Workshopping: reflections on 'flipping' my seminars

My colleagues and I have, over the past couple of years, been replacing the traditional 1 hour lecture- 1 hour seminar format with a 'workshop' of 2 or 3 hours. Of course, many of us have been teaching practical skills and 'interactively' for years, if not our entire careers, but we have come to the conclusion that we have to spell it out for our students more explicitly, both through the timing of the sessions and the activities in them.


We're shifting from seminars to workshops because, among other reasons:
  1. demand for increased student contact time with staff is a feature of questions at open days, the NSS, and the media;
  2. due to budget constraints and other factors, seminar group sizes are getting larger
  3. students unfortunately do not always prepare enough reading before the seminars to make discussion among them useful or continuous.
No3 results from several reasons, including:
a) the structure of their degree (at UH, students study 4 modules per semester), meaning they are doing 4 different preparations (often in different subjects) and physically cannot read more than two articles or book chapters for each module each week;
b) work and caring commitments mean studying is not the major part of their daily timetable; leading to -
c) students not regarding 'student' as the major part of their identity, even less so 'historian'.

Here's my opinion: it is much more difficult to teach a traditional seminar with over 15 students. 20 is possible, but 25 is impossible. Workshops, on the whole, enable teaching of over 20 students much better than the traditional seminar format.

Sometimes do you feel like you're lecturing to an empty room?

What is a 'traditional' seminar? - Well, generally it means a discussion, both in small groups and the whole group, about set reading for that week (perhaps answering a list of questions) and often ending with a debate about a larger topic framing the reading. What happens in a large group is that the quieter/less prepared/unprepared/disengaged students can get away with not speaking because the over-confident/loud students dominate the sessions, or, conversely, most students remain quiet and the discussion falters. Of course there are groups now and again that encourage each other and peer pressure actually enables a 'good' seminar, but usually that's not the case.

bored students, though from an American stock image collection, so not mine


A workshop can be part of a 'flipped' classroom. 'Flipped' has various meanings, but I take it to be recording content-heavy lectures and uploading them online for students to watch in their own time before the workshop. There is no 1 hour lecture (with students silently making notes) in the face to face contact time.

The workshop itself includes:
  1. a range of 'activities' for students to complete in the workshop, both singly and in groups. These include: working on a close reading of a couple of pages of the secondary source set for that week; working on a range of primary sources and researching their authorship, context, meaning, etc using for e.g. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; defining a series of keywords, then writing up a short summary of the topic using the keywords, and so on and so on.
  2. short lectures (often ad lib and off the cuff) in response to student questions and discussion
  3. structured discussion and debate, using small group preparation with cues and documents before the 'full group' debate.
  4. encouragement to continue discussions online on a blog or wiki or twitter.
None of this is new or radical, of course, but the students often need to be alerted to this different structure so that they get into the mindset of the workshop rather than expecting a lecture + seminar. And the workshop differs from a seminar because it structures or in the modern parlance, 'scaffolds' different thinking activities relating to history and critical enquiry in a much more obvious way than the sometimes drifting flow of a seminar discussion does not.

workshopping involves moving furniture

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned in teaching is that students don't always connect the same dots that we as academics connect automatically. This includes, with less academically able students, the connection between reading more and understanding the material. This may be a legacy of a textbook-based approach to history at school, as well as other factors (including taking the path of least resistance). One of the more amusing revelations that I've had from student evaluations on the workshops is: 'I didn't like the fact that workshops involve more preparation and work than seminars, but in the end I realised I was doing a lot more in the workshops than I normally would in and outside the seminar. I therefore understood more and recalled more'.

There are disadvantages to and constraints on the workshop. One is that the amount of preparation and organisation needed by the tutor as well as the students is much higher. Sometimes it feels like being a school teacher, drawing up detailed workshop plans, handouts, recording lectures online, constantly working out what activities might or might not work (something the Learning and Teaching institutes' training/PGCert in Higher Education teaching often were reluctant to actually provide for aspirant teachers). It also needs room in the university timetable to be able to schedule a 2 hour or 3 hour slot in one room (not always possible), and indeed to be able to have a decent room (with the physical room to move chairs and tables around, and for both staff and students to move around, again, not always possible with centralised room booking). However, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

Learning how to be a historian


As well as the excellent teaching reflections by Melodee Beals on her blog, these two threads on the Chronicle of Higher Education 'In the Classroom' forum have been particularly useful:
Help me flip my classroom
Is this a flipped classroom?

I was particularly struck by the comment made by 'Ranganathan':
And the flipped classroom isn't just for idiots. [i.e. the misconception that inverted teaching is 'dumbing down']. Really. I was a history major at a top SLAC [selective liberal arts college] and I did all the reading and had professors who were amazing lecturers. I did seek out books on topics that interested me. I love to learn, and I learned all kinds of cool facts and theories from these classes.

But in retrospect, I realize those classes didn't help me learn how to DO. It wasn't until our capstone class that we spent any class time critiquing the readings. Aside from a few brief library tours, we never learned how to do research. I graduated with a degree in history but I don't pretend to know how to be a historian and until I started working in academia, would've been hard pressed to tell you what a historian does.

Lecture has its place, but so do classes which use time for application. Want to transmit a lot of content? Lecture. (Although the research tends to show that content transmitted does not equal content received.) Want people to be able to actively DO something? Well, there's a reason Driver's Ed and CPR classes have required hands-on practice.

Although in the American context, it reflected many features of my own undergraduate education in history. Yes I attended some great lectures and was taught by the key researchers in their field, and yes I felt highly satisfied that I had learned good history. Yet, as in the case of the quotation above, it was only later during my DPhil research and especially when I started teaching, that I realised that in being trusted to 'work it out for myself', I hadn't been shown systematically all the tools I needed to become a good historian. Furthermore, because I hadn't been aware of those skills and tools, I never learned to practice them.

So it's not a cop-out or dumbing down that we help students to think and to do by structuring their learning in a workshop format, that we make them identify the parts of a journal article that discuss historiography, that we get them to think out loud about the questions they need to ask when confronted with a previously unseen primary source.

A worked example of a workshop plan


Here's an example of what I've done for a 3rd year seminar on food riots in the 18th century.

The 'Learning objectives' include knowing the historiography of crowd disturbances (especially George Rude's search for the faces in the crowd, and E. P. Thompson's influence on the study of food riots); and understanding Thompson's model of the moral economy. I recorded the lecture online for students to watch prior to the workshop, and these are some of the activities we did in the workshop:
  1. in groups, and with one student moving from group to group each time, define the following words, using the first few pages of Thompson's 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd' article: mob, crowd, riot, 'rebellions of the belly', Rostow's social tension chart.
  2. Then also in groups, work out a) what protest tactics occurred during a food riot; b) a definition of the moral economy model.
  3. All the responses wwere typed up on the screen by me, with a recap and clarification and mini-lecture about the influence of Rude and Thompson on later historiography, and an exegesis of the text of the Riot Act of 1714/15.
  4. Then (while students had a break to eat some lunch), work out which elements in three primary sources illustrated the model of the moral economy: 
a) 'Hints to Forestallers, or a sure way to reduce the price of grain!' by Isaac Cruikshank, 1800
b) 'The Riot, or half a loaf is better than no bread', Cheap Repository Tract, 1795-8
c)The True Briton, 4 August 1795, account of a riot in Carlisle

True Briton, 4 August 1795, extract

5. After a quick fire round of 'what questions do you need to ask about a primary source?', students answered the questions about each source.
6. the session ended with a general discussion about the advantages and faults of the moral economy model,  including considering whether it could be applied to the anti-slavery campaign and to modern protests, e.g. against bad financial practices in the City. The question of women's participation in food riots also came up (something that I'd forgotten to put in the original plan).

So what activities do you find works well in a workshop format? Any other ideas?


  1. Great post Katrina.

    Eliminating the dominance of a chatty few is a constant struggle: who hasn't picked up a pile of essays and been frustrated to find that student X - from whom you'd never heard a peep - has handed in a 1st class essay. Kent's solution to this has been more heavily handed: seminar contribution marks (which make up 10-20% of the module assessment). But then for second and third year modules, the standard format for modules here is 3 hours contact per week (1 hour lecture, 2 hour seminar), so without calling it a workshop, and without building in so many activities, I think many of our seminars take on similar formats to what you have described.

    That said, I do like how you've moved the emphasis away from extensive preparatory reading: I've never quite seen to pedagogical advantage of swamping students with 100+ pages of reading per module per week. It can only lead to a diffusion of knowledge.

  2. Thanks James. The module I've cited has a new form of assessment too: an assessed seminar discussion (25% of the total mark) which assesses not only student discussion skills but also their 'inclusivity' skills - i.e. including everyone in discussion, not dominating, encouraging other students to speak, constructive criticism etc.

    1. I'm intrigued. Is this one assessed discussion or a mark taken as an aggregate of all seminar discussions?

  3. One assessed discussion - 15% marks for content and 10% marks for discussion skills. It's filmed for the external examiner. Quite hard to mark, but last time it seemed to go o.k. Some students who normally struggled with writing really shone in discussion and achieved high marks.

  4. Filmed oral exams. I like that idea.


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