2 Factors to consider in the design of seminars

This section outlines five important issues to consider when designing an undergraduate seminar programme:

  • the variation in students’ abilities and ways in which to create a valuable learning experience regardless of initial ability in a given subject area;
  • student learning styles and seminar activities that are appropriate to each type of learner;
  • transferable skills and the importance of incorporating these skills into a varied programme of seminar activities;
  • student activity and learning, which includes the importance of students engaging in the learning process and the link between understanding, application and motivation;
  • a discussion of the role of seminars in a programme of teaching and learning.

2.1 Variation in students' abilities

The widening participation agenda increases the need for active learning in seminars. Lecturers increasingly face groups of students of mixed ability and mixed experience. Students in the same group may have very different levels of understanding and may be facing very different problems in trying to improve that understanding. The organisation of the seminar ought, therefore, to provide the lecturer with opportunities to diagnose a range of misunderstanding. It is no longer plausible to assume (as one might in the course of a discussion) that the understanding of a topic demonstrated by one student will be fairly typical of the group or that other students will have been able to understand the significance of dialogue between the lecturer and one student in the group. Seminars that are planned to provide a range of opportunities for interaction can play a critical role in helping lecturers to identify specific problems.

For example, seminars on quantitative methods often include some students who have studied mathematics at A-level and some who have not. The latter will have considerable difficulty working through problems that students who have studied mathematics to A-level will find very straightforward. One response to this problem is to organise the students into small groups and give students who have higher levels of attainment in mathematics an explicit peer-tutoring role towards those who are less confident. The more confident students will develop their understanding because they will have to clarify their own understanding when they try to explain ideas to their peers. The students with lower levels of mathematical attainment will benefit from more extensive dialogue than would be possible in a session entirely focused on the lecturer.

Top Tip: Consider grouping the students by ability in seminar sessions in order to focus on specific areas of understanding and application.

2.2 Learning styles

There are two broad accounts of differences in styles of learning. One account, which may be appropriately termed ‘conceptions of learning’, comes from the work of phenomenographers such as Marton et al. (1984), Entwistle (1981) and Ramsden (1996). A second account of differences in learning focuses on learners’ ‘processing skills’ and routines. Typically, this account assumes that individuals have a preference for one learning style and that most teaching activities are also geared towards one style of learning. It is argued that effective learning is more likely to take place where individual preferences match the learning style of the activity. Thus, while it is impossible to cater consistently for all learning styles in every activity used, it is useful to provide a variety of teaching methods within a programme in order that all students have the opportunity to participate in a learning activity that is specific to their learning style. One school of thought in this tradition derives from the work of Gardner (1993), who identifies different types of intelligence (such as spatial, kinaesthetic and linguistic) in which students are more or less skilled. A second school of thought derives from the ‘experiential learning tradition’ and the work of Kolb (1999).

Theorists in the experiential learning tradition identify four types of learning style: the activist learner, the reflective learner, the theorist learner and the pragmatic learner. Table 1 outlines those activities that will be most or least appropriate for each type of learner.

Table 1 Seminar activities appropriate to each type of learner (according to ‘experiential learning’)

Activist style
Learns best from activities where:
  • there are new experiences/problems, etc.;
  • they can become engrossed in short tasks, games, competitive teamwork tasks, etc.;
  • there is excitement/drama/crisis and things chop and change with a range of diverse activities to tackle;
  • there is chance of limelight, e.g. leading discussions, giving presentations;
  • they are involved with other people, e.g. bouncing ideas off them, solving problems as part of a team.
Learns least from activities where:
  • learning involves a passive role, e.g. listening to lectures, reading, explanations;
  • they are not directly involved;
  • they are required to assimilate, analyse and interpret lots of data;
  • they are required to engage in solitary work, i.e. reading, writing, thinking on their own;
  • they are asked to repeat the same activity over and over again.
Reflector style
Learns best from activities where:
  • they are encouraged to watch/think/chew over activities;
  • they are able to listen/observe a group;
  • they can reach a decision in their own time without pressure and tight deadlines.
Learns least from activities where:
  • they are forced into the limelight;
  • they are worried by time pressures or rushed from one activity to another;
  • they are pitched into doing something without warning.
Theorist style
Learns best from activities where:
  • they are in structured situations with a clear purpose;
  • they are required to understand and participate in complex situations;
  • they have time to explore the associations and interrelationships between ideas, events and situations.
Learns least from activities where:
  • they have to participate in situations that are unstructured, where ambiguity and uncertainty are high, e.g. open-ended problems;
  • they are faced with a hotchpotch of alternative/contradictory techniques without exploring any in depth;
  • they find the subject matter platitudinous, shallow or gimmicky.
Pragmatist style
Learns best from activities where:
  • there is an obvious link between the subject matter and a problem set;
  • they are practising techniques with coaching/feedback;
  • they are given techniques that are applicable to the real world.
Learns least from activities where:
  • the learning is not related to an immediate need or relevance;
  • there is no practice or clear guidelines on how to do it;
  • they cannot see sufficient reward from the learning activity.

Source: Honey and Mumford (1995).

Top Tip: When selecting individuals for group work, mix the learning style in each group – don’t have all the activists in one group and all the theorists in another. As no activity is best suited to all learning styles, a mixture of learning styles in each group will mean that the students who are able to relate to the activity can encourage those who are having more difficulty engaging in the process.

The ‘phenomenographic’ tradition (Entwistle, 1981; Marton et al., 1984) suggests that students may have more or less effective conceptions of learning and that it might be possible for university teachers to improve students’ approach to learning by altering the teaching methods used. The evidence provided by this research tradition suggests that students who adopt a ‘deep’ approach to learning achieve better outcomes in higher education than students who adopt a ‘surface approach’ to learning (Gibbs, 1992; Biggs, 1999; Fry et al., 1999). A deep approach to learning ‘is typified as an intention to understand and seek meaning, leading students to attempt to relate concepts to existing experience, distinguishing between new ideas and existing knowledge, and critically evaluating and determining key themes and concepts’ (Fry et al., 1999, p. 30). A surface approach to learning ‘is typified as an intention to complete the task, memorize information, make no distinction between new ideas and existing knowledge; and to treat the task as externally imposed (as extrinsic). Rote learning is the typical surface approach’ (Fry et al., 1999, p. 30). Finally, some students adopt a strategic approach that involves students structuring their learning in order to obtain high grades in the programme of study.

Biggs (1999) discusses characteristics of students (e.g. misunderstanding requirements, anxiety) and teaching (e.g. providing insufficient time for activities, emphasising coverage at the expense of depth) that may result in students adopting a surface approach to learning. Biggs also reviews the characteristics of students and the teaching and learning experience that encourage students to adopt a deep approach to learning. The signals provided to students by the way in which their learning is assessed give rise to the idea of ‘constructive alignment’. That is, there is little point in striving to encourage students to adopt a deep approach to their learning if students perceive the style of the assessment as rewarding rote learning more strongly than deep understanding. In the words of Biggs, ‘A good teaching system aligns teaching method and assessment to the learning activities stated in the objectives, so that all aspects of this system are in accord in supporting appropriate student learning’ (1999, p. 11).

These views of learning styles and approaches to learning have different implications for seminar leaders. The experiential learning and multiple intelligences perspectives on learning styles suggest that seminar leaders should vary the type of task in seminars to accommodate the innate preferences of different learners. The phenomenographic distinction between deep and surface approaches to learning suggests that seminar leaders should encourage all students to adopt a deep approach. However, each of these perspectives on learning suggests that it is helpful to encourage students to develop greater self-awareness of their personal approach to learning.

Helping students to understand how they learn can increase their motivation and achievement in a whole range of activities. This can be accomplished through a separate study skills unit, typically through a learning style questionnaire (see, for example, Entwistle, 1981; Honey and Mumford, 1995). Students usually find these self-review activities informative and helpful, enabling them to engage more effectively in the seminars. However, there is a danger that ideas introduced in study skills modules can become detached from the core elements of an economics degree if they are not overtly reinforced by seminar leaders.

2.3 Transferable skills

The QAA subject benchmark for economics degrees includes the aim that programmes in economics should ‘develop in students, through the study of economics, a range of transferable skills that will be of value in employment and self-employment’ (QAA, 2000, p. 1). Whilst this statement does not specify which transferable skills should be developed through degree programmes in economics, it is usually taken to include social skills (such as ability to work in a team) in addition to the numerical, analytical and communication skills more readily associated with traditional learning in economics.

If these skills are to be developed within a degree programme, students need not only the opportunities to exercise skills, but also explicit guidance on how to improve their level of performance. Whilst economics degree programmes explicitly guide the development of students’ quantitative skills, the direction given to students to help them improve other skills is frequently not explicit. Seminars can play a key role in providing this guidance as well as in providing students with a context in which to exercise and evaluate their skills.

The traditional seminar provides weak support for the development of communication and social skills, and this provides a further reason for employing an alternative approach. Seminars that help to develop students’ transferable skills make it more likely that the learning outcomes of the module will be achieved. This is self-evident in so far as module descriptions include transferable skills in their stated outcomes. To the extent that improved transferable skills enhance students’ capacity for learning, the development of these skills should also improve subject-specific outcomes as well.

Seminars are very well suited to developing students’ presentation and team-working skills. Many students initially find the idea of giving a presentation quite daunting. In part this reflects limited previous experience, but it also reflects uncertainty as to how to present effectively. Presentation skills need to be taught as carefully as quantitative skills. That is, before expecting students to give a presentation it is important to teach them how to present. The implication of the benchmarking statement (that students will develop transferable skills) is that it is just as much the role of the economics lecturer to develop students’ presentation skills as it is to teach them how to carry out a t-test. Useful information on transferable skills in the context of group work and assessment may be found in Bennett et al. (2000), whilst Fallows and Steven (2000) provide a useful discussion of the link between key skills and employability.

2.4 Student activity and learning

Each view of learning styles reviewed earlier emphasises the importance for learning of students’ active involvement in seminars. Sections 2.2 and 2.3 have focused on the outcomes of learning. Students’ active involvement is crucial in encouraging a ‘deep approach’ to learning and in developing transferable skills. This section concentrates on the importance of active involvement for the process of learning. In order to develop a full understanding of the economic ideas covered in a module, students must do more than learn how to reproduce these ideas in the form in which they have been presented in a lecture or a textbook. They must be able to recognise the extent to which:

  • an idea is consistent with different types of evidence;
  • one idea is consistent with another;
  • an idea is relevant to the analysis of a problem.

A key purpose of a seminar is, therefore, to encourage students to engage in the learning process, developing their grasp of new ideas and applying these ideas in different contexts.

This has important implications for student motivation, in so far as the latter is determined by understanding, achievement and relevance. When students begin to understand concepts that previously they saw as beyond their realm of comprehension, their fear of the subject diminishes and they tend to become more motivated to achieve. This achievement builds confidence and students are more able to take time to explore the subject. Whilst a student may be able to work through a problem or explain an economic concept, it is only when they fully understand the concept that they dare to consider how it might be applied to broader economic issues.

How is this achieved? Seminars are more likely to encourage this kind of student involvement if they are focused on the problems and issues in which students can recognise the relevance and applicability of key economic ideas. For example, using a case study to help students understand the issue of opportunity cost can be very effective. Divide students into small groups and provide them with details of four or five projects (in any area of economics). Have the students identify the principal costs and benefits associated with each project. Students should then explain to the class which of the projects they would choose to fund, and why. In addition to encouraging students to improve their teamwork, discussion and presentational skills, you will have helped them to understand the issue of opportunity cost – that is, the opportunity cost of selecting project A is the benefits that are forgone by rejecting projects B, C and D.

Similarly, a quantitative concept such as probability will be made more relevant to students if they are encouraged to work through a series of exercises that require them to calculate the probability that they will graduate from university, gain employment or win the lottery. Suggestions for seminar organisation that can promote this kind of learning may be found in Race (2000, 2001) and Jacques (2000).

2.5 The role of seminars in a programme of learning and teaching

The most important first step in planning a seminar programme is to ensure that activities complement the lecture programme. In contrast to lectures, seminars offer good opportunities for interaction between the tutor and students, and the key function of a seminar is to exploit these opportunities. Tutors are able to diagnose students’ difficulties and present challenges that should focus students’ efforts on the more critical ideas to understand and techniques to master. Students are able to check their understanding and seek advice when they recognise that their understanding is incomplete. Through these interactions, students should be able to deepen their understanding, recognise the relevance of ideas introduced in the lecture and make connections between ideas and evidence presented in different lectures. If a seminar begins to resemble a mini-lecture, it has completely lost its way.