L&S Curricular Connections

Freshman & Sophomore Seminars

Teaching Suggestions for Seminar Instructors

This page contains teaching suggestions, in the form of questions and answers, drawn from discussions in Seminar Program faculty meetings.

  • Redesign an interesting course that you have taught in the past to a higher level of students by using an interactive seminar format tailored to the freshman level.
  • Choose seminar topics that are relevant to the students’ lives.
  • Design the seminar around something you and students already do or want to do, such as reading the newspaper, following political campaigns, watching movies, etc.
  • Invite guest lecturers to your seminar who can speak to the students about the real world as it relates to the topic of your seminar. However, be careful to not have too many guest lecturers; it is important that the students have a chance to interact with you.
  • Include a field trip to a museum, theater, lab, nature, etc. as part of your seminar. It is okay to cancel a seminar meeting to do this and schedule the field trip on another day if you inform your students of your plans to do this ahead of time.
  • It is often a good idea to offer your seminar on a pass/no pass basis. These courses are ideally taken out of a genuine interest in the topic, and a love of learning for its own sake. About two thirds of one-unit seminars are taught pass/no pass. If you prefer to offer your seminar for a letter grade, make your assignments specific so students have a clear understanding of what they will be graded on.

Some professors prefer to focus on a narrow topic and others prefer to focus on a broad range of topics. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. While one approach may work best for one subject, it may not work well for another.

  • Advantages of focusing on a narrow topic:
    Can go more in-depth on a topic than if you try to cover too much in a short period of time.
  • Selecting one or two texts to read and discussing them line-by-line helps the students to understand a topic in-depth and teaches them to analyze texts on their own and in future classes.
  • Challenges students and gives them a taste of what an upper division seminar will be like. Remember you can challenge and nurture your students at the same time.


Advantages of focusing on a broad range of topics:

  • Introducing students to a broad range of topics can spark their interests and encourage them to take more in-depth courses on related topics in the future.
  • Can invite guest speakers to present in your class and expose the students to a variety of experts.

No. There are actually disadvantages to cross-listing your seminar. Cross-listing your seminar means you will need to work with more than one scheduler and they will need to work with each other and the Seminar Program staff in regards to scheduling your seminar and making sure that the information for all seminar listings is consistent. You will also need to monitor more than one enrollment list and more than one wait list. For the small number of students enrolled in freshman and freshman/sophomore seminars, the extra work involved in cross-listing seminars is usually not worth it. Some instructors want to cross-list their seminars in the hopes of reaching more students who may be interested in taking their course. Since freshmen and sophomores interested in taking seminars through the Seminar Program tend to read the entire Seminar Program brochure and not just focus on the seminars being offered by specific departments, cross-listing a seminar is not necessary. If you are still interested in cross-listing your seminar after considering these disadvantages, the Seminar Program staff is happy to assist you and the department schedulers.

Yes. Scheduling your seminar to meet for more than one hour per meeting can give you and your students more time for in-depth discussions. Another advantage to meeting fewer weeks in the semester is that your seminar can end earlier and give you and your students more time to focus on your other courses at the end of the semester. However, a one-unit seminar needs to meet for fifteen hours over the course of the semester, give or take an hour. The majority of seminars are scheduled to meet for one hour per week for fifteen weeks. However, you can opt to offer your seminar in a variety of different formats (two hours per week for eight weeks, three hours per week for five weeks, and so on) provided that your department scheduler is able to find a room for this less-than-fifteen-weeks format. Let your department scheduler and the Seminar Program staff know how you would like your seminar scheduled and the exact dates your seminar will be meeting. Please note that the Scheduling Office does not allow schedulers to reserve rooms for classes meeting for fewer than fifteen weeks until after the first week of classes. Scheduling seminars that meet fewer than fifteen weeks works best if your department has space it controls or you are willing to teach in a residence hall.

  • Your being there each week and tying the topics of the guest speakers together can provide continuity.
  • Make sure the speakers understand the students’ knowledge level and encourage them to speak to that level when presenting and answering questions.
  • Give the students reading assignments that relate to what the guest speaker will be talking about the next week so that they can come to class with some background knowledge and get more out of the presentation.
  • Have the guest speakers leave time for questions at the end of their presentations.
  • Have students write questions and give them to the guest speaker ahead of time so that the guest speaker can focus his or her presentation on answering the students’ questions and responding to their interests.

While the majority of seminars are offered pass/no pass, it is up to you, the instructor, to decide whether you prefer to teach your seminar pass/no pass or for a letter grade. Some instructors prefer to teach their seminars for a letter grade, because they want the students to take their seminars more seriously. Other instructors prefer to teach their seminars pass/no pass, because it is easier to grade a seminar on a pass/no pass basis; assigning a letter grade for the small amount of work expected in a one-unit seminar can be difficult; and students often prefer taking a seminar pass/no pass since that option underscores the concept of learning for its own sake. If you choose to teach your seminar pass/no pass and are worried about students taking your seminar seriously, you may consider making attendance a factor in determining the grade. Whichever grading option you prefer, please be sure to communicate your grading preference to your department scheduler when you initially contact them to schedule your seminar and give the students specific instructions in your syllabus and on the first day of class regarding your grading expectations.

Assess your seminar at different times during the semester. Have the students write down what they have liked about the seminar and what they think needs to be improved on an index card. By doing this and being flexible, you will be able to respond to their feedback, keep them interested and improve your seminar before the student evaluations are distributed at the end of the course.

According to the Academic Senate guidelines, students are expected to spend fifteen hours in class and thirty hours on outside class work for a one-unit seminar. In other words, for every one hour spent in class, students are expected to spend two hours on outside class work. Outside class work can be distributed evenly over the semester by giving them assignments each week, which is preferred, or you can give them lighter or no assignments each week and have them do a larger project (presentation, paper, etc.) toward the end of the semester. Telling students how long you expect them to spend on each assignment will be helpful to the students. If you find it difficult to reduce the amount of work you would like the students to do, you can consider offering your seminar for more units the next time you teach it.

Only if there is a special reason you want to screen the students who wish to take your seminar for a specific background, skill, or interest. Otherwise, it is best to have students register on a first-come-first-serve basis, which is easier for all parties involved. If you want enrollment for your seminar to be by instructor approval only, you will need to give the Seminar Program and your department scheduler specific instructions regarding what the students need to do to obtain your approval when you submit your Faculty Participation Form for the semester you plan to teach.

As difficult as it is to turn away a student who is eager to take your seminar, it is best to ask your department scheduler to set the enrollment limit for your seminar to 15-18 students if you are teaching a one-unit freshman seminar or sophomore seminar. If you are teaching a two-to-four unit freshman/sophomore seminar, you should have your scheduler set the enrollment limit to 30 or fewer students. Doing this takes into consideration that a few students may withdraw from your seminar and keeps your seminar a smaller, more manageable size.

Students on the waitlist and others hoping to enroll in your class may show up at the first meeting. You have no obligation to add students from the wait list unless students on the class list do not attend the first few meetings, at which point you can drop the non-attendees and add students from the wait list, who have been attending, to take their places.

If you really do not want to turn away students, you can always divide your enrollment and teach two sections of your seminar during one semester. While doing this requires a greater commitment of your time, talent, and energy, it also guarantees that the students will have the small seminar experience promised them.

  • In the first class, have the students introduce themselves, a topic they know well, at length. This will give the students a chance to get to know each other better and feel more comfortable about speaking in class in the future. As part of the introduction, you can also ask the students to state their reasons for taking the seminar and what they hope to get out of it. This will also help you plan your future seminar meetings according to their expectations or clarify any misconceptions students may have early on about what will be covered in your seminar. You can also have the students reintroduce themselves during the second session, which will get them talking again and help you and the other students learn each other’s names. During this second introduction, you many want to have your students tell you the high and low points they have experienced so far as freshmen.
  • At the beginning of the seminar, let the students know how important it is for them to speak up in class and emphasize that everyone has something valuable to say. Let them know that every new student has the same fears and concerns about speaking up in class and that your seminar is the perfect opportunity to go beyond their fears and concerns. Remember, students are often more anxious about speaking up in front of their peers than in front of you.
  • In the first class, have the freshmen express their fears and anxieties about being a freshman at UC Berkeley. They will soon realize they are not alone and share similar concerns. If you are teaching a Freshman/Sophomore seminar, have the sophomores tell the freshmen about their own fears during their first year and how their fears were resolved.
  • At the beginning of the seminar, explain to the students how important it is for them to speak up in class to have the seminar experience. If necessary, later in the seminar, let the students know that you have noticed that some students are being quiet and remind them again of how important it is for them to ask questions and express their opinions.
  • Have students participate in get-acquainted exercises on the first day. The more noise they make on the first day the more noise they will make throughout the semester.
  • Notice the students who are not speaking up in your seminar and invite them to meet with you one on one during office hours. Better yet, it is a good idea to have each student meet with you at least once during the semester for thirty minutes or an hour or even fifteen minutes! This will give you a chance to get to know your students and encourage them to speak up in class. It will also give your students a chance to get to know you, which will help them to feel more comfortable in class.
  • Assign oral presentations, which requires everyone to speak in class. Beginning each class session with a student presentation can jump-start discussions. 
  • Have students write questions about their assignments or topics discussed in class and then have them read the questions to the class. Have the other students answer the questions. Sometimes it is less intimidating for students to answer questions that are posed by other students versus questions posed by the teacher.
  • Have students write down possible questions and hand them to another student in class, who will research the answer and present it in the next seminar meeting.
  • Have students bring articles of interest to class, present the articles to the class, and lead brief discussions about the articles.
  • Have students read something for homework or in class and write down how they would interpret what they read. Then, have each student read their interpretation to the class.
  • Have the students work in small groups and instruct them to have the person who usually does the most talking take notes and the person who usually does the least talking report back to the class regarding the group’s discussion. You could also have the students take turns taking notes and reporting back to the class so everyone has a chance to do both.
  • Have teams of students interview experts on campus and have each individual in the group report back to the class regarding various aspects of the interview. This will not only getting the students talking; it will give them an opportunity to practice their interviewing skills and get to know another instructor.
  • Have the students work in pairs and report back to the class about the smart things that their partner said.
  • Email individual students to encourage them to talk.
  • If you ask your students to do research in the library or interview someone outside of class, be aware that some freshmen may be intimidated by having to ask a reference librarian or another stranger questions. You can give the students one or two specific questions to ask or you can meet with each student one on one to help them develop their own questions and practice asking the questions.
  • Have the students role-play, which allows them to put on a different hat, feel freer to express ideas and have fun.
  • Have the students read something they have written aloud in class and then ask them about it and encourage other students to ask them about it.
  • Have the students keep lab books or journals, jotting down ideas that they have about assignments or in-class discussions, and then have them report back to the class about their ideas the following week.
  • Have students write a letter back to their high school teacher or a younger sibling regarding what they would have liked to learn about a topic in high school and then have the students read their letters in class.
  • Have the students evaluate themselves informally two times during the semester. Have one of the evaluation questions be about their class participation, which will encourage them to pay attention to how much they speak up in class.
  • Have less structured discussions versus structured discussions. Allowing the students to get off topic at times can improve the freshman experience, add value to their college experience, and give them the opportunity to get to know the teacher and other students.
  • Have the students bring articles to class on the issue and have them discuss the articles.
  • Assign the students sides of the issue to research and present in class, giving them guidance on how you would like them to make the presentations.
  • Have the students debate the issues in small groups and report back to the class.
  • After a student answers a question, ask the other students if anyone disagrees with that comment. Keep directing the discussion back to the students.
  • Make the students responsible for facilitating parts of the seminar and give them guidelines on how to do this. Have them bring questions to the class to ask the other students. When the student asking the question is satisfied with the answers given by the other students, they can pick the next person to ask their question. Throughout this tag process, you would not say anything; instead, focus your attention on whoever is speaking so the students look to each other and not to you to keep the discussion moving.

Give students specific assignments, such as cases to discuss or specific questions to answer, when working in small groups and have them report back to the class regarding their assignments. Specific assignments keep the groups focused. When dividing your class into small groups, you can form teams based on shared interests or divide them into teams randomly by assigning numbers. The former may encourage them to talk more in the beginning, while the latter will give them a chance to meet new people and explore diverse interests.

  • Encourage the students to ask questions in class or in writing.
  • Have students write questions, read the questions in class and lead discussions on the questions they have asked until they are satisfied with the answers.
  • Assign the students question papers, which encourage them to write in an exploratory mode and generate multiple answers.
  • When teaching science-based seminars, explain to the students what a “testable” question is and how to form one.
  • Have students read one or two books and focus the class discussions around these books.
  • Have students participate in chat rooms, focusing on a specific topic of discussion.
  • Show the students how to analyze a topic and then have them choose a topic to analyze, write about and present in class.
  • Assign the students readings that will give them the background knowledge they need to analyze a topic.
  • Talk more in the beginning of a class and talk less and less as the class goes on. By doing this, you educate the students regarding a topic, giving them the background they need to analyze and discuss the topic on their own.
  • Have students express their interests and have them follow their interests.
  • Teach various points of view on a topic and have the students think about points of view that differ from their accustomed positions.

Prepared September 3, 2002, by Laura Demir.