PAIS and Sociology students: How I prepare for my (online) seminars
University teaching is a world away from how we were taught in school. While A-levels give you some preparation for this, studying for a degree is all about independence. University student life is notorious for its relatively few contact hours as independent learning is emphasised. So, ultimately, it is up to you to direction your academic learning.
For those of you who do not know, seminars are sessions where students revisit the lecture content and course material. For my first year doing Politics and Sociology, I have had weekly seminars for each of my four modules in Terms 1 and 2 (except for reading week). For the first term, I was fortunate enough to have in-person seminars while the introduction of lockdown three has meant that all seminars were switched to online for my second term. I am expected to watch the lecture, read the required reading and engage with the set seminar questions beforehand. Whilst it was a fairly new way of learning, I found seminars to be reassuringly familiar – despite the emphasis on independent learning still very much being there, it is an opportunity to have questions answered, understanding consolidated and points clarified by tutors. As school-like as this may sound, it took me back to my classroom days!
Due to COVID-19, all my lectures have been pre-recorded and posted on Moodle. For Politics, the seminars and lectures asynchronous (the seminar covers content from the previous week rather than the week we are in*) while this is not the case for Sociology. After wishing I had done so in Term 1, I made myself a weekly timetable organising what days I would watch my lectures in time for my seminars in Term 2. I made sure to leave plenty of time between the lecture and seminar in case I found the week’s content particularly difficult and needed to revise it before my seminar. For example, if I had a seminar on Friday then I would aim to watch the lecture on Tuesday.
At first, I would handwrite all my notes from my lectures. However, I found this to be overly time-consuming. And because I was trying to be time-efficient, I found myself copying mindlessly from the lecture slides. I then decided to revert back to a method I used in my A-level days, print the slides. This has most definitely been a much more efficient way of watching my lectures. I am able to properly focus on what the lecturer is saying as I only note down what isn’t already on the PowerPoint slide (which is essentially what you should be looking out for anyway!). With my highlighter on hand, having the PowerPoint on paper allows me to better accompany the lecture. It also means I save myself the hassle of having to scour my Moodle page and online PowerPoints when trying to find information for my essays as I can flick through my folder instead.
Once I have completed watching my lecture, it’s time for the reading! Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with the reading preparation. Often, the reading will be very interesting and easy to engage with but other times, it can be endless pages and seems like it will never end! Nevertheless, the reading is compulsory for seminars. The most efficient method for note-taking and reading for me has been typing notes on my laptop! I like to split the screen between the text and a word document so I can simultaneously read and jot down anything I need rather than having to switch tabs. When doing your reading, it is vital to differentiate what you do and don’t need to note. To ensure this, I copy the set seminar questions for that lecture to the word document and use those as a guide when reading. By making brief and concise notes, it also serves as appropriate revision material!
Now, it’s time for the seminar! Every seminar tutor has a different way of structuring their seminars – some do pair work, other stress group discussion while a few set individual tasks – but whatever their way, I strongly encourage you all to properly engage with the session! This is an hour solely dedicated to ensure everyone is confident with the content. In an environment where independence is constantly hammered on, it is a valuable time to be somewhat ‘spoon-fed’. Use this as a time to ask your questions! Seminars are also a golden hour for debate and discussion – studying a social sciences degree means I come across a variety of opinionated people who enjoy fruitful debates. A lot of the time, seminar tutors encourage and provoke discussion among students in order to gain an in-depth understanding of the topic. And if you have any queries post-seminar, our emails are there for a reason!
As you embark on your university journey, you will find that many things are indeed different than how you have been accustomed to. But this doesn’t have to be negative or daunting! As you trial and error different methods and find the best ones for you, seminars (and all the other different ways of learning) will be a breeze!