When is a lecture not a lecture?

As part of your university studies, you will experience a wide range of teaching and learning contexts. Core among these are:

  • lectures
  • seminars
  • symposia
  • tutorials

These are general formats which all students will encounter at various times. There are also, of course, more specialist situations which are determined by your particular programme of study and which take place in workshops, studios and/or computer suites.

What is a lecture?

A lecture is a method of teaching in which a lecturer delivers information on a particular topic to a large group of students (rarely fewer than 20, potentially hundreds). The topic of a lecture will almost always have been communicated to the student group beforehand and is usually part of an essential sequence within a particular module. Lectures sometimes take place in specially designed lecture ‘theatres’, where seating is banked to enable all students to see both the lecturer and any visual material which is used. Lectures typically last about an hour, but can be longer (45-90 minutes is the usual range).

The traditional model of a lecture is that the lecturer talks and the students make notes. The bigger the audience for a lecture, the more likely it is that it will take on this pattern (or a version of it), especially if the lecturer is reading from notes or slides. Most tutors, however, even in highly populated lectures, favour a more lively, performative, interactive approach which aims to involve the student group. The aim, in modern lectures, is not for students to be passive consumers of information but to be active participants in their own learning: asking questions, challenging ideas, seeking clarifications, and so on. While a lecture is in progress, participation is generally encouraged – although it’s better to put up your hand rather than just shout out…

Lectures tend to be used to introduce a subject which is then followed up in greater detail in one or more seminar sessions.

In summary, then, the basic format of a lecture is:

  • a lecturer standing at the front of a room and talking about a particular subject for a set period of time, usually supported by audio-visual materials (e.g. slides, film clips, web examples, live writing on a board or visualiser) and sometimes referring to printed hand-outs or to material previously posted on StudyNet
  • students sitting facing the lecturer and taking notes, offering observations and asking questions, sometimes being asked directly to respond to audio-visual materials and/or hand-outs
  • the lecturer asking for final questions at the end
  • the lecturer perhaps setting or suggesting further work, especially if there is to be one or more follow-up seminars

This can, of course, vary considerably, depending on the particular subject, lecturer, context, and so on.

To get the most out of a lecture you will need to bring with you:

  • something to write with
  • something to write on
  • an audio or video recording device (optional, and it is a good idea to ask the lecturer’s permission first)
  • any previous notes you have made on the subject (e.g. you might have been asked to watch, read, play or look at something in preparation for the lecture or seminar)
  • any StudyNet materials which you have been asked to look at and/or bring to the session

This list is also applicable to seminars, symposia and tutorials.

Some things are considered to be unacceptable in lectures:

  • arriving late
  • making or receiving phone calls
  • sending or reading text messages
  • surfing the internet for casual purposes (e.g. to use Facebook, Twitter, e-Bay)
  • playing computer games
  • listening to MP3 players, etc.
  • casual conversation, especially while a lecture or seminar presentation is being delivered
  • reading magazines, newspapers, comics, etc. (except as part of a directed activity)
  • • walking out of the room (whether it’s to take/make a phone call, go to the loo, or because you’re ‘bored’)
  • • falling asleep

At the very least, these are signs of poor studentship. They are likely to lead to you being asked to leave the session.

Be aware, by the way, that the term ‘lecture’ is often used in a generic sense to refer to any type of teaching session in a university situation. So, even if someone tells you that ‘lectures start at 9 and end at 5’, it is extremely unlikely that everything which takes place between 9 and 5 will be a lecture! Similarly, teachers at university are often referred to as ‘lecturers’, but this doesn’t mean that lectures are all they do…

What is a seminar?

Seminars involve smaller groups than lectures (usually no more than 25) and are much more flexible in purpose, structure and outcome.

Most seminars are used to ‘unpack’, try out and discuss ideas encountered in previous lectures, so in this sense they are best seen as a follow-up activity. When this is the case, it is ideal if the seminar follows as soon as possible after the lecture, either on the same day or within a week. Sometimes, the order might be reversed, with a seminar being used to prepare a set of ideas or materials for a forthcoming lecture. This is, however, less usual. Seminars can also be used to introduce a specialist subject which is not felt to be suited to the large-scale lecture format and therefore might be best understood through a ‘hands on’ experience. Whatever the case, a seminar is where your learning is consolidated or strengthened, and you should feel yourself taking ownership of knowledge and ideas.

Seminars often involve working in small groups, either on a live activity or as part of a previously set task across two or more weeks. Groups feed back as a way of prompting wider class discussion. Alternatively, specific seminar sessions might be allocated in advance to individual students, or to small groups of students, who are asked to plan and deliver the material, sharing their findings and ideas with the rest of the class. Again, the aim is to generate discussion.

To a significant degree, then, seminars should be seen as student-led. This is reflected in the fact that they often involve a very different arrangement of furniture from that used in lectures, with students gathered around clusters of tables rather than ranked in lines, facing the front of the teaching space. The role of tutors is to establish the framework for a seminar series, keep things to schedule, ensure participation and contribute ideas, suggestions and challenges where appropriate. A seminar which is dominated by the tutor is, in most cases, a seminar which isn’t working: a seminar, in other words, which is turning into a lecture.

For seminars, in short, you should expect some or all of the following:

  • to revisit, or anticipate, ideas from lectures
  • to encounter new topics which are unsuited to the lecture format but still related to the overall themes of the lecture series
  • to be in a relatively small group which often breaks down into even smaller groups to work
  • to contribute individual and/or group presentations, carrying out research, planning delivery, preparing supporting materials, and so on
  • to contribute to online discussion boards, blogs, wikis, and so on, relating to the seminar series;
  • to take part in class discussions

Again, remember that this is only a guide: the varieties of seminar are as numerous as the varieties of tutor, module, course and student.

What is a symposium?

A symposium is similar, in some ways, to a seminar. It takes place in a small group (preferably no more than 25, and ideally less) and is fundamentally about shared, open discussion on a particular topic. Symposia work best when furniture is arranged in a square or circle, so that everyone can see everyone else and no single person – whether tutor or student – is in a position to dominate or to hide.

The original symposia, much beloved of the ancient Greeks, involved alcohol, feasting and music as an aid to flowing philosophical discussion, but in a modern university setting you should expect the emphasis to be placed firmly on the latter (although light refreshments are sometimes involved). A good symposium will tend to have a relaxed atmosphere, with the aim being to encourage lively debate, a sharing of knowledge, and the expression of opinions.

They key characteristics of a symposium are as follows:

  • there is no set running order – you simply join in when you have a point to make or a question to ask, or if you want to steer the conversation in a certain direction
  • everyone must join the discussion at some point – there is no audience in a symposium, only participants
  • there is usually a symposium ‘chair’ (this is not necessarily the tutor), whose role is to move the conversation on if it stalls, prevent gaps, and to ensure that everyone makes a contribution
  • the chair is not supposed to lead or dictate the discussion, but s/he might provide a short summary at the end and/or arrange for a record of the symposium to be written up afterwards

You can prepare for a symposium by:

  • thinking about – and researching – the broad subject beforehand
  • identifying a specific issue, idea, figure, or work, that you would like to pitch into the discussion at some point
  • preparing something to say about it
  • bringing along something to write with and something write on

Don’t script what you want to say: aim to extemporise it (i.e, do it ‘off-the-cuff’), so that you can respond to what other people have said. Make use of available media if this will help to illustrate your contribution, e.g. draw a diagram on the board or visualiser, bring along an image or a scene from a film. To perform well in a symposium situation, you will need to be confident in your knowledge of the subject matter. This means being prepared. Remember: the most effective off-the-cuff’ moments aren’t really off-the-cuff at all – they just seem that way…

What is a tutorial?

A tutorial is a meeting between a tutor and one or more students. Its aim is to provide a short, focused point of discussion on aspects of learning and teaching, such as progress on a particular assignment.

Your experience of tutorials will involve both individual and small group sessions (usually of 2–5 students). Individual tutorials will tend to be 10–20 minutes long; group tutorials, depending on the number of students, are likely to be 30–45 minutes.

Tutorials are organised in three ways:

  • given appointments
  • bookable appointments
  • drop-in surgeries

In the case of group tutorials, the grouping is rarely random. More often, particular students are brought together because they are working on related themes, subjects or problems, or because they are actually taking part in a group project.

For tutorial appointments it is important to:

  • attend punctually (check date, time, room)
  • let your tutor know as soon as possible if you can’t make it (so that your slot can be allocated to another student and a new one given to you)
  • come with something to say (specific questions to ask, ideas to try out, problems you are encountering)
  • bring something to write with and something to write on

Increasingly, e-mail is providing another semi-official form of tutorial contact but it is vital that you make the most of the available face-to-face tutorial opportunities. Compared to other modes of teaching and learning at university, these will take up comparatively little of your study time, but they provide ideal opportunities to speak close up with your tutors and to ask for advice, reassurance, help or encouragement.

One more thing

The personal styles and preferences of individual tutors, the size and dynamic of specific groups of students, the demands of particular topics, disciplines, modules, can all influence the nature of these teaching and learning modes. This means that definitions are difficult to fix and there is likely to be a certain amount of crossover. Many tutors, for instance, like students to ask questions during lectures rather than at the end; others open out discussion or ask for participation in the analysis of examples. In these cases, the line between a lecture and a seminar can blur. Similarly, a group tutorial can often take on the characteristics of an informal seminar or symposium. These overlaps are fine, of course, as long as everyone in the room knows what’s meant to be happening and why…

Finally, make sure that you always read the published schedule and check StudyNet regularly for any announcements about preparation for particular teaching sessions, last minute changes to rooms or times, cancellations, and so on.

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