17. Interactive Lectures, Seminars, and Tutorials: Learning by Talking

17.3. Are Seminars a Practical Method in a Massive Education System?

For many faculty, the ideal teaching environment is Socrates sitting under the linden tree, with three or four dedicated and interested students. Unfortunately, the reality of mass higher education makes this impossible for all but the most elite and expensive institutions.

However, seminars for 25-30 students are not unrealistic, even in public undergraduate education. More importantly, they enable the kind of teaching and learning that are most likely to facilitate the types of skills needed from our students in a digital age. Seminars are flexible enough to be offered in class or online, depending on the needs of the students. They are probably best used when students have done individual work before the seminar. Of upmost importance, though, is the ability of teachers to teach successfully in this manner, which requires different skills from transmissive lecturing.

Although expansion of student numbers in higher education is part of the problem, it’s not the whole problem. Other factors, such as senior professors teaching less, and focusing mainly on graduate students, lead to larger classes at undergraduate level that use transmissive lecturing. And if more senior or experienced instructors switched from transmissive lectures, and instead required students to find and analyse content for themselves, this would free up more time for them to spend on seminar-type teaching.

So, it as much an organizational issue, a matter of choice and priorities, as an economic issue. The more we can move towards a seminar approach to teaching and learning and away from large, transmissive lectures, the better, if we are to develop students with the skills needed in a digital age.