The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4.2 Encouraging students to prepare for seminars

Arguably, students who attend and participate in seminars on average perform significantly better than those who do not. So how can students be encouraged to prepare and attend, and what can be done when students arrive without preparation? It is more likely that students will attend and prepare if they are clear about the purpose of the seminars and if seminars offer opportunities that are not available elsewhere. These conditions may be met if the assessment demands are clarified through the seminars and if students are sure that they will get useful feedback on their work in seminars.

Nevertheless, the impact of these tactics on some students will be marginal and this has led some lecturers to make attendance and preparation integral to the assessment of the module. For example, passing a module could be made conditional on the achievement of at least a minimum level of attendance. This practice is almost impossible to justify, however, when a student demonstrates that they are quite capable of achieving at least a pass standard even though their attendance has been below the acceptable minimum. It is more feasible to make attendance and preparation integral to the assessment process. For example, students could be required to make brief notes on topics that are the focus of five seminars in a series. Each student could be required to make a short presentation on the basis of their preparation on one of the five occasions. All students in the group could then be required to submit a portfolio of work that includes their preparation notes and a critical commentary on the brief presentations by other students.

Seminar leaders also face a difficult situation when some students have prepared for a seminar whilst others have not. In these circumstances it is critical that students who have prepared for the seminar are rewarded. If it is not obvious to students that there are benefits to preparation then the incentives to prepare are weak. A natural way to reward students who have prepared is for the seminar leader to devote the majority of their time to providing useful feedback to those students. This may be more easily accomplished on an individual or small-group basis whilst students are working on a set of problems. Examples of preparation tasks for economics seminars include the following:

  • Requiring students to complete a specified reading and prepare two relevant questions to contribute to a small-group discussion during the seminar.
  • Requiring students to find a relevant newspaper or magazine article that illustrates the application of an economic concept presented in the lecture. Students then present their article to the other students in their small group. This helps students to understand the application of economic concepts to a variety of real world issues.
  • Requiring students to design and solve a quantitative problem related to a topic covered in the lecture. Each student brings a question (and solution) of their own devising to the seminar, where it is used as part of the seminar activity. They are organised into small groups, pool their questions and solve them. Where students have trouble with a particular problem, the student who designed that question is able to provide further explanation. This exercise is very useful because a student’s understanding of a topic tends to be enhanced when they are required to teach the concept to others.

Alternatively, the seminar leader could devote their initial time to those who have not prepared, getting them properly acquainted with the ideas and information they should have considered in their preparation. During this time the students who have prepared can proceed straight to the seminar tasks. However, this procedure effectively rewards those who have not prepared rather than those who have, and this is inherently problematic.