As we move towards the last few sessions of the module, I’ve been thinking about how best to integrate practical strategies for exam preparation with the need for more free-flowing discussion in the seminars that I teach. Does the reality of an upcoming ‘end-point’ in the shape of a formal assessment change the purpose of sessions and/or inject them with a new quality which altars the remits of what students/tutors can (and should) do?
In this blog post, I reflect on the challenges of incorporating specific exam-focused exercises whilst maintaining more organic discussion and debate. How can seminars be used to consolidate effective preparation? At the same time, what can a student get out of attending a session which they know they will not be revising? How can tutors facilitate a stimulating learning experience for all students in their group and escape the threat of purely strategic learning?
These are challenging issues which get right to the heart of what we believe the purpose of university seminars to be. To simply transition to a model of mock papers, revision tips and study skills would be to miss the point. Likewise, it would be unhelpful to fail to recognise the need to supply some more practical exercises/advice.
How then do we move to the end of the academic year in a way which is sensitive to the dualities of this situation?
For me, the solution has been threefold:
1: Incorporate more space for practical primary analysis
This is perhaps the most recognisable ‘modification’ in my teaching practice as we approach exam season and prepare for an assessment in which gobbet analysis is a certainty. Students have been looking at primary material all year, but now we have a regular 10-15 minute slot at the end of each session to explore how a particular primary source links up with the key themes that we have been discussing over the course of the session.
We stick to the same basic model each week, working in small groups to identify (and discuss) useful information on the nature, content, and significance of a pre-circulated document. Can we find one or two key points for each of these areas?
After working in groups, students report back on their findings. This is a collaborative process – an exchange of ideas without the pressure to find the ‘correct’ answer.
We then broaden out our discussion by working together as a whole group to come up with a potential ‘model’ response.
This activity has been an effective way to hone transferable skills and offer some tangible practice for the exam. At the same time though it is never purely ‘exam-focused’. Students are free to pull out the main points that they think are most pertinent. There is no sense of me ‘marking’ model answers in the seminar. Rather, this is a space to build confidence in analytical skills whilst capitalising upon the previous work of the session and drawing it toward a clear conclusion.
2: Ensure there is still space for more organic discussion
Whilst we have stuck to the model above to close each session for the past few weeks, I am keen to make sure that seminars don’t just become focused on the spectre of the exam. My solution has been to ensure that a substantial proportion of the 50 minutes remains dedicated to the discussion of important issues in a less formal way.
Whether this is getting to grips with the more problematic/contentious elements of a subject or collaborating with peers on a specific task-based activity, it’s important not to lose this chance for students to engage with the topic for its own sake.
My response has been to continue teaching with a degree of uncertainty and give students the room to identify and engage with the issues that they find most pertinent. Allowing students to take ownership of their work in this way can help parts of the seminar remain an exciting (and somewhat unpredictable) exercise that serve a larger purpose outside of purely strategizing for the exam.
3: Encourage students to identify links between topics
Building on both of the points above, I’ve tried to incorporate some degree of broadening out in each of my most recent seminars. How does the particular theme link back to what we did the previous week? What insight can a session give to the module as a whole? Does it change anybody’s opinion? Does it challenge it or make it more complex?
This activity functions as a helpful bridge between the exam-focused approach and the freedom to engage with seminar content on its own terms.
Once again, there is no definitive right answer here. Rather, students have the freedom to work through their own views and try out ideas about how this all links up. In certain circumstances, re-viewing an older topic in light of new insights can be especially enlightening.
For example, once we get to grips with the importance of print culture we can deepen our understanding of the spread of the Reformation. The study of capitalism and commerce gives us a greater appreciation of the function of cities. Awareness to the experience of household and family lends a new complexity to assessments of rural life… the list goes on.
As well as supplying the tools for student-centred learning then, this activity pushes historical knowledge outside of separate boxes and into a messier (but eminently more satisfying) intellectual framework. At the same time, sat in the exam hall in a few months’ time, students can bring to mind these links between topics (and the memory of their own part in making them) as they set about tackling those questions in front of them.