Digital Discussions: Leading Online Seminars

Leading a seminar can be a scary prospect at the best of times, but dealing with the difficulties of online learning can make it even harder. Whether your session is graded or not, piloting an hour or two of learning is an intimidating task, but there are preparations you can make to ensure success. This blog post offers tips for humanities students that are leading online seminars, with practical advice to make your session run as smoothly as possible.

If you had told me at the start of my degree in 2019 that I’d be leading two-hour seminars in my second year, I would have run a mile. The thought of having to teach other students about a topic that I’d need to completely understand was intimidating – and still is! How could my knowledge ever compare to my experienced tutors? Not to mention the issue of leading those seminars online, during a global pandemic…

My course (English and Theatre Studies) has required me to lead several seminars in the last term, usually with a partner. I struggled to find any tips or advice online, particularly for student-led teaching. However, I have now participated in nearly a whole term’s worth of student-led online seminars: the good, the bad, and the buffering! Here are my tips for leading your very own online seminar.

Know Your Topic Inside-Out

This seems obvious, but understanding your topic is truly your greatest asset. An understanding of the subject beyond a first glance provides you with the confidence to steer the discussion towards various ideas and conclusions, even if those concepts are beyond the bounds of your seminar plan. Having interesting quotes, structural points, or your own ideas to hand also provides you with the knowledge to build on the points that others contribute. There’s nothing worse than an online seminar in which the leader just jumps from one virtual raised hand to the next, not connecting the various points! Knowing your topic enables you to provide further comments and provoke ideas from other students, ensuring that you never run out of discussion points.

Plan, Plan, Plan! Structuring your seminar is your best friend. Although many tutors are skilled at making their sessions appear like easy-flowing discussions, moving from one topic to the next can actually require a lot of planning. Understanding the topics you’d like to cover (and in what order) can support you in guiding the conversation from one point to the next. A structure can also provide you with the confidence to move off-topic if

students bring new ideas, knowing you have a plan to return to once that tangent has been explored. Sometimes explaining your general structure to the students at the beginning of the seminar can help. If students understand exactly what they are working towards in the seminar, they can alter their discussion style to suit the time allocated to a topic or activity.

Personally, the structuring of my seminars begins from a series of questions that my tutors ask us to submit to other students before the seminar, to help guide their reading of a text. Not only does this help others to know in advance what topics you might cover, but can also really help you to steer the conversation in particular directions. I find it useful to write out my opinions and answers to the questions I create before I lead the seminar, helping me to guide the discussion towards particular conclusions if people get stuck.

Expect Technical Difficulties

We’ve all had our fair share of dodgy internet connections and malfunctioning video calls recently. Of course, these hitches are impossible to anticipate, so I suggest preparing as though they will happen. Have a backup plan if your presentation freezes, or if your video clips won’t work. If you have a partner, make sure you both know your seminar structure well, in case either of your internet connections cut out. Although these can be disappointing if you’ve worked hard on your seminar, there’s every chance they can be worked around with an alternative plan.

Make it Engaging

Of course, this is much harder than it seems – online learning is difficult to engage with, having so many distractions sitting around our homes. However, people will notice if you try to make your session engaging. I recently had a student-led seminar on Macbeth’s witches, during which the three seminar leaders were dressed in pointy hats, capes, and broomsticks! This made everyone more willing to engage, simply because the leaders had made a visible effort. If fancy dress is not for you, varying the types of activities within the seminar can really help keep people focused. These could be discussions, breakout rooms, debates, quizzes, polls, videos, websites to explore, mini-presentations, or even live readings of sources! It’s important to consider how these activities would function on Teams or within your subject, but they certainly aid in keeping people participating within online learning!

Leading my first online seminar certainly made me realise how hard my tutors must have to work every week to adapt their teaching to the online workspace. The tutors who engage their classes do so with a lot of work, and I continue to learn from their teaching methods every week!

Do you have any tips for leading online seminars? … Tweet us at @warwicklibrary, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.

by Hannah Filer

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