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Prepared and engaged students in seminars

Photo from a classroom with a student raising his hand.

Engaging students during seminars is a common challenge for higher education teachers. Learning is always the outcome of the students’ activity, and teachers can only facilitate, encourage, hinder or discourage learning (Ambrose et al., 2010). Indeed, a seminar only works if participants are active and come prepared. However, students face different struggles when preparing for seminars. Micol Mieli shares her teaching experiences and tips on the topic from the Department of Service Studies.

Photo: Felicia Buitenwerf from

In the Master’s program in Service Management, seminars are widely used as a teaching and learning activity (TLA) to engage students more closely with the literature and promote their active learning. Students have different motivations for learning and while some students might be very interested in the topics discussed during the seminar and have a genuine interest in participating and discussing, some may not. Especially with first year’s master students in an international master’s program, different learning backgrounds and what Trowler and Cooper (2002) call “learning regimes” can be an obstacle. Seminars have a large component of peer learning, which is not considered a valid teaching and learning form in certain learning regimes. At the Department of Service Studies, we have dealt with this issue by designing an introductory one-week course that all new master’s students take at the beginning of their two-year program. In this introductory course, we explicitly address issues related to different cultural backgrounds and different learning regimes, showing the students how the “LU-way” of learning is practiced at our department through a series of activities (Bommenel et al., 2019). Here, students get acquainted with the teaching form of seminars and teachers openly explain their purpose as well as rules of conduct regarding active participation in seminars. 

Once the purpose of including seminars as a TLA is made clear to students, the main problem remains students’ willingness to put in the time and effort to prepare for each seminar. This mainly relates to the amount of reading for each TLA, as well as for the whole course. The issue of time management is clearly connected to that of organizing and reading the required literature. From the beginning of the program, teachers deal with this issue in several ways. In the course Introduction to Service Management, which is the first course of the program, the teaching team has adopted a process approach to seminars, in which each seminar is integrated into a sequence of activities, some teacher-led and some student-led. One key factor in the planning of these seminars was that each seminar was turned into a process, integrated with the rest of the course, in light of the principle that learning is a process and not a product (Ambrose et al, 2010). Each element of the process had clear objectives for the students and was connected to the final assignment.

For each theme of the course, after a lecture, the seminar process unfolded in three steps:

  1. Preparation: writing a seminar ticket
    After each lecture/thematic block of the course, students are tasked with the writing of a “seminar ticket”, that is a short text in which they discuss selected literature (related to the theme of the week). As the name suggests, this text will be their “ticket” to access the seminar. 
  2. Student-led seminar: giving each other feedback on the seminar ticket
    Students meet to read each other’s seminar tickets and provide structured feedback to each other. The first pedagogical reason behind this activity is to help students improve their writing skills, in view of the final assignment which has the form of a literature review. Secondly, students have the chance to discuss their understanding of the literature in an informal way, before attending the teacher-led seminar. Thirdly, this activity provides an opportunity for self-assessment in order to show students what kind of knowledge is expected of them. Such self-assessments can be evaluated by the students themselves, if the teacher provides a guide (Ambrose et al., 2010). In the example used here, teachers provided the student with a method to give each other structured and efficient feedback (Basbøll, 2020). This exercise can help students become more self-directed learners, and thus place more importance on their own preparation and involvement in TLAs.

    Students have the possibility to revise the seminar ticket according to the feedback received before submitting it to the teacher. In order to ensure that students participate at this stage, teachers can either facilitate the seminar themselves or require the students to hand-in a short reflection text or notes on their discussion.
  3. Literature seminar: discussing the literature with purpose
    At the end of the process, students meet the teacher for the teacher-led literature seminar. In the course taken here as an example, the teachers designed each literature seminar in a way that allows students to actively use the literature and produce a tangible output, which they can use for their final assignment. For example, in some of the seminars, students produce thematic mind-maps of the literature, which they create during group work in class, and which are aligned with the assessment of the course. In others, they create a power point presentation which effectively constitutes notes on the literature, which they will be able to refer to when studying. The output of the seminar should be something tangible and useful for the students, which reflects the constructive alignment among different TLAs and the final assessment of the course.

Through this process, students can take ownership of the material and their own learning. Moreover, the group work requires that they take responsibility towards each other as well, as their peers’ learning depends on their own work. However, it is important to keep a balance between challenge and support when designing these activities (Daloz, 1999; Elmgren & Henriksson, 2018). Students might feel challenged by the amount of work and the issue of time management when it comes to reading and attending all TLAs, so it is up to the teacher to make sure that there is enough support to sustain the process.

Contact details

Micol Mieli
Researcher and teacher at the Department of Service Studies at Lund University.
micol [dot] mieli [at] ses [dot] lu [dot] se (micol[dot]mieli[at]ses[dot]lu[dot]se)

Read more about Micol Mieli in Lund University’s research portal –

For references and further reading

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons. Basbøll, T. (October, 2020). Virtual Feedback.

Link to full text, retrieved from CBS blog

Bommenel, E., Ek, R., & Reid, S. (2019). Teaching masters students how to learn on an interdisciplinary programme. 34-35.

Link to full text (PDF)

Elmgren, M. & Henriksson, A-S. (2018) Academic teaching. Lund: Studentlitteratur.

Link to the book

Trowler, P., & Cooper, A. (2002). Teaching and learning regimes: Implicit theories and recurrent practices in the enhancement of teaching and learning through educational development programmes. Higher Education Research & Development, 21(3), 221-240.

Link to full text