After 5 years in University, I have spent more hours in seminars than I would care to calculate. Mastering seminars is about more than the small percentage you gain for attendance and contribution. If done properly, seminars can give you a decisive edge in gaining a 1st in both essays and exams.
The most important running factor is that you can spark creativity and critical thinking, and locate specific evidence or ideas easily without stressing.
However, even when you are discussing the most invigorating subject, at the right time of day, in a room which is close enough to a coffee source during break time, eventually you will feel like an impenetrable wall had built around your brain and you simply cannot take in anything else.
To prove that these techniques can work, I will show you how they worked for me under less than ideal circumstances.
In my final year we selected our extra module on the basis of ranking the seven topics on offer by preference (1 Most – 7 Least). I was given by 5th choice, in a module which I was not initially attracted to or in any way knowledgeable about.
My professor was a world-leading expert in the field, and not prone giving the benefit of the doubt when mistakes were made, so there was no way I could shortcut my way through it or cut any corners or my marks would suffer.
Therefore, I am confident that if these 8 methods are applied consistently and correctly that you will be able to efficiently gather useful insights for your essays.
ALWAYS keep an ideas sheet on the table
On the ideas sheet note any debates or questions which your tutor emphasises or hints at, because there’s a good chance that they could be your exam questions!
Deal with the ideas sheet each week, and keep a separate list at the front of your folder for BIG IDEAS and QUESTIONS that need time to work on or make use of.
Come to seminars with SPECIFIC questions on work you are doing or want to do
When you want to find things out from your tutor it helps to articulate your questions precisely. For example, if you ask “How do I study better?” then your tutor can only give you a thin spread of advice across the board – bearing in mind that they will have dozens of students like you to deal with.
Instead you could ask them:
- Can you recommend an efficient method for cross-referencing?
- Can you recommend an academic source which conflicts with the main recommended text?
- Can you suggest some extra primary sources in order to explore this topic in greater depth?
Make clear distinctions between different notes
Over time notes can become cluttered, and can prove to be overwhelming when it comes time to study for exams or find specific information for an essay.
After a seminar if I thought my notes were too messy and cluttered then I would re-write the on my computer while the information was still fresh in my mind. It also meant that I could find specific gaps to fill in, and questions to put on the ideas sheet.
Increase your Seminar Grade
Come prepared to contribute effectively to discussion
I spent the majority of my first two years doing the assigned reading because I had to. I did not think about how I could use my time and effort to effectively contribute to the group discussion. It was only in my final two years that I decided to make changes to my strategy for reading and note taking.
I would prepare a short summary of an assigned text. I would write 150 words because that was how much I could read out loud in 1 minute flat, which allowed me to reach the core of the argument decisively. This would also help me later on when I worked on my final 2 essays and prepared for my final exams.
If your seminar has a particular question or some focuses then make a list with some particular insights.
Select your essay questions in advance
Selecting an essay question in advance can allow you to take full advanced of seminars, because you can focus your energy on learning from a particular seminar which you can study in the weeks before and after, rather than focusing equally on every seminar and finding yourself short of time when the intense essay period begins.
In my final year, all history students were expected to write their own essay questions, to be approved by our supervisor. However, this strategy can also work if you are given a list of essay questions to chose from at the start of term.
Shortlist primary evidence to boost originality
If you know your essay topic, then you can keep a list of the relevant evidence presented in seminars with a note on why they are useful, so that you can work more efficiently and not waste so much time in examining evidence which cannot help your argument.
For more information on boosting your originality to achieve higher marks then remember read the WebApprentice blog post in 5 days time.
Ask your tutor about what to expect in the exams
This may seem obvious, but I have found myself in so many seminar groups where the students are afraid to ask the tutor in front of their peers about what things they can expect in the exam paper, such as how many questions there will be and how many seminar topics they should study.
I also found that when you found out where your exam will take place it can help your nerves to visit the room when it is empty. It meant that I worried a great deal less about the exam itself, and I could concentrate on my strategy for answering the different possible questions.
Write a summary of the main points each week, with an academic or primary source
When the cramming gets underway, every minute counts towards memorising the evidence and arguments, and so it helps to have a strong platform which you have built in advance, so that you are not drowning in a clutter of notes which you will struggle to organise.
Even if you are half way through the year, it will be beneficial to force yourself write a short summary of your previous seminars containing the main topics from each week. If possible list the important academic sources which were covered that day with the specific arguments or evidence that was discussed. The last one was very good for enhancing my memory of sources and their association with particular arguments. Enhancing your memory of the association between sources and arguments is important when you have to adapt your argument to the questions that you are given in the exam.