In your time at university, seminars and tutorials are some of the most fun and intellectually challenging activities that you can participate in. They give you a chance to clarify concepts and test your understanding with other students. They are also crucial opportunities to practise skills in critical debate and argument, and to refine your communication skills.

But tutes and seminars can also feel very daunting, especially if you’re not used to expressing yourself in front of a group of strangers.  Here are some tips for a better tutorial experience.

Preparation

The more you understand the tutorial material, the more confident you’ll feel discussing it with others. So prepare thoroughly! If there is required reading, spend time going through it a few times, making notes as you read. Think about the main issues or problems that arise from the topic, and jot down your observations about each. Keep track of useful quotations or examples that will support your opinions and help discussion. Come up with three or four questions that you’d like to pose to others in your tute.

Participation

Even with the best preparation, tutorials can still be nerve-racking and confusing. Sometimes we feel that we’ve missed something in our preparation, and everyone else has found the ‘right’ answer. This is rarely true. Keep in mind that there will often be a number of perspectives on the same issue.

Here are a few ideas to try out:

  1. Say one thing.Don’t wait until you have a ‘profound thought’ to contribute. Commit to saying at least one thing in every tute that will help build the discussion.
  2.  Acknowledge other students’ ideas. Being a good participant in discussion doesn’t mean dominating the discussion. It’s important to support other members of your group by listening well. Demonstrate good listening skills by saying ‘yes’, nodding your head, or saying something like that “That’s an interesting point. I’ve not thought about that.” You can then build on these by showing where and why you agree. For example: “Yes, I think it’s good to remember that Mommsen is often taken out of context …”
  3.  Ask clarifying questions.If you’re feeling very nervous and uncertain, a helpful way to ‘warm up’ in tutorials is to ask questions. You could ask to clarify a point made by another student in the tutorial, or something that interested or confused you in the reading. Thoughtful questions are always useful contributions to any tutorial or discussion.
  4.  Present alternative views.
    Don’t be afraid to disagree with others in tutorials, but do so respectfully. Remember that a discussion is not a fight. Focus on the central ideas of others, not on tangents or peripheral details, or on the personality of the speaker. Your idea is much more powerful if you can support with evidence from relevant texts or research. Avoid drawing too much from personal or anecdotal evidence, which is less academic.

Post-mortem

A lot of students say that they find tutorials confusing; when they leave the tute, they wonder if they have learnt anything. Discussions in tutorials often leap from point to point, and can go off on tangents. During the class, jot down comments that others have made that were interesting or thought-provoking. After the class, review your notes and see if there are certain ideas that group together into a central theme.

For more about participating in tutorials, see Research and Learning Online.

This article was written by Bei-En Zou, a Learning Skills Adviser at the Hargrave-Andrew Library.