A guide to lively seminar discussions

March 27, 2024/4 min min read
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Seminars are a familiar feature of academic life, providing a setting for close, interpersonal teaching that contributes significantly to the academic and personal growth of students. A chance to test students' critical thinking and analytical skills, an opportunity to practice communication skills, a forum for personalized feedback, and so much more.

The seminar as a format has been a staple in higher education teaching practice since its inception. We all know the joy of an animated, dynamic, and unexpected seminar discussion – but all too often getting the ball rolling on a lively seminar discussion is harder said than done. With that common challenge in mind we wanted to write a practical guide to creating great seminar discussions that you can take with you into your next class.

Setting the Stage for Success

The first step to sparking lively discussions in your seminars is to create the right environment. You want to create an inclusive environment where all students feel comfortable participating, and this begins by establishing a set of ground rules. Especially when you have a new seminar group at the beginning of a new academic year or a new semester, it is important to establish clear communication norms that value respect, openness, and non-judgement.

This helps to both create a space where quieter students who are more inclined to not participate are more likely to feel comfortable contributing, and encourage more challenging or daring contributions from students who will come to understand that this is a space where they can express their ideas without fear of judgment. Enabling you to drive a more interesting and rewarding discussion for everyone.

Here is an example set of guidelines with 12 suggestions you can use as a starting point to make your own seminar ground rules:

  1. Respect for All Voices: Every participant's opinion is valuable and deserves to be heard. Listen actively and respectfully to others, even when you disagree.
  2. Equity of Participation: Encourage equitable participation by making space for quieter voices and being mindful not to dominate the conversation. Everyone should have the opportunity to contribute.
  3. Open-mindedness: Approach discussions with an open mind, willing to consider new ideas and perspectives. Be prepared to question your assumptions and learn from others.
  4. Confidentiality: What is shared in the seminar stays in the seminar, especially when discussions involve personal experiences or sensitive topics. This helps create a safe space for open dialogue.
  5. Constructive Criticism: Offer feedback in a way that is constructive and aimed at ideas rather than individuals. Focus on how to improve or expand on points, not on dismissing them.
  6. Use of Inclusive Language: Be mindful of using language that is inclusive and non-discriminatory. Avoid assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, religion, or cultural background.
  7. Active Listening: Listen to understand, not just to respond. Give full attention to the speaker, and avoid interrupting or talking over others.
  8. Accountability for Personal Actions: Acknowledge when you might have misspoken or made a mistake, and be open to learning from these moments. This accountability fosters trust and growth.
  9. Encouragement and Support: Encourage your peers by acknowledging their contributions and supporting their ideas. A positive reinforcement can boost confidence and promote further participation.
  10. Stay on Topic: While tangents can sometimes be enriching, try to keep discussions focused on the seminar's topic. This ensures that the goals of the session are met.
  11. Be Prepared: Come to the seminar having done the necessary preparatory work and ready to engage. Being prepared contributes to a more meaningful discussion.
  12. Privacy and Digital Etiquette: In virtual settings, respect each other's privacy and adhere to good digital etiquette, including muting when not speaking to minimize background noise.

Creating the right environment for a seminar is important pre-work, but also a continuous task that requires constant reinforcement – which can be tough and tiresome at times. But your students will reap the benefits if you put in the work.

Preparation is Key

Once you have created the right environment, you need to ensure you and your students are prepared to make use of it. Asking your students to complete a piece of work pre-seminar or identifying particular items on a reading list as focus texts will help to narrow their attention and get them thinking about the particular topic at hand, rather than catching them cold.

This kind of preparation can help with the challenge of staying on topic and also provide students with the intellectual stimulation that will hopefully make them more likely to participate in the seminar if they have been challenged to consider an interesting topic or something outside of their usual comfort-zone.

It is crucial that you as the seminar leader also do some element of pre-work. Preparing a set of open-ended questions to steer the discussion ahead of time will help you to guide the group through the topics you want to cover. But – that being said – you should also be open to tearing up the script and think on your feet you ask follow up questions. Not always sticking to your pre-prepared notes.

Some tips for crafting engaging open-ended questions:

  • Encourage exploration: Questions that start with "What if," "How might," or "Why do you think" can lead to rich discussions.
  • Connect to real-world applications: Not all students thrive on the theoretical, so bring up real-world examples to bring quieter members of the group out of their shell.
  • Facilitate connections: Help the group to explore new territory by making a connection between two elements of the discussion they may not have considered and let them run with it.
  • Try to avoid leading questions: Ensure that your questions don't imply a "correct" answer or lead students to a predetermined conclusion. The goal is to open up discussion, not to guide it towards a specific point of view.
  • Solicit multiple viewpoints: Students won’t like this one, but rich discussions are basically impossible without it. Has one person been talking for too long? Throw a “What do you think?” to someone who hasn’t said anything for a while. It works.
  • Prepare to probe further: As we said before, preparation is very important, but so is improvising on the spot to ask follow-up questions.

Facilitation Techniques

Facilitation techniques are essential for promoting active participation and ensuring productive discussions in seminars. To encourage participation, especially from quieter students, it's important to create an atmosphere where every contribution is valued. You can do this by using direct but open invitations to speak, such as by saying, "I'd love to hear your thoughts on this." 

Such small gestures of encouragement can significantly impact students' willingness to participate. Also, managing dominant voices in the room is crucial to ensure that all students have the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. When a few students dominate the conversation, it may be necessary to politely interrupt them and direct the conversation towards others.

When navigating difficult conversations, especially those touching on sensitive issues, it's important to remind students of the seminar's ground rules for respectful dialogue. Emphasizing empathy and the importance of understanding different viewpoints can help maintain a respectful and productive discussion environment.

Moreover, if the seminar discussion veers off course, guiding it back to the main topic is essential for keeping the session focused and productive. A simple redirection, such as saying, "This is an interesting point, but let's refocus on our main topic," can effectively bring the discussion back on track.

Leveraging Technology

Leveraging technology effectively can significantly enhance the interactivity and engagement of seminars, both in-person and virtual. Employing digital tools, such as Mentimeter for conducting interactive quizzes, live polling, and free text entry with the Open-Ended feature, can transform seminars into more dynamic and participatory learning experiences.

You can integrate these digital tools seamlessly into your seminars. For example, initiating a topic with a live poll using Mentimeter can not only gauge students' initial thoughts on the topic but also kickstart the discussion with real-time feedback.

Moreover, the use of online forums or discussion boards for pre-seminar engagement offers a valuable opportunity to prepare students for the seminar. By assigning a specific question or topic for online discussion, educators can prime students for the in-person seminar, ensuring they come prepared with ideas and questions. This approach not only encourages students to engage with the seminar material ahead of time but also helps to build anticipation and interest in the seminar's topic.

Encouraging students to actively participate in these online platforms by posting their thoughts, questions, or relevant resources fosters a sense of community among seminar participants. This pre-seminar engagement enriches the actual seminar discussion, as students bring a wealth of ideas and perspectives that have been cultivated through their online interactions. By leveraging technology in these ways, educators can create a more interactive, engaging, and community-oriented seminar experience for their students.

Feedback and Continuous Improvement

Feedback and continuous improvement are critical components of enhancing the seminar experience for both students and educators. To gather student feedback, you can utilize anonymous surveys or solicit direct feedback, and use it to understand your seminar's effectiveness.

You will find that this feedback is invaluable for understanding students' needs and preferences which will improve your ability to craft course content that resonates. Soliciting feedback throughout the semester as well as at the end will also help you to pivot quickly and address any potential problems early.

Self-reflection is another important tool for continuous improvement. Regularly taking time to reflect on your facilitation style enables you to identify what aspects of your seminars were successful and which areas could benefit from refinement. This reflective practice can lead to significant improvements in teaching effectiveness over time.


Seminars are a vital part of the academic journey, providing a unique opportunity for students to engage deeply with material, practice critical thinking, and develop communication skills. By creating the right environment, preparing effectively, utilizing facilitation techniques, leveraging technology, and embracing feedback and self-reflection, educators can foster lively and meaningful seminar discussions.

Experiment with different strategies to discover what works best for you and your students. Remember, the goal is to create a dynamic learning experience that encourages student engagement and facilitates deeper understanding.

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