Ten Tips for a Successful Seminar

Starting university can be a bit overwhelming, and the last thing you want to do is worry that you are not getting the most out of the seminars, or that you are completing the prep in the wrong manner.

Seminars can be a wonderful environment for debates that are enlightening, and the preparatory work is very rewarding. So, to help you out – and maybe even a gentle reminder for those commencing their subsequent years – here are the ten tips that will enable you to get the most out of your education this year.


1. Spend time on the readings. This will enable you to get the most out of the seminars as this is where the learning really occurs; you can’t have a debate if you don’t know the facts! Seminars are there to reinforce your understanding and to invoke debates about themes within the reading, or simply to ask for clarification on a point. So, spend as much time as possible reading, understanding and even exploring different formats such as e-books or short journal articles to expand your knowledge. Which leads me nicely onto my next point…

2. Take detailed notes. Tip: if it might be useful for an essay jot down the bibliographical information otherwise you’ll be trawling through those books all over again… Also, a summary after each question for quick reference might be useful (especially if the lecturer puts you on the spot!).


3. Do not fret if you end up starting the seminar prep the night before. Once you chat with your fellow students, you will find that a lot of them do this. It is not a reflection of your organisational skills as even the most organised will succumb to this. I wish someone had told me this in my first year, it would have saved a lot of stress and worry. But seminar prep usually is 2-3 hours per module, so make sure you factor in enough time to fully complete it!


4. Bring notes to class. This might seem like an obvious one, but you’ll be surprised as to how many don’t. You cannot deepen your understanding, or even really know what is going on, if you do not have them with you. You can colour-code the information, italicise or put keywords in bold, whatever works best for you. Only you will see your notes, so you can organise them however you like. Just make sure that they flow.

5. Attendance is key. Statistics show that the higher your attendance is, the higher the chances are that you will achieve a higher grade. If you are taking ‘Blood and Iron: Europe, 1815-1914’ taught by Dr Jim Beach, you will see this chart.

Picture3  Picture4

6. If you have time after completing the required preparations, do move on to other formats of learning. Documentaries, lectures and podcasts are a great way to learn whilst on the go. But, make sure you check out the credentials before listening to any of them. You want to be learning from a reputable source, to ensure the facts and theories are correct. If you commute into university, it is also a great way to get in extra studying without much effort and to make use of your time. Create mind-maps and flash cards along the way to help condense the information and to cut down on revision prep.

7. BUT, if you don’t have time to do wider research, don’t feel bad. Some of us have more commitments than others such as families or playing for a county sports team or in an orchestra. Whatever your circumstances are, if you can meet the required 24 hours of independent study a week, then you’ll be fine. Plus, there is always the long summer holiday break to follow your nose. Likewise, if you do end up fitting in some wider research and its always on the early modern period for example, don’t worry about it. That’s just your interest coming through and at least you’re learning. Who knows, it might even be a hint as to a good dissertation topic for you to pick for your third year.

8. Engage in both prep and the seminars. Talk to your fellow students and lecturers in the seminars. I really cannot stress how important this is. You will learn so much more and be exposed to such a diverse range of ideas and perceptions. If you’re stuck on a prep question, talk to your friends and try to decipher the readings that way. You might be able to reciprocate when they are unclear. Plus, it can highlight your strengths and weaknesses which you can work on before the next essay. Also, really look closely at the artwork each week and try to come up with concepts that the paintings might relate too. You’ll be surprised by how much a portrait can reveal about the social and cultural ideals and gender relations of that period. If you engage with the material, you will learn and subsequently remember a lot more of the information.


9. Respect each other. It is hard enough to talk to a room full of people anyway, without someone cutting you off mid-sentence because they interpret a source differently to you. The beauty of university is that there are no right or wrong interpretations – if you can back up your point with evidence. So, everyone in the room can interpret the same source very differently. Don’t be afraid to say your opinion. Give each other time to fully develop their argument and allow the lecturer to explain concepts. If you extend the courtesy to others, they will do the same to you, and a healthy debate will be created, which is a lot more productive.

10. Inform the lecturer if you have not completed the prep. Some will ask you to go to the library and complete the work there, but do not fumble your way through the seminar. It won’t be productive for you or anyone else, and if you get chosen to answer a question, it will become apparent very quickly. It’s better to just be honest, whatever the reason is.


The first year will go by in a blur, and it will be an incredible year with hindsight. Enjoy it and be excited for the next two years ahead of you, no matter how exhausted you are after the exam period. You will be surrounded by some incredible minds and your own will be expanded.


Kay Montero, a BA History student at the University of Northampton who is just starting her second year