Giving Lectures and Seminars

See also: Dealing with Presentation Nerves.

Both lectures and seminars are frequently used in higher and further education, and increasingly in schools too.

Although lectures, in particular, are very similar to giving presentations, the term ‘lecture’ is uniquely used for some kind of educational session.

Lectures offer a good way to provide a large amount of information to a big group in a short space of time.

Seminars enable group discussion and checking that your students have understood the subject in a much smaller group.

Defining Lectures and Seminars

lecture  n. a lesson or period of instruction, a discourse on any subject, especially a professorial or tutorial discourse.

seminar n. a class at which a group of students and a teacher discuss a topic.

Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.

Lectures, then, basically consist of one person (the lecturer) standing at the front of the room, and speaking, or giving a presentation, to everyone in the room.

Lectures are not primarily interactive opportunities, although students may well ask questions about the content if they do not understand.

Seminars, however, are a discussion opportunity.

Seminars may also be called study groups, work-groups, or discussion groups. The students are expecting, and expected, to interact with the tutor and with each other.

Choosing a Lecture or Seminar

It should immediately be clear that the two types of session lend themselves to very different topics and also require different skills from those running them.

When to choose a…

…lecture …seminar
When you need to get a large amount of information across to a big group in a short space of time; When the group needs or wants to discuss alternative ideas and debate their merits;
When the group needs to know about facts or alternative theories, but not to discuss their relative merits; When you want to check the group’s understanding about a particular topic;
When you want the group to know and understand a particular idea in some detail; When there are fewer facts, and the topic is more a matter of opinion and/or there are several possible alternative interpretations and actions;
When you are the expert and your role is to provide information. When you feel that your role is to facilitate discussion and not to provide information.

This distinction is perhaps becoming less clear-cut, with many tutors using lectures as a more interactive discussion session, designed to engage students and keep them awake.

It’s far from the old stereotype of a lecturer who stands at the front and reads out the handout, making copious notes on a whiteboard as he does so. This is particularly the case for social sciences and other more nuanced subjects, where there is less ‘truth’ and more ‘opinion’.

In reality, how you approach your lectures is very much up to you.

Giving a Lecture

Giving a lecture is very like giving a presentation to a large group, except that you are unlikely to have a microphone.

You may therefore find it helpful to work through our series of pages on Presentation Skills to help you prepare, organise your material, and write the presentation.

Perhaps the key difference is the duration of the session.

Presentations tend to be 20 minutes to half an hour, followed by a question session. Lectures are expected to last the full duration of the session, with little or no designated question time. The duration of the session will be set by the institution, but is often one or two hours. This means that some sort of visual aid is probably going to be essential to keep your students’ attention.

For more about this, see our page on Working with Visual Aids.

Lecture theatres often have banked seating to ensure that all students can see, which can give the feeling of being at the bottom of a large goldfish bowl, or perhaps in the arena in ancient Rome. But the importance of making eye contact and engaging with your audience are no different.

Top Tip!

Some lecturers find it helpful to identify one or two students whom they know well enough from seminars or tutorials to assess when they might be getting confused. If your key students start to look worried, it’s as well to pause and check everyone understands the topic.

It’s also worth pausing periodically and asking if anyone has any questions or would like you to go over any particular points. After all, you are there to teach and, if you’ve lost them all, it’s not much help.

Your students will also appreciate a handout. If you are using slides, this will often be a copy of them. You should hand this out at the beginning of the lecture, so that they can supplement it with their own notes if they wish. You should also make sure that they have any handouts or slides  electronically, for those who make notes on a laptop or tablet.

Some lecturers provide background reading in advance of their lectures. However, don’t be surprised if nobody has read it.

Giving a Seminar

Your first role as a seminar tutor is to provide materials in advance for your students to prepare. This may be some background reading, or perhaps a case study to consider. You may also want to provide some potential discussion questions for your students to start to consider their answers.

At the seminar itself, you need to begin by setting the scene at the beginning of the seminar. In an ideal world, your students will have prepared and come ready to discuss a particular question or set of questions, but it won’t hurt to remind them of the subject and give them a starting point for discussion.

You may want to start with three or four slides to set out the background to the seminar. Consider this as a mini-presentation. For more ideas about how to do this effectively, see our pages on Organising Your Material for a presentation, Writing Your Presentation, and Working with Visual Aids.

You should then kick off the discussion by asking a question. After that, your key role is to facilitate discussion. You may therefore find it helpful to look at our page on Facilitation Skills.

Top Tip!

Have a series of questions ready to move the discussion through key areas of the subject.

You can either share these questions at the beginning of the seminar, or just interject them at suitable moments, either when the discussion flags or to move it through the key areas.

One of the key roles of a facilitator at any event is to help the group to manage their time so that they have a chance to discuss everything.

During your preparation, make sure that you consider how long the group will need to spend on each item or discussion question, and that they have enough time to discuss everything. If not, cut down the number of questions! You can always bring them in later should discussion flag earlier than expected.

A Word of Warning

This is a very general guide to the specifics of lectures and seminars, which is designed to help those new to lecturing and/or organising seminars.

However, what you actually do will depend on you, your students and also, to some extent, your institution, whether school, college or university. You should check any guidance carefully, and also ensure that you are providing educational opportunities that work for your students.