Confession: In first year, I skipped a concerning number of seminars because I was too nervous about them. I found the whole experience anxiety inducing, from worrying that I hadn’t understood the readings to stressing that I was going to be called on to contribute. Though not going provided temporary relief, I ended up missing out on what ultimately is a really important part of my degree, which impacted my essay and exam results.
I know I’m not the only one, which is why the second part of my ‘Ultimate Guide to’ series focuses on seminars. By implementing the following strategies, I have managed to combat my seminar anxiety and not just attend them, but become an active participant. Here’s how you can too.
Do the prep work.
Though obvious, I can’t stress enough how important it is to do all the required prep work before going to your seminar. Unlike a lecture, which usually requires listening, copying and minimal participation, a seminar focuses on discussion, collaboration, and debate. You will be encouraged, if not expected, to contribute, and this is very difficult if you have no idea about the topic being discussed! There is nothing worse than being put on the spot and having to offer an opinion on a lecture you didn’t watch.
Prepare yourself by attending the corresponding lecture and doing any readings or other work you’ve been set beforehand. I find it also helps to read over your lecture notes again just before the seminar, to make sure the content is fresh in your mind and to identify any questions or thoughts you want to raise.
Remember the purpose of seminars.
As term gets busier and deadlines loom, timetabled activities like seminars can feel like they’re using up vital time you could be spending writing the next essay or studying for the next exam. Instead, it’s important to consider them as something you attend not just because you have to, but instead as tools to help with the rest of your work.
Seminars offer the chance to share your opinions and hear those of others, together coming up with new ideas and perspectives you may not have thought of before. These could be used to inform your critical voice in an essay, or give you a unique angle to approach a question with. The environment of discussion and debate also gives you an opportunity to be experimental, sharing ideas you aren’t so sure about to get informal feedback from your peers and leader. If you don’t yet have an essay plan, treat the seminar as a group brainstorming session to create one. If you already have one, treat the seminar as a feedback session to make it even stronger.
Of course, there will also be seminars which focus on topics you aren’t going to write an essay or exam answer about. In these cases, consider what else you can get from them. Can you identify any parallels between this content and what you are focusing on? Do you have any great ideas others may be able to use in their essays on the topic? What interests you about this topic on a personal level?
Challenge yourself to get involved
With that being said, if thought of sharing your opinion in a room full of people is your worst nightmare, you aren’t alone. I really struggled with seminars during my first few years of university, and to be truthful even dreaded them. I didn’t feel like my ideas were worthwhile or intelligent enough, and would contribute as little as possible, desperately avoiding eye contact with the seminar leaders in the hopes they wouldn’t pick on me.
I still struggle with this self-doubt, but have developed strategies to manage my seminar nerves. I recommend challenging yourself to contribute in every seminar, even if this is just once. You could even prepare what you are going to say, writing down a few sentences about a key idea you know will come up during discussion. Once you feel comfortable with this, increase it to twice and so on.
Get to know your seminar group
Speaking in front of people becomes a lot less intimidating when you know them, and friendly faces make a big difference for the overall experience of a seminar. ‘Make friends’ is much easier said than done, but making conversation with others in your group goes a long way. You could start by asking them how their week has been, how they found the seminar readings or even give a compliment to strike up a conversation. Building on this slowly every week makes seminars way more pleasant than just sitting in a room full of strangers, as it’s also much easier to share ideas you’re unsure about with people you’re more comfortable with.
I’ve also had the same experience with my seminar leaders, and though not all of them will be interested in having a chat, engaging with them before the seminar starts and people are still entering the room may help ease your mind.
Be honest with your seminar leaders
Seminar leaders are there to facilitate discussion, and they likely hate awkward silences just as much as you. If you’re finding the seminar content difficult and therefore struggling to contribute, let them know. You’re probably not the only one, and both your leader and fellow students will be grateful you said something. Alternatively, you could attend their office hour ahead of time to ask questions about the content or readings to better prepare yourself for the seminar. There is nothing shameful about asking for help, and that’s what they’re there for.