The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

4.3 Presenting in a seminar format

A seminar leader is likely to spend a certain amount of time presenting to students, and the qualities pertinent to good lecturing (see the chapter on lectures in this book) are equally relevant here. In seminars, the time spent in presentation should be short and there should be an emphasis on enabling considerable interaction between the seminar leader and the students. This provides the focus for this section.

The board or an overhead projector (OHP) can be used to help students to keep track of the session and this may be done in two ways. First, an outline of the session can be presented at the outset and this may be linked with an explanation of the purpose of the session. Clear instructions can often be responsible for the success of an activity. Second, the board can be used to keep track of a discussion of a topic. When the seminar leader is directing a group discussion, they keep track of the discussion in their minds, noting alternative points of view, chains of cause and effect, and references to assumptions that underpin strands of reasoning. However, much of this may be opaque to students in the group, especially if it is built up from a series of exchanges between the seminar leader and a small number of the students. Many students in the group will find it easier to follow the structure of an unfolding discussion if it is visually, as well as orally, presented and the seminar leader can provide this by showing diagrammatically how points are related.

Top Tip: Always use more than one resource for seminar delivery – keep the delivery and the learning resources varied to maintain student interest and understanding.

When trying to help students keep track of a line of reasoning, it is tempting for the seminar leader to restrict the visual display to their ‘correct’ version of the reasoning. In this case, the ‘correct’ version is gradually revealed as the discussion proceeds, and when students offer suggestions that conflict with, are non-essential to or are simply different from the seminar leader’s reasoning, they are ignored and do not appear on the board or OHP. The interaction between seminar leader and students is likely to be stifled by this procedure, as it conveys the message that the purpose of the discussion is to prompt the gradual revelation of the seminar leader’s ‘correct view’. Some students will naturally infer that the less they speak, the quicker the seminar leader will get on with telling them what they are expected to know.

Alternatively, the board or OHP can be used to keep track of a discussion in a more complete way. That is, non-essential points, conflicting points and weak expressions can be added to the display alongside key ideas, consistent reasoning and powerful ways of expressing ideas. If this is done, students can be invited to make the kind of judgements (such as whether two ideas are consistent or which out of two expressions is more powerful) that the seminar leader would be making in controlling the discussion. Inevitably this takes longer, but it does make the interaction between seminar leader and students more profound and, therefore, makes greater use of the time spent in the seminar.

It is useful to prepare a handout for more difficult concepts to accompany an activity, as it provides students with an additional resource in an environment where they feel more free to ask questions and consider the relevance of the material. If the seminar requires students to work through mathematically based questions, it is useful to incorporate a quick review of the mathematical techniques presented in the lecture. This ensures that students understand the concepts and can then apply them to specific questions. If the activity uses discussion questions, it is sometimes helpful to hand out a tree diagram showing the main issues and how they link together. This enables students to revisit the lecture material in a different format, and helps them to organise the material into a structure that they find clear and that they can then use to apply the material to a broader discussion or exercise. A useful handout might include:

  • the objectives of the session;
  • a full written explanation of a difficult concept covered in the lecture;
  • a diagram with an accompanying explanation;
  • a formula with a worked example;
  • a few short scenarios that illustrate different ways in which a particular theory can be applied;
  • a tree diagram that shows how different concepts are related;
  • advice about preparing for the test/essay/exam;
  • sample test/essay/exam questions with model answers;
  • information about how to work through and solve mathematical and statistical problems in specific computer software packages;
  • a list of keywords and definitions;