Lorenzo Costaguta, ‘An experiment in class: student-led seminars in Roads to Modernity’

During the last academic year I have focused on expanding the range of my teaching experiences. Before September, I had worked as teaching assistant on two modules, although I was not in a position to contribute to the design of the module or conduct self-reflection on my teaching style. In the past year I have had more teaching commitments and more opportunity to decide the content of my own seminars and lectures. I will dedicate this post to discuss a programme of student-led seminars that I designed for the History module “Roads to Modernity” and delivered during the second term. This experience presented me with an opportunity to create an ad hoc teaching programme, which responded to precise needs of students and fit with the pedagogical aims I had in mind.

 

Design of the activity

 

I decided to include student-led seminars for a variety of reasons. Firstly, at the end of the first term I felt that students were reacting quite passively to the material proposed. Being structured around a vast array of topics, and delivering revolving door of lectures, “Roads to Modernity” can be a rather confusing module. Seminars should guarantee the continuity throughout the module, but at times it is very difficult to understand how students will react to specific topics: which topics will they prefer? How much background do they have on them? What would interest them the most? Thinking about these aspects, I thought that giving the students the chance to pick one topic at the beginning of the second term and design their own seminars could be a good way to actively involve them in the module.

I opted for student-led seminars rather than presentations because I thought that a part of the challenge for students should be to understand how to create an activity for their peers. In other words, I wanted the activity to demonstrate more than a student’s ability to conduct research on a specific topic and present students with the challenge of producing material that would engage their colleagues.

Combining all this background information, in the first seminar of the second module I presented the student-led activity to the class. At the beginning of the term, I divided each of my two seminar groups into groups of four-five students, and asked them to prepare a one-hour long seminar on a topic at their choice. By the end of the class, each student knew when they were expected to prepare the seminar with their groups. After the class, I took note of the objectives I wanted to work on as follows:

  1. Favour a better understanding of the module’s content: to give students the chance to research and investigate a topic independently; to give them an occasion to use primary and secondary sources in an active way – not as readings they would engage with passively, but as a means to create activities and favour an understanding of a topic;
  2. Help students self-reflect on the module’s structure, and let them getting the most out of it: to self-reflect on seminars and seminar activities: what do I (as a student) like most? How would I like seminars to be structured? Can I come up with original ways to structure a seminar?
  3. Improve my ability as a teacher: guide students in seminars preparation, moderate and assess seminars prepared by them, observe students interacting with each other and acquire insights on original teaching strategies.

 

Outcomes of the activity

 

In this paragraph, I will go over my main findings per each of the point mentioned above:

  1. Content: for obvious reasons, it is quite complicated to give a general assessment on how much the student-led seminars improve students’ understanding of the module’s content, because students’ responses varied greatly. In some cases, students went way beyond the readings assigned, preparing seminars based on a wealth of different material. In some others, students relied exclusively on the reading lists provided. In general, I believe that from this point of view the outcome of the activity was positive: for the students in charge of the week’s seminar, the pressure of preparing activities forced them to work more, preparing readings with more attention and finding original ways to use them in seminars; for students attending seminars, they were exposed to a variety of different approaches, at times with extra material involved.
  2. Structure: the success of seminars varied greatly according to the students in each group and their level of preparation. Generally, there was not one single occasion in which the group came with no preparation whatsoever, or with not enough material to fill the time allocated. However, especially in one seminar group, I noticed that there was a strong ‘imitative’ effect. Each group tended to replicate what the first group did, without making any effort to innovate and propose original activities. In this area I noticed the greatest limits of this activity: when put in charge, students struggled to understand what they wanted and how to involve their peers. On multiple occasions, students prepared a list of seminar questions expecting a good response from the rest of the class, but they failed to get any sort of response from the rest of the class. Debates and discussions were the situations in which I had to step in more frequently, by stirring up the conversation and facilitating interaction. In some cases, the difficulties in creating a conversation produced negative consequences: students in charge tended to slip into a ‘lecturing mode’, turning seminars into a set of mini-lectures on the various secondary readings or primary sources.
  3. Teaching: I had to rapidly recalibrate my expectations on this aspect. I thought students would be enthused by the chance to contribute in seminars, and would take this chance at once as a rather easy way to bump their participation marks and do some early preparation for the second term assignment and/or the exam. However, I rapidly realised that only a minority of them used this occasion strategically, while the vast majority took it as one of the many tasks required to pass the module, and dedicated to it the right amount of work to prepare a decent seminar, but nothing more than that.

 

Conclusions and future improvements

 

At the beginning of the module I offered my help to students in preparing their weekly seminar (and continued to offer my help each week throughout the module), but I decided to avoid making preparation meetings with me a compulsory requirement. In hindsight, I think that this was a mistake. Students asked to meet very rarely. With more regular meeting, I think I would have had a better sense of the development of the activity, and more capacity to work on problems as soon as I saw them. In conclusion, the activity produced mixed outcomes. Some problems were given by poor planning on my side, and others by poor student response. In general, I believe that the activity was a success, however I would consider making some substantial changes in case I decided to do it again in the future, such as including compulsory preparation meetings.