8 Tips for Leading Great Seminar Discussions

All across the country, there is a growing interest in reading Great Books and teaching them Socratically. At the same time, seminar discussion, the classroom model most Great Books and Socratic practitioners aspire to, is highly under-informed. Many teachers lack clarity about what kinds of questions to ask, what strategies work best for each genre, and how to distinguish between energetic seminar leadership and didactic instruction.

With that in mind, I have assembled eight tips, plus some great resources, to fuel your seminar leadership, foster better discussions among your students and guide them to excellence as readers of classic texts. 

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#1. Prepare thoroughly.

#1. Prepare thoroughly.

This is not just the first tip numerically; this is, hands down, the most important. Prepare well, and your seminar leadership will develop from that strong foundation.

How do you get started?

Begin with this obvious but critical step: Read the assignment at least twice and, on at least one of those occasions, mark up your text. 

If you do not have a good strategy for marking up your text, or if you could use a refresher, here are the basics from the teacher who launched a thousand seminars, the late, great Mortimer Adler: How to Mark a Book.

Once your text is well marked, brainstorm on the reading. Then, make a plan for the class. 

This last step is widely overlooked. Teachers of literature typically love to read and read well. However, in my observation of hundreds of teachers leading seminars, it is clear that most do not enter the classroom with a clear plan. 

To not have a plan is really an unforced error. It only takes a small amount of time to develop one. 

You can streamline the development process by zeroing in on the three most essential considerations for planning a seminar discussion:

  1. What specifically should the students learn from the reading for that day?

  2. What can you reasonably accomplish in the time allotted?

  3. Most importantly, what is the right pattern for the discussion at hand? 

By pattern, I mean the specific strategic approach you are going to adopt for the reading under examination. That there are different strategic patterns may not have occurred to you, but it should make sense. After all, genres vary. So, too, should strategies for teaching them.

You can find the best available introduction to patterns in Cana Academy’s guide A Lively Kind Learning: Mastering the Seminar Method. No other resource in the market has such detail and clarity on leading seminars. In particular, check out Chapter IV. There, you will discover six highly useful patterns for discussion.

Here’s an example of a pattern: If you are leading a discussion on a short story, try the pattern called Two-by-two. Under this strategy, you and your students will discuss two pages at a time, focusing on all the physical, psychological, and dramatic details packed into that specific part of the story. 

When the students arrive at the end of the story, something wondrous will have happened: They will have accrued a rich and deep collection of vital details, and in that very body of details will lie the meaning of the story. That is paydirt in the world of seminar discussions!

For another example, if you and your students are discussing a work of nonfiction, try the Arguments: find them first, then evaluate pattern. Here, you will guide the students to carefully unpack the author’s line of argumentation. When they have that reasoning in their grasp, they can then evaluate how well the argument illuminates the relevant sphere of reality—some aspect of politics, say, or friendship, or how we know what we know, or some other important topic. 

A great author is a great teacher. When your students learn what the author has to say, and when they see reality more clearly for the light the author shines on what they are examining, then you’ve hit paydirt again!

Choosing the right pattern will make for a more fruitful discussion. Above all, it will help you develop good questions around which to focus the seminar discussion. 

With great questions and focus in place, you will optimize what your students can learn and what you can reasonably accomplish that day. 

Once the plan is in place, you should have some peace of mind and a lot of confidence moving forward. A great discussion is just around the corner!

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#2. Establish your classroom environment.

#2. Establish your classroom environment.

This tip is straightforward, but it is an important part of establishing the best learning culture for your students.

Get to class on time. Dress and carry yourself professionally. Have your materials ready so you can begin immediately. Place on the board what you are going to accomplish that day. In the opposite corner, write the homework assignment. 

If possible, try to get to class before the students arrive or at roughly the same time. The reason for this is simple but important: Everything you do to establish the right environment advances the best seminar culture for your students. Seminars are humane. Their success is dependent on leadership. Your presence, including how you comport yourself, is at the center of their success.

Set a good tone by greeting the students. Your kind engagement communicates in a small but genuine way three important things:

  1. “It is good to be with you, students.”

  2. “It is good to be in this course.”

  3. “It is good that you and I are discussing this text.”

Even before the discussion begins, then, you have lifted the environment through friendship, the love of learning, and interest in the work at hand. 

Direct your students to place on the table only what they need for discussion: the text, a notebook or notepad, a pen, and perhaps something to drink. Young people are such fun; but let’s face it, if you let them pile stuff on the table, bring in snacks, and have their devices open, all of these things will be distractions during your discussion. 

Everything in a classroom should be ordered to learning. If you are clear and upfront about your guidelines and about your focus on the ultimate goal—learning well—the students will know how to enter into the culture you establish with greater focus.  

Add in your exemplary love of the whole enterprise, and your students will know that the seminar is good and desirable.

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#3. Direct the seminar with focused questions.

#3. Direct the seminar with focused questions.

Get the conversation going with clarity and purpose. You may want to begin the seminar by recalling the previous day’s discussion. There  might be historical information you want to provide prior to discussion. 

However, the seminar discussion really starts when you ask your first question. 

For a handy primer on how to start your discussion well, read through this article from Stanford University. It will help clarify what works and what does not as a start to the seminar discussion.

Do not begin with something like “What did you think of the reading?” That is too unfocused. 

Above all, do not ask a question that distracts the students away from the text. That kills focus.

If the text is fictional, do not ask the students about authorial intent, the moral of the story, the takeaway virtue, or an alternative ending—all major distractions.

Ask questions that lead the students into the text. Ask them to notice concrete details—geography, appearance, or shifts in time. 

Ask “why” questions—why a character does or says something in the story. For example: 

  • Concerning Homer’s Odyssey,Why, at several important junctures, does Odysseus conceal his identity?”

  • In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “Why does Mr. Tate insist to Atticus that ‘Bob Ewell fell on his knife’ when he knows that was not what happened?”

If the text is philosophical or historical, don’t ask a leading question, a question that sets the author up as a straw man, or a question that asks the students to place the book or its author in a macro-framework like the “history of ideas.” 

Rather, ask a question that allows the students to discover the author’s reasoning, reflects the seriousness with which we should take the text, fosters a grasp of the argument and evidence, and encourages discovery of insight. For example:

  • Regarding Federalist Papers #10, “Why, according to Madison, are factions the greatest threat to the republic? How does he intend for the constitutional order to deal with the threat of factions?” 

I have written and spoken often on how to form good questions, how to identify weak questions, and how to improve those weak ones. Here are a couple of articles to help you develop skills in this area: The first piece focuses on a novel, the second on a poem.

Weak questions typically truncate the students’ learning by leading too much, distracting the students away from the text, or asking either the impossible or the obvious.

Good questions direct our students into the text and foster wonder, discovery, mastery, and reflection. 

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#4. Cultivate dynamic participation.

#4. Cultivate dynamic participation.

Once the conversation is up and running, keep it going by continuing to ask good questions: 

  • Questions to clarify 

  • Questions to probe the thoughts, words, and actions of the characters 

  • Questions to challenge presuppositions 

  • Questions to seek textual evidence 

  • Questions that trigger altogether fresh starts—after all, you may be in need of a fresh perspective if you have exhausted a passage or run into a dead end.

I am clearly emphasizing the importance of good questions. However, make sure your seminar does not become a Q&A session where the teacher asks a question, one student answers, and the teacher confirms or corrects the answer,then asks the next question. 

That method is proper to a law school course focused on case studies but not to a seminar discussion for students of fictional or nonfictional literature. To get a real picture of the nature of a great seminar discussion, see the introduction to A Lively Kind of Learning. You can download that intro for free here.

Keep that image in your mind. Let it be a gold standard. Note the standout qualities of a great seminar discussion:

  • All the students are participating and working things out together. 

  • There is a lot of exchange between them.

  • The discussion has purpose and direction but is fluid.

  • Each student is thinking independently. 

  • Students persuade each other: Some defend their positions with careful argumentation, others see things they had not considered before.

  • Everyone relies on good evidence.

  • The learning is rigorous, the discussion lively and fun.

  • The students are attaining real understanding.

  • They are forging genuine friendship.

Aim for that dynamic. Cultivate it in your seminar. When you get there, the learning will be unprecedentedly productive, the exchange exhilarating, and the humanity of it all profoundly encouraging. The students will love seminar. They will continue the discussion outside of class and look forward to the next day with you and the classic text they are discussing.

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#5. Coach your students.

#5. Coach your students. 

Seminars are highly participatory, but participation is cultivated by good leadership. As we discussed in tips #3 and #4, great seminar leaders rely on good questions. Great seminar leaders also coach their students

Now, as soon as I say “coach,” you probably think sports. Good! That is just where I want to go. 

No sports coach worth his salt would neglect his players’ skills. It makes no sense for him to simply let his players execute essential skills poorly. 

For example, if a basketball player attempts a pass with his hands misplaced and elbows extended outwards, the coach will teach him how to “milk the cow”—to snap a good pass with thumbs down in the follow through and with elbows in. 

If a player uses his right hand on layups from the left side of the hoop, the coach will teach him to use his left hand. 

For either skill, the coach will demonstrate how to execute it properly. He will throw a pass using the “milk the cow” method or take a layup from the left side of the hoop using his left hand. 

Now, what about coaching seminar students?

Sometimes, coaching takes place during the seminar. For example, while observing a less-than-productive exchange develop among the students, you might interject by asking them to look at the text they have been discussing from a different angle—using a different question or relying on evidence they have not yet considered. 

Or, you might help a student rephrase a statement because it was grammatically incorrect, inaccurate or off-topic. 

If the students meet a roadblock and cannot seem to continue the conversation, you can help them regroup by pointing out an important passage or by bringing their attention back to a question that triggered the discussion in the first place. 

Coaching might also occur outside of class in a one-on-one meeting with a student. There, you can highlight strengths and areas in need of improvement. Coach your student on how better to prepare for discussion: markup the text better; jot down some questions or ideas to contribute to the discussion; outline an argument or list out the qualities of a character.  

In a one-on-one meeting, you can even relate the quality of a student’s discussion to another essential skill. For example, let’s say a student is fully engaged in seminar discussion, asking questions without fear of being judged, posing original thoughts on interpretation, arguing with his peers, conceding ground to better arguments, and trying out fresh approaches to the text. Yet, on the other hand, his writing is formulaic. One thing you can do is to go over the student’s latest essay and point out how he might improve his writing if he took the kind of reasonable risks there that he takes in class discussion.

Coaching also means modeling. You are the best and most experienced reader and discussant in the room. Let your skill be the standard your students follow; let your love of learning inspire them.

What are some good ways to model?

First of all, asking effective questions that direct everyone into the text is a constant standard for how to read and probe. Additionally, here are two fruitful practices for seminar leaders:

  • Every now and then, point out something you love about the text—a beautiful passage, a puzzling turn, an elegant solution to a problem. This particularly models a love of reading, a love of beautiful writing.

  • Listen to every participant, use eye contact, and look around the room in anticipation of the next contribution. That models attentiveness, collegiality, and rigor.

Coaching requires energy, attention to every detail, and investment in both the seminar as a whole and in each student. 

In the classroom, coaching is vital to building the best learning culture; without it, seminars tend to lose energy, discussions are less rigorous and productive, and students fall short of their highest proficiencies. 

Outside the classroom, the one-on-one coaching builds trust. When trust is in place, students will more likely follow your leadership in the classroom.

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#6. Establish a balance between leading your students and affording them freedom.

#6. Establish and keep the right balance between leading your students and affording them the freedom to wonder, seek, and discover.

Asking focused questions and coaching energetically do not mean running the seminar didactically. If you run the seminar didactically, frankly, you will snuff the fire right out of the discussion. 

Instead, foster lots of exchange among the students. Coach, but do not lecture. Ask lots of good questions. Do not provide the answers and insights afforded us in the text; rather, let the students discover them. 

No teacher can learn for a student. Teaching didactically is no substitute for student reading, discussing, and interpreting—the heart of good seminar discussion. 

Yes, you know more than anyone else in the room; but use that knowledge to guide and coach, not to teach at the expense of student participation. 

From time to time, you may want to present a lecture: perhaps a lecture on the history leading up to the events in a classic work like the Persian Wars that preceded Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, or one on the structure of the Divine Comedy, a tool that would help your students read the Inferno more intelligently.

In the seminar proper, however, don’t teach didactically. Rely on good questions and coaching.

Good questions encourage wonder. Wonder leads to seeking. And seeking leads to discovery. Those experiences are pure gold for your students. Craft your questions well. Drop your questions into the discussion strategically. But allow a wide, adventurous path for your students to make their way freely.

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#7. Be liberal and critical.

#7. Be liberal and critical.

This tip goes hand-in-hand with #6 with its emphasis on balance. 

Welcome all plausible interpretations at the table. Who determines what is plausible?  You do. This is why you have to be thoroughly versed in the text your students are reading and why you have to think through a plan before coming to the seminar. 

The flip side of this is that you must gently but clearly steer the students away from the implausible. It is a mistake to allow students to veer too far off track or go too deeply down a rabbit hole. 

With your questions, you are guiding your students into the text. In response to their answers, allow the plausible to bloom, but prune the implausible.

How do we do that? What are some practical ways to steer the students back on track?

If the students are not asking evidence of each other, go ahead and do so.

If a student indulges a non sequitur, an ad hominem, an either/or reduction or some other fallacy, coach the student to regroup around an observation rooted in the text, or have the student ask a good question of a colleague.

Occasionally, if a rather powerful but inaccurate interpretation has caught hold in the seminar, you might directly correct it.

I have seen too many seminars become adventures in wonderland because the teacher failed to ask focused questions or to check the kind of wrong turns from which the students could not recover on their own. Don’t let that happen. Lead! 

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#8. Develop layers of leadership.

#8. Develop layers of leadership.

As previously stated, seminar discussions are highly participatory. Add in great texts and a great teacher, and your students are in for the best learning experience of their lives.

Lead in a way that achieves 100% participation. 

At the same time, participation will not be uniform. Is that a concern? No. That is just a reality. 

Getting a handle on the following student factors and corresponding teacher responsibilities will help you work with the range of performance levels among your students:

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The dynamic needed in a seminar is one that depends on the cultural drive provided by the teacher and the best students. When the two work in tandem, that’s a winning combination for everyone involved. It fuels the best discussions and optimizes each student’s participation.

Final thoughts

Leading a seminar well is an art. These eight tips I presented are tried, proven and highly effective. Use them well, and you will lead great seminar discussions. Lead your students well, and they will have the best possible learning experience.


Andrew J. Zwerneman has led seminar discussions for more than thirty years. He currently serves as the president and a master teacher with Cana Academy

Image of potato drill uploaded to English Wikimedia Commons by Richard Croft, used under CC BY-SA 2.0. Image for point 8 uploaded to English Wikimedia Commons by Arlo Barnes, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 DE. All other images public domain.

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For the full picture on leading seminars, check out Cana Academy’s guide, A Lively Kind of Learning: Mastering the Seminar Method.