Making the most of seminars

Making the most of seminars

Rick Castle (BA ’16, MA ’18 in Classics) has been both a student and a Teaching Assistant (TA) at Brock. During his three years as a TA, Rick has taught about 180 students, most of them in first year courses, in the Department of Classics seminars. In this post, Rick draws on his experience of seminars from both the student and TA perspectives to offer you insight on how to make the most of your seminar experience.

If you’ve just graduated high school, coming back to university after a break, or attending university as a mature student, you might be unfamiliar with Brock’s lecture and seminar system. You might be nervous about the idea of sitting in lecture or seminar, not knowing what to expect, or what will be expected of you. If that’s the case, then take the next few minutes to learn a little bit about what you can expect from your lecture and seminar experience.

My name is Rick Castle. I was a student at Brock for 8 years. For the 5 years of my undergrad, I was a student who attended seminars and learned from TAs and instructors, and for almost 3 years I was a TA and master’s student in Classics who taught undergraduates. My goal is to make you less anxious and more excited for your first classes in the Humanities, and at the end, I’d like to share 3 helpful tips that I found crucial to making my seminar experiences enjoyable and successful, and hopefully, you will too.

Rick Castle (far right) with fellow grad students at TAs Esther Knegt and Francesca Patten at the 2018 Classics graduate student conference.

Any student coming to university for the first time, or coming back after a long break can have difficulty adjusting to the lecture and seminar format of a typical humanities course. Whereas a high school student is consistently part of a 20-30 person class, a first-year lecture hall may be filled with as many as a few hundred students. Because of this, students may have trouble talking to their professors one-on-one. To remedy this issue, Brock’s Humanities’ lectures are also supplemented by smaller seminars. A seminar is similar to the high school classroom format, where about 20 students discuss the topic presented in that week’s lecture with one TA or Teaching Assistant. Typically, the instructor will cover a big topic during the week’s lecture, and your seminar will meet once a week for an hour to break down that week’s lecture with a conversation guided by the TA. A TA is usually a graduate student, an Master’s or PhD student teaching the material that they were taught during their undergraduate experience. In this case, the TA understands your position as a student because they were in the exact same position years prior.

A TA will be your primary point of contact in any course that includes a seminar component.

While instructors teach the material, TAs are often responsible for marking the work that you submit, but are also responsible for making sure that their students understand the material to the best of their ability. In an average first-year course, the seminar component accounts for about 20% of your final grade, including a participation grade given for how often you are present and the quality of the seminar’s discussion.

Your TA however, will likely also be marking the other components of your grade, like essays and exams. It’s important then, to talk to your TAs! If anything about the course is unclear or troubling to you, such as when an assignment is due, or what’s expected from an assignment, you can talk to your TA for clarification.

TAs are there to further your understanding of the material and to be a tool for you to succeed, so make sure you take advantage of this resource.

Seminars may seem daunting to some, as it usually requires students to speak about material or readings with which they are not entirely familiar and to do so in front of other students. However, it is crucial to understand that a seminar is meant to be a learning environment. Every student is in the same situation of learning this new material and can help each other understand better. The TA as well is in a position to help you and your peers succeed.

If you find participating in seminar difficult for any reason, talk to your TA one-on-one.

Most TAs are flexible when it comes to accommodating student needs, and with the instructor’s permission, can make seminar a more enjoyable, less stressful experience for you. Similarly, TAs understand that the university experience is a transitional one, and that problems can arise outside of academic life. If you find that you are dealing with issues in your life that make it more difficult to focus on schoolwork, let your TA know that you may need an extension or other accommodation. Every TA wants to see their students do well, and with the instructor’s permission, they can work with you to make sure that you don’t sacrifice academic success while dealing with life’s challenges.

TAs even have office hours once a week, which are often located in their department. During this hour, or by appointment, you can meet with your TA to discuss anything course-related. You can ask for clarification on course material, tips for writing essays, how best to go about doing assignments, about the program and department in general and more!

Over 3 years as a TA, I taught about 180 students, most of whom were first years, and from my experience as both a student and TA at Brock, I offer 3 tips to have a successful and fun seminar experience:

  • Show up to every seminar and hand in all your work. Seems like a basic tip, and in some ways it is, but it results in a world of benefits. By attending seminar, you will learn more about the material than a student who doesn’t. This will be so beneficial to you when exam time rolls around, and often, your TA will be able to provide insight into how to prepare for exams and how to write essays – information that instructors does not often provide. Also keep in mind that for every seminar that you do not attend, and assignment that you do not hand in, you throw away free marks that could boost your total grade, and your total average.
  • Get to know your TA. As I mentioned before, TAs are responsible for determining the majority of your grade, so talking to them about coursework and visiting them at office hours for advice can only improve the way in which you approach the material, and thus improve your grade. TAs have years of experience in the class material, and will be able to help you more than your peers and tend to be more available for consultation than the instructor.
  • Have fun. There’s nothing more boring and uninteresting than listening to an instructor drone on and on. Because the seminar class sizes are smaller than lectures, TAs can and should prepare activities to help their students learn. When you have fun in the classroom, even if it’s just by playing a silly game, you tend to retain whatever you learn for longer. Encourage your TAs to do class activities if they don’t already – university might be challenging, but it should never be boring.

About ainnes

Social Media Coordinator, Faculty of Humanities, Brock University

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