By David White
If you asked a sample of people to describe the typical university class, there is a good chance that many would mention a one-way transfer of knowledge wherein students sit at desks or tables listening to an instructor. While it is true that some courses do exist in this format, the reality is that university classes come in many different structures.
As you advance through your program, you will likely take a seminar course. A seminar is a class that generally involves a high amount of student participation and communication about ideas and subjects studied throughout the semester. Depending on what region of the world you were educated in, this format may seem very unfamiliar and even intimidating. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to prepare for your seminar courses that can dramatically increase your chances of success.
1. Prepare in advance
In many cases, professors will provide interested students with the course syllabus in advance, including texts and resources that students will need during the semester. Because seminar courses rely heavily on class participation, it is well worth examining the syllabus closely and learning what you will need before the semester begins. This will enable you to familiarize yourself with the course subjects, as well as to prepare thoughts and questions before each class session.
2. Complete all assigned readings
As previously noted, seminar courses rely heavily on student participation. Simply put, you cannot successfully contribute if you do not complete the reading prior to class. Course material will typically range from simple to challenging, but seminar courses are a great place to face difficulties with assigned readings because it is expected that you will have questions. If there is a section of the material that you do not understand, do not skip it—instead, make note of it so that you can return to it in class.
3. Take notes
Seminar courses can be very exciting, especially if you are interested in the subject matter. These classroom discussions are a great place to learn about new concepts and to develop your ideas with feedback from faculty and fellow students. Of course, none of this matters if you forget the information as soon as you leave class, so take as many notes as you can. Note-taking may seem obvious within the context of university, but it can be far more difficult than you might expect. The objective is not to write down everything, but to write down the most important information in an efficient way that you will still understand later.
4. Record the classroom discussion (if permitted)
Very often, the seminar course is an ongoing dialogue that continues from one class to the next. Classroom discussions are as important to your success as your engagement with the course material is, so it is wise to take notes on these, as well.
If you are concerned about your ability to take adequate notes, particularly during a faced-paced discussion in your secondary language, you may wish to consider recording the conversation on your laptop or smartphone. This will allow you to have a record of the discussion that you can play back and slow down in order to gain further clarification.
5. Participate in discussions
Succeeding in a seminar is contingent on two items: your willingness to engage with the course material, and your willingness to contribute ideas to classroom discussions. For international students, the latter can be stressful, especially if you have less confidence in your conversational English. Although you may not always feel comfortable contributing, the classroom is a relatively safe environment in which you can further develop your ideas and your language skills by participating in discussions.
6. Ask questions
Universities can be chaotic places, with hundreds of people moving in several different directions. As a result, you may not receive as much time with faculty and advisors as you would like, which is why seminar courses can be a great place to get your questions answered or to ask for clarification around certain ideas.
As you do the reading or otherwise engage with seminar material, make note of anything that is confusing or that does not make sense. Having a list with you at the start of class will make it easier to know what to say and how to ask your questions.
David White is a contributing writer for UniversityTutor.com, the world's largest global marketplace for finding independent tutors.