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Seminars without tears?

Started by Hegemony, September 24, 2023, 09:35:25 PM

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I am teaching a weekly three-hour seminar. The students are mainly new MA students, with a few PhD students sprinkled in.

The topic is fairly interesting, but nevertheless I need ways to keep us all from crying from boredom.

I have broken up the three-hour stretch into various segments. Each week two students lead the discussion for a while (they prepare for this for weeks ahead). Then another student gives us the lowdown on an assigned book and evaluates it. Then we examine a "case study" of the material (cultural history), reading aloud a little snippet of a court report or the like, and analyze it. Then I lead a discussion of the parts of the reading that haven't come up in the other parts of the discussion. In the middle there is a 15-minute break.

Despite all this, everyone is just exhausted with boredom. There are 15 students in the seminar, which is a bit large. And it's right in the soporific part of the afternoon.

Once a student confessed to me that my Comedy seminar was the only graduate seminar in which everyone had not been bored beyond belief. Unfortunately this seminar is not on Comedy.

What do you all do to keep students engaged and awake in these circumstances?


The last time I taught a 3-hour class, I did 40 minutes then a 5-minute break, 40 minutes then a 5-minute break, 40 minutes then a 5-minute break, and then 30 minutes to finish. Give or take a few minutes. And they were pretty much required to get up and walk around during the breaks, not just pull their phones out and continue to sit there.

Students seemed to be able to hang in there if they knew a break was coming. These were freshizzles; but I know after about 40 to 45 minutes of any meeting, I'm ready to take a nap.
I wish I could find a way to show people how much I love them, despite all my words and actions. ~ Maria Bamford


Yes, a break in the middle is a good idea. I appreciated that when I was in grad school, and I do it when I teach 3 hour classes.


I teach a three hour class twice a week (this is a three credit hour class collapsed into seven weeks). A break in the middle is definitely necessary. I also include lots of little presentations and group discussions/activities. Mostly the class goes well, but it is painful when it doesn't.


All my classes are three hours long, once a week (yes, even intro), with ~35 students.

What you're doing sounds great to me, and probably about as good as it's going to get. But I'd suggest two breaks, each after ~50 minutes, instead of just one. For my part, I do two ten-minute breaks.

Have you asked them? Perhaps some part of the pattern is where things are sagging.
I know it's a genus.


When I taught 3-hour classes, I found if I broke each activity/section into 20 minute blocks the class kept moving. So... with each block being 20 minutes... you need ~9 blocks to fill 3 hours.

  • Small group opening work.
  • Debrief on group work.
  • Lecture topic 1.
  • Group discussion on topic 1.
  • BREAK.
  • Small group led presentation, interactive activity or group discussion.
  • Breakouts to reflect, work on individual projects.
  • Shareouts of lessons learned, new ideas.
  • Overall class debrief, cue up for next session.



I think you are doing what you need to do in terms of structure.
Perhaps there's more you can do with style? I can't say how or what because I don't know how you present things.  You're probably mostly OK.
Its just really hard to devote to three hours. We know how we feel when we have to do one of those 3 hr faculty workshops or go to a professional meeting and actually attend all of the morning and afternoon talks.

Wahoo Redux

It sounds like the typical complaint about the recent cyber generations who need constant stimulation to stay engaged.  I am always dubious about these sorts of claims, but when I was teaching I always made sure that I had some sort of digital component of class----a video, a graphic on the screen, images, whatever----to break the class up.  PowerPoints also work well with these image-oriented people. 

Your class sounds very active-learning and interactive to me, Hegemony.  I doubt that it is your teaching, for whatever that is worth. 
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.


I also teach a long class, 2.5hrs once a week with 9 students, and I've had up to 15 in the past.

In addition to lectures, w have a lot of interactive tasks and group work in the class, by design.   Think-pair-share is a good tool.  I give out readings during class as well, to break up the lecturing.  I have those giant post-it board notes that I also use for "round robin" style group discussions.  On each board, I write a question and students work in small groups to pen out ideas onto the board, following which we rotate and the new group sees the answers, can "vote up" good answers and add their own, and when they get back to their original question, they're tasked with identifying a spokesperson to summarize and report out to the class.  These are really fun ways to get away from lectures, so it's worth investigating and designing these kinds of exercises.


This is one of the situations where I miss smoking. When I was in graduate school, most of our classes were three-hour seminars, and most of them had a break in the middle for everybody (including the professor) to smoke. I would not suggest making everybody smoke, but I like the idea of making everybody get out of their seats during a break.

I have taught a 3-hour night class for undergraduates for almost a decade (from 7pm to 9:45, to be exact). All my students work, some early in the morning, and the only way I've been able to handle it is to end the class after two hours. And I am always the last professor in the building, since the others seem to go for only an hour and a half.

Having students be active instead of passive (e.g., to discuss rather than just absorb) helps. When I was in graduate school, the professor would often make a student lead all or part of the discussion.



1) grad students need breakies every 40 minutes?

2) If the class is supposed to run 2:45 or even 3:00, a break is essential, but only one.   And if you regularly decide to end class by the two hour mark, are you not giving the students what they paid for?


Some long classes are given a time block with an intended break included (at my college anyway).

A 3 hour class probably needs two short breaks.


It's a surprise to me to learn that regularly scheduled three-hour classes (as opposed to occasional all-day seminars and such) are apparently this common.  I don't recall encountering them even in graduate school.  I don't think our PhD dissertation seminar met for three hours at a stretch.  It would be a challenge for most people to attend classes of that length on a regular basis and stay focused.  The advice about breaks and organization to help students get through the session all sounds good.
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, but the fire next time
When this world's all on fire
Hide me over, Rock of Ages, cleft for me


My PhD program comprised almost entirely weekly seminar courses. I do not remember a course meeting more than once a week. I studied history (which I think apl68 did as well) and typically we would "read" one monograph a week and then discuss it.

The graduate school was at a university that had multiple campus spread through a large metropolitan area, and most of the professors taught in the day at one of the campuses and at evening in the graduate school. Most of the graduate students taught (as adjuncts or TAs) at various schools throughout the metropolitan area. Hence I cannot remember having a class before 2pm, and many were after 5pm.

Now, I only teach undergraduate courses. But we are a commuter school and most of our students work. Thus every semester I teach at least one 300-level course in the evening. In the past, I taught several intro-level courses in 3-hour periods once a week, although the administration goes back and forth about this.

The benefits of a once-a-week long class is that it allows for more in-depth discussion, and you can show movies. The drawbacks is that students often do not retain knowledge as much (especially undergraduates) and the class becomes tedious (especially at night).


I agree with others in thinking you are pretty much doing what you can already.

Here, it's typical to teach three-hour seminar courses at the fourth-year level, and they can be pretty grueling, especially when a couple of students are leading discussions for everything read that week (always a break in the middle). The absolute worst was doing this online during COVID; I foolishly didn't think to change the format, and it was brutal for everyone, including me.

Now we're back in person, and some students have been complaining that the seminar format means we expect them to "teach themselves"; I got a really angry evaluation to that effect, but it's not just one student. This is a new complaint since the pandemic.

For my grad courses (also three-hour seminars), with much smaller enrollments, I came up with something that has worked pretty well: attaching each reading to an individual student who is responsible for bringing a one-page writeup for everyone and leading discussion on "their" reading for 20-25 minutes or so. This way, while everyone is expected to read everything and participate in discussion, there are always weeks when some students don't have to present anything - and there was a lot of variety in leadership responsibility in any given week. It made the dynamics more relaxed.

The main drawbacks: I think it only worked because the classes are small (7-8 students) and I mainly assigned articles. I might want to shift to books, in which case I'll have students be responsible for certain chapters.

But honestly, OP, I think your class setup sounds interesting, offers variety, allows different voices to be heard, etc. There is so much talk about how it's our responsibility to keep students "engaged." You're doing that. Maybe bring a pot of coffee?