Seminars are a critical part of the academic learning experience. Academic teaching essentially takes three forms: lectures, seminars, and one to one project supervision. Lectures are the dry boring things that students sleep through and surviving/getting something out of them is worth an entire guide in itself. One to one supervision is like a duck feather pillow, comforting for you but a pain in the arse for the poor duck/supervisor. Seminars are somewhere in the middle – smaller groups of students sitting around led by a professor (or a PhD student that the professor has blackmailed into running it for them…).

This small group environment is ideal for going over tough concepts, and covering ideas that either need discussion or are so weird and complicated that explaining to small groups at a time is basically the only way anyone is ever going to understand it, like ‘why cats’ (that’s not a typo, the sentence ends there – the why of cats is a very difficult subject).

But you don’t get many seminars so it’s worth approaching them with a clear idea of how to get the most out of them as possible. So for any students starting out or looking to improve what they get out of their seminars, here is a guide to maximise that seminar time.

Firstly, there’s prep. Or at least there would be if you were some kind of sap. Your supervisor might argue that reading up and having a loose background appreciation of the topic would be helpful. They might even go so far as to suggest specific reading or give you worksheets in advance. In reality, this will just fill your head with preconceived ideas that you’ll likely get wrong. Learning facts only half right is basically just half arsing learning and you should never half arse anything. The best thing is to come in totally blank and be ready to learn.

Now when it comes to your attendance, you need to remember that seminars are for you to learn about a topic, they are not social events. To reinforce this try to always arrive 5 minutes late (more if you think the group might be chatty). This avoids the part where everyone introduces themselves and makes small talk. Skipping this step does two things, firstly you don’t need to remember a whole bunch of names and personal backstories leaving more room for facts, secondly it shows everyone how serious you are about the seminar and that you’re focused on working. If your professor (or student stand-in) glares at you for being late this is just a sign that they understand your focused concentration.

Next, you need to maintain this focused persona while you are listening to the opening discussions. The key here is to focus on the words rather than any external distractions so one good approach is to close your eyes and lean back so you can more easily focus on the words in a relaxed state. The more relaxed you look the more everyone will understand how much you are trying to focus on the words. But this is a seminar and seminars require participation so be prepared to leap into action for the next stage.

Ask questions, lots of questions, in fact any questions you can think of, even if they’ve already been asked, you cannot ask too many questions. Questioning and looking for deeper insight is the whole purpose of seminar and you need to full arse this. Don’t hold back from the basic questions even if it’s come up in previous lectures or seminars. This is your opportunity to show you have an enquiring mind and are always happy to expand your knowledge. Filtering your questions to the topic of the seminar or even content relevant to the discussion would just show hesitancy.

Similarly don’t forgot that these seminars are for you to understand tough concepts. If you don’t understand it then make sure the discussions stays focused until you’re happy to move on. Do everything you can to make sure that the conversation stays focused on the part you want to cover – if you let the group sway you then the whole seminar will just descend in to chaos. Also don’t fall for suggestions that you could maybe go do some reading or that it’s something you’ll need to go see the professor about later, stand firm.

Finally, don’t take any notes. One of the key outcomes of the seminar is that you have learnt lots of things. If you go writing things down then you’re really just delaying that learning till later then you can read them. You won’t really know how good a seminar has been unless you can gauge what new information you’ve managed to directly take up. If you feel that you’ve not learnt as much as you want then you should feed this back to your professor so they can improve their seminar hosting skills. They’ll appreciate the feedback.

If you follow all of these tips then you will have maximised the amount you get out of a seminar and truly be well on your way to your degree. Not only that but you’ll be in a class full of people that respect and admire your drive… /s

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