Constructing a Seminar

One definition of “seminar” is: “a group of advanced students studying under a professor with each doing original research and all exchanging results through reports and discussions.” The roots of the word are from the German word of the same spelling, which means: “a group of students working with a professor,” and from the Latin word seminarium: “breeding ground; plant nursery.” To foster healthy growth of the seminar “nursery,” sessions need to be more than a series of teacher-directed discussions. We want the structure and requirements of the course to coax students into assuming more ownership than is typical of a law school classroom. At a very basic level, a question I am thinking about right now boils down to, “How do we best get students to stay current in the reading and pay attention in a seminar class, where there is no final exam?”

A recent New York Times article discusses a study where weekly quizzes were used at the start of each class of a large undergraduate Psychology course, resulting in increased rates of attendance and improved overall grades in the course. Is there a way to import this idea into smaller law school classroom to encourage completion of the reading and regular attendance? The ideas examined in a seminar, based on study and discussion, may not easily lend themselves to multiple-choice quizzes, but perhaps short answer quizzes?

Reading for and attending seminar classes are foundational, but we also need quality class participation from students. One way to ensure students are thoroughly ready to participate is to require students to write and turn in weekly essays reflecting on the reading and briefing any cases they read. But when a seminar course awards only 2 credit hours, students may balk at weekly writing assignments – voting with their feet by dropping the course. In addition, providing feedback on weekly written assignments can be very difficult for a professor to sustain, even in a lower enrollment course like a seminar.

What kinds of course requirements provide a sound framework for a successful seminar course? Which have you tried and discarded?

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