Our first and second year undergraduate seminars function as an extension of psychology courses with the overall goal of developing students’ academic, research and critical thinking skills. There are five seminars per term and they are designed around topics and theories learned in psychology courses. Students are allocated in small groups of approximately 20 and given the opportunity to discuss and debate psychological knowledge and apply this knowledge in the real world. Seminars are designed by psychology course coordinators, but since they target a specific set of transferable skills rather than learning a particular topic, they have their own coordinator and are delivered by seminar leaders (PhD students). This seminar system has been running for the last three academic years.
In the first two years we encountered several challenges with the seminar system, the most prominent being poor attendance, lack of student engagement and subsequently demotivated and disheartened seminar leaders. Because seminars are an extension of psychology courses they cannot be separately assessed nor have a separate attendance. Hence, the main challenge was to make seminars “count” in a different way from summative assessment marks. We studiously examined student feedback and realised that it was not so much the content of seminars that needed to be addressed, but we needed to work on creating a cohesive and collaborative approach to learning where, in the absence of formal assessment, students would feel motivated to attend, prepare for seminars and engage in discussions and debates. So this academic year, we set to work hard on creating an inspiring and cohesive classroom environment.
Creating cohesive seminar groups:
In order to make groups more cohesive, we first ensured that the same students are in the same Seminar, PA and Research Methods Lab group. We also created a space for each seminar group on Moodle where they can communicate with their group members, course coordinator and their seminar leaders. Seminar leaders use this space to post regular messages to their seminar groups and the course coordinator and psychology coordinators who design seminars also post messages to encourage students to attend and prepare. Furthermore, at the beginning of Term 1 we designed a seminar competition for first year students with the aim of students establishing an early collaborative approach to seminars. Seminar groups were asked to create a poster about their group and post it on the Moodle forum for a prize: free tickets to the Psychology Christmas Panto. We announced this competition during the welcome party in Week 1 where we asked students to get into their seminar groups and introduce themselves to each other.
Empowering seminar leaders:
We also implemented major changes towards a more collaborative student-staff relationship. In the first two years we had a large number of seminar leaders who were allocated a small number of seminar topics to teach (matched to their research expertise). However, this also meant that they could not be allocated their own seminar groups. As mentioned above, poor attendance and lack of student engagement often resulted in demoralised and disheartened seminar leaders, but equally the lack of leadership and group cohesiveness resulted in students’ poor attendance and lack of engagement. To address these issues, this year we decided to select a small team of seminar leaders and allocate them their own seminar groups. This change has been welcomed by students. Furthermore, in contrast to the original seminar set up where seminar leaders’ main task was to deliver seminars, this year we decided to increase their independence and ownership of seminars by involving them in designing and redesigning seminar activities as well as revamping whole seminars. Their wide range of psychological expertise has allowed them to contribute as a team to all of the seminar topics and contribute equally. For each seminar a different seminar leader designs the seminar slides and all seminar leaders use these in order to maintain consistency.
We regularly meet as a team to discuss activities and experiences with the students, as well as possible room for improvement. We also ensure that seminar leaders are properly trained and supported; for example, at the beginning of Term 1 seminar leaders are required to attend a training session on small group teaching organised by the Psychology Department. These changes have greatly influenced seminar leaders’ involvement and enthusiasm, and they received overwhelmingly positive Term 1 student feedback, with 100% of qualitative comments relating to their teaching being positive. It has also made a substantial impact on student attendance. This academic year, for example, second year seminar attendance increased by almost 100% from last year. An additional benefit of our efforts to improve the seminar system is that we are enabling seminar leaders to develop their teaching and leadership skills. It is worthwhile reemphasising that all of them are PhD students (most of them in their first year) who only recently finished their undergraduate degree.
Applying knowledge in the real world:
Seminar materials and activities often focus on current issues in psychology and scientific disputes with an aim of advancing students’ analytical, academic and critical thinking skills. One of the main aims of seminars is to encourage students to consider wider issues and apply knowledge in the real world. We therefore design materials and activities that allow students to engage in meaningful dialogue. For example, last term we asked them to consider how psychological theories and research can help explain the characteristics of the 2016 US presidential candidates and why people listen to Donald Trump. Students were required to analyse and discuss both media reports and scientific papers. This illustrates how seminar topics and materials are constantly adapted to find the best and most innovative ways of developing and improving students’ critical thinking skills and applying knowledge appropriately. This is important because it facilitates deep learning and makes the learning process interesting and appealing to students.