before the event and hoping that you will remember a few facts, will not help you engage well with the seminar discussion and it pretty much misses the point of the experience. The point of seminar preparation, as with any kind of preparation, is for you to feel comfortable with the data you have researched and to feel that you have some sort of control over it. For most of us preparing to go out for the night involves a considerable amount of advanced planning, what we are going to wear, how much cash we are going to need, who we are meeting and where and that's before we turn to the serious business of the "look" we want to go with. Rushing into a shop and grabbing an outfit off the rack and some new shoes 30 mins before you are due to meet your friends is a recipe for showing up in trousers that don't fit, a top that rides up and shoes that give you blisters within the first 10 minutes of putting them on. You want to feel comfortable and relaxed in your clothes so that you are hardly aware of them and can enjoy socialising. In the same way you want to feel comfortable with the research you have conducted, so that you are less bothered about remembering memorised facts and are able to enjoy a discussion about ideas and issues.
  • Even more preparation: It should go without saying that the more effort you put into something, the more effective you are likely to be. The simple fact of the matter is that there are two kinds of people, those that do as little as they think they can get away with and those that put in as much time and effort as they possibly can. The equation is a simple one here and needs little elaboration. The Three Little Pigs teach us that yes, you can get by with a house built out of straw - straw is cheap and easy to use and sort of does the job - but using bricks to build your house, although more demanding and requiring greater effort and lead time, will lead to a more stable and successful structure when someone tries to knock it down. Yes, your tutor will probably suggest a piece of reading to do prior to a seminar, but that doesn't mean that this is the only reading or research you can do. The more research you do, the more informed you are and the more confident you will become in discussion as you will start to feel comfortable and secure in your subject knowledge.
  • Seriously, I mean it, prepare: Of course one of the best ways to prepare for anything is to practice doing it before you have to do it for real. Athletes practice running races, designers and engineers produce prototypes, manufacturers pilot new products before rolling them out, actors have dress-rehearsals  and musicians have sound-checks. Testing your understanding and ability to communicate your ideas and point of view by discussing with your peers is an excellent way to prepare for a seminar. After all a seminar is a form of social interaction, trying to prepare for one in isolation makes little sense. So, arrange to meet with others in the same seminar and chat over your research and practice making your ideas clearly understood. Once you finally get to the actual seminar you will feel far more relaxed and 'at home' with the topic if you have prepared in this way.

Final Comments:

There are very few professions and careers that allow you to operate in effective isolation. All work environments are going to require you to communicate clearly and effectively with a larger team and you can do this well or you can do this badly. Attending team or staff meetings unprepared is a guaranteed way of making you look, at best unprofessional, and at worst incapable of doing the job. Making sure that you have looked over the agenda for the meeting and done some preparatory research, will allow you to speak with confidence amongst your colleagues and make informed and authoritative contributions to team discussions. The ability to contribute effectively within a professional context is a key employability skill and one that employers are looking for in new recruits, as well as when seeking to promote existing staff. Seminar work set within your course of study is intended to help develop this skill, as well as enhance your subject specific knowledge.